Politics & Prose January 2006

The Weimar Analogy

What danger lurks in the alienated hearts of America's nonvoters?

What can break the grip of organized money on American politics? A month ago I would have answered that question by positing that it might take a crisis—perhaps along the lines of a scenario like the following:

A sharp economic downturn finally mobilizes significant numbers of America's majority party—the 100-million-strong party of nonvoters—to become politically active. On the strength of promises to deliver them from distress—unemployment, a collapsing safety net, rationed health care—they flood into the electorate on the Democratic side. To keep their promises, the Democrats are forced to end government-by-campaign-contribution; otherwise the lobbies would defeat their agenda. So they enact public funding for Congressional elections and require television broadcasters to run political ads for free or lose access to the public airwaves (i.e. go out of business). Meanwhile, whether bowing to Court-packing threats from the Democrats or by following the election returns, the Supreme Court strikes down Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 decision that transmogrified money into "speech," giving candidates constitutional protection to spend without limit.

That model of political redemption rests on an untested but credible hypothesis: that in their alienated hearts, nonvoters— disproportionately less affluent Americans—will seek "progressive" remedies for their distress and therefore favor the more progressive party. I believed in that model ... that is, until I caught up with Walter Dean Burnham's test of it.

Burnham has been the leading student of U.S. elections and the American electorate since his epochal 1965 paper, "The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe," which lent theoretical support to the progressive model. But a comparatively unheralded 1972 Burnham paper, which I recently discovered, qualifies that support. The title is terrifying: "Political Immunization and Political Confessionalism: The United States and Weimar Germany."

Displaying his signature statistical rigor and analytical boldness, Burnham examines two sets of election data: those from German voting districts in the sequence of elections that culminated in Hitler's election; and those from Louisiana districts swept by George Wallace in 1968. Early on he immunizes his argument against summary dismissal: "There is," he writes, "very little reason to suppose that German history will be repeated in any recognizable form (my italics) in the United States." Take such comfort in that as you can.

"Political immunization," for Burnham, means protection against right-wing extremist appeals. "Political Confessionalism" refers to the intense commitment to party that yields such immunity. The German data from five localities show that "confessional party" voters—those of the Catholic Zentrum and the Marxist SPD, whose political loyalties flowed from their deepest beliefs—were indeed immune to the Nazi contagion. In 1928 in Bakum village in Oldenburg, for example, 85.3% voted Zentrum and only 0.1% Nazi; in 1930, 87.9% voted Zentrum and 0.7% Nazi; and in the "coercive" election of 1933, 86.9% voted Zentrum and 6.5 % Nazi. Likewise, in Unseburg Village in Magdeburg, the SPD got 76.3%, 76.6%, and 64.7% in those elections, as compared with the Nazis' 0.2%, 4.6%, and 28.6%. By contrast, nationwide, the Nazis received 2.0%, 14.9%, and 38.7% in the 1928, 1930, and 1933 elections respectively.

Which parties were not immune to the Nazi contagion? The American-like, non-confessional "bourgeois" parties of both the left and right. In Westertede, Oldenburg, for example, votes fell from 37.2% (left) and 43.9% (right) in 1920, to 22.6% and 20.0% in 1924, to 16.4% and 13.1% in 1928, to 1.1% and 0.4% in 1933. The unchurched middle-class voters had melted into the Nazis, boosting them from 17.7% in 1924, to 37.2% in 1928, to 81.2% in 1933. And as for the party of nonvoters, they followed the lead of the "bourgeois" parties. In 1928, 43.2% refrained from voting. In 1930, that number had dropped to 28.0%, and in 1933 to 7.1%. That 36% surge into the electorate went largely to the Nazis.

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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