Is Our Civic Life Really In Decline?


Civil service reformers offered a new, nonpartisan model of government service. It honored expertise in place of partisanship, and it distrusted parties and all they stood for. Party bosses soon began to accommodate the reformers’ perspective as far as possible, by seeking a more restrained style of political campaigning. Leaders in both parties by the 1880s and 1890s were beginning to praise the virtues of the “educational” campaign and to turn to pamphlets and leaflets in place of ox roasts and parades. In 1888, despite Grover Cleveland’s failure to win re-election, the Democrats noted with pleasure that the companies that manufactured campaign paraphernalia had suffered financial losses. By 1896 a Republican party operative claimed that the pamphlets he produced would eschew “all party epithets, all words generally used in campaign abuse” and would indeed be “so non-partisan in character that no one will be able from reading it to tell by whom it was prepared, beyond the fact that it comes from somebody interested in sound money.” At the turn of the century, nonpartisanship appealed even to the parties.

By 1908 the New York World could report that “the occasