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.

Some political scientists argue that mere length of participation in the political process confers immunity. But Burnham points out that Germany experienced nearly two generations of adult male suffrage before 1930. "When crisis comes," he concludes, "the crucial differentiation lies not in the length of exposure before the crisis, but in the relative intensity of political commitment to traditional parties."

Turning to the U.S., Burnham asks, "What level of political immunization should be expected to exist in such a partially demobilized, non-confessional voting universe?" Normally the answer is, "both weak and stable." Weak because our middle class parties are hardly "political churches" (though today's GOP comes close). Stable because, given that it lacks confessional parties, "as a rule, American electoral politics is not a transcendental struggle for state power." Whew!...

But wait—not so fast. The American political universe has a hole in it—the party of nonvoters of whom Burnham notes: "The lower the class, the lower the turnout." He sees the American "working classes" as "the most vulnerable of all to capture under pressure by a reflexive and authoritarian mass movement." As evidence, he points to the Wallace movement of 1968, the closest American analogue to extremist contagion. Only 8% of "Business and Professionals" voted for Wallace, compared with 23% of "Service Workers" and 19% of "Unskilled Workers." Wallace garnered 13.5% of the national vote, but more than a third of the Southern vote. The Alabama Governor drew his strength in the South from manual workers, farmers, young voters, weak partisans, and independents, many of whom were pulled into the electorate from the party of nonvoters. This surge of new voters propelled Wallace to a twenty-point victory in Louisiana. In Catholic areas, turnout swelled from 63% in 1964 to 75% in 1968; in Protestant areas, it rose from 70% to 85%. Among whites, only strong "party identifiers" in metropolitan areas fought off the contagion.

Wallace appealed to "white backlash" and white supremacist voters angry over the civil-rights movement and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. 1968 saw backlash, war, assassinations, and urban riots—but no economic crisis.

The American electoral universe is shaped by a near-majority party of nonvoters, a near-plurality of independent voters, and a deliquescing core of intense partisans. Goo-goos have long vaunted the un-churched independent voter and deplored "party ideologues"—New Deal/sixties liberal Democrats, and Goldwater/"movement" Republicans. But such praise can't survive focus group exposure to "undecided" voters deciding. The groups I saw deliberating on C-Span in 2004 were at sea. They had nothing to work with—they knew little about politics, and less about political history. They had no ear for the contending principles of politics: freedom and order, equality and liberty. Such voters are political dust. In 1992 they blew toward Ross Perot—an authoritarian impatient with congressional "shop talk." And they remain available to the winds of crisis.

If independent voters seem innocent of the facts of power, America's nonvoters know the score. They know that the rich and powerful rule. That may be the main reason they don't vote. What's in it for them? Inert and alienated, they await the crisis. They are a classic constituency for the politics of resentiment, for the kind of political pitch Richard Hofstadter labelled the "paranoid style." The longer they stay out in the political cold, the more dangerous they become. Yet if they enter politics, how will they vote? For what? Against what? Those questions haunt American democracy.