Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Temptation of War (October 23, 2002)
A new memoir by Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, warns that Presidents will do anything to avoid losing wars. By Jack Beatty.

Pearl Harbor in Reverse (September 25, 2002)
Iraq, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the question of a pre-emptive strike. By Jack Beatty.

Feckless in Washington (August 21, 2002)
Bush's economic team inspires little confidence at a time when confidence is badly needed. By Jack Beatty.

The Resignation Principle (July 10, 2002)
An open letter to Christine Todd Whitman. By Jack Beatty.

A Living, Breathing Eternal City (June 26, 2002)
A new book on Rome will help travelers there experience the city that Romans know. By Peter Davison.

The Expulsion From the Magic Kingdom (June 5, 2002)
September 11 was America's Fall. Now we need to rethink national defense in an era of national insecurity. By Jack Beatty.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Should Election Day Be a Holiday?" (October 1998)
A simple, practical step might summon the ranks of nonvoters from the civic void. By Martin P. Wattenberg.

Atlantic Unbound | November 27, 2002
Politics & Prose | by Jack Beatty
The War for Nonvoters

The "party of nonvoters" is 120 million strong. Whoever corrals them will hold the key to future elections


Where Have All the Voters Gone?

Where Have All the Voters Gone?
by Martin P. Wattenberg
Harvard University Press
224 pages, $18.95

"Politics is who gets what, when, and how..."
—Harold Lasswell

merica's largest political party, in Walter Dean Burnham's phrase, is "the party of nonvoters"—120 million strong. Barring a realigning event on the order of the Great Depression, today's "fifty-fifty" tie in American politics can't be broken with current voters. The electorate needs to expand. The first party to mobilize a significant fraction of nonvoters will become the new American majority.

Who belongs to the party of nonvoters? Martin P. Wattenberg's new X-ray of the body politic and its phantom limbs, Where Have All The Voters Gone?, reveals a complex condition.

  • The main reason registered nonvoters give for not voting is that they don't have time to get to the polls. Whereas 7.6 percent of respondents to a 1980 Census Bureau survey pled "Too busy; could not take time from work/school," 21 percent did so in 1996.

  • Psychologically, nonvoters are "uninterested, uniformed, and uninvolved." They have less education. The United States has the strongest correlation between education and voting among the advanced industrial countries—six times as strong as in Britain, for example. In 1998 U.S. college graduates voted at 36 percent above the national average; those with "some high school" voted at 43 percent below it. In 1966 the figures were +27 and -10.

    From Atlantic Unbound:

    Interviews: "Lonely in America" (September 21, 2000)
    Robert Putnam argues that the time has come "to reweave the fabric of our communities."
  • Nonvoters experience less "social connectedness" than voters. The falling marriage rate, Wattenberg writes, "is one of the chief demographic causes of turnout decline." In 1998 union households outvoted the general electorate by +26, the same score as voters who "attend religious services regularly." Those who "never attend" religious services scored 53 points lower.

  • Nonvoters tend to be less white than voters. Hispanic citizens voted at merely 20 percent of the national average in 1996, a presidential year. While the gap between white and black turnout rates has narrowed in recent years, blacks scored 25 percent below the national average in 1996.

    These findings cohere in a portrait of civic disadvantage. Jesse Jackson's evocative characterization of the lives we are talking about retires countless volumes of sociology: "They take the early bus." People with less education tend to have all-consuming jobs. They don't have the time or the energy to follow public affairs, which takes leisure and requires some capacity for disinterested indignation. In the 1960s those with high school or less than high school educations could get well-paying unionized jobs in manufacturing. Unions represented 35 percent of the private-sector workforce. Now they represent 9 percent. And there are fewer manufacturing jobs, especially in urban areas. Less-educated workers experience less solidarity than they did forty years ago and earn much less in dead-end service-economy jobs. Politics is doing nothing to remediate their condition. On the contrary, both parties are in hock to interests that stand to lose from egalitarian policies like national health insurance. The political inequality manifest in election turnout reflects a deeper social and economic inequality.

    The controlling truth about the party of nonvoters, however, is age. Old people vote; young people, especially less affluent, less educated young people, don't. So politicians pander to the old and ignore the young. Seniors vote at a rate thirty-one points higher than those under thirty. Whereas 73 percent of seniors follow public affairs "most or some of the time," only 33 percent of young people do. This generation gap in civic participation and interest emerged only recently. In 1960 74 percent of seniors and 84 percent of young people kept up with political campaigns in newspapers; now 56 percent of the former and only 27 percent of the latter do. In 1964 the young scored 5 points higher than seniors in a test of political knowledge; now they can answer only one of three questions whereas seniors answer half of them correctly. Wattenberg sorts through various reasons for the gap, but one study of young people in the last presidential election says the essential: "Neglection 2000."

    From the archives:

    "A Politics for Generation X" (August 1999)
    Today's young adults may be the most politically disengaged in American history. The author explains why, and puts forth a new political agenda that just might galvanize his generation. By Ted Halstead
    If politics is "who gets what," then it's rational for young people to stay home on election day. "Major issues that affect young people are not even making it onto the public agenda," Wattenberg concludes. Sixty-two percent said that politicians pay "too little" attention to the issues relevant to their generation and 21 percent said "the right amount." The figures for seniors were 33 percent and 41 percent. Al Gore's "lockbox" campaign was geared to capturing seniors in Pennsylvania and Florida. He narrowly won Pennsylvania, but Bush carried Florida's seniors, 51-47, while losing young voters by 55-40. Exit poll information for this year's election is still scanty, but USA Today reports that the GOP carried seniors—despite constant Democratic attacks on Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, featuring ads showing Bush pushing a wheelchair-bound senior down a flight of stairs. Much of Democratic electioneering is an attempt to frighten seniors, and it is not working.

    Meanwhile, with his "personal accounts" plan, Bush has found an issue that has the potential to break the 50-50 tie. Polls show that young people strongly support the idea of diverting a portion of Social Security taxes into private investments. As public policy, privatization is a fraud. It will leave a trillion dollar hole in the Social Security Trust Fund just when it needs a surplus. And, by the most generous analysis, it will give today's young people a smaller monthly check when they retire than what they'd get under current law. Fair-minded readers of the Brookings Institution's sixty-page analysis of Bush's proposal can come to no other conclusion. But "personal accounts" are about politics not policy. Bush won the presidency despite touching the "Third Rail" of American politics—Social Security privatization. His congressional party, in elections in which Democrats made privatization an issue, carried seniors. So there is little political risk for Bush in pressing ahead with personal accounts. He has found an issue that could turn the politics of generations against the Democrats. It won't be easy. Young voters are more liberal than the GOP on social issues and government spending on education, health care, and the environment. But the opening is there.

    The Democrats had better get into the bidding war. That terminology will offend some readers. But as we see the Republicans paying off their financial backers in the 2002 election—first big pharmaceuticals, then big energy—we can be under no illusion about what politics is. Who gets what from whom describes reality.

    From the archives:

    "Against Inequality" (April 1999)
    A valiant proposal to give every American twenty-one-year-old the same chance to prosper (or fail). By Jack Beatty
    A good place for the Democrats to start is The Stakeholder Society, a 1999 book recommending a new homestead act for young people. At twenty-one, every American would receive a substantial grant, to be used to pay for higher education, as a down payment for a house, or to start a business—but otherwise kept in the bank or stock market for a lifetime. Yes, they would have to pay it back, with interest, but they'd come out way ahead. Today's young people would retire as the richest generation in history. Parties win supporters by delivering for them. Thus far, only one party is competing for the favor of young Americans. The 2002 election should have taught the Democrats that you can't beat something with nothing.

    What do you think? Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

    More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

    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 (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

    Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.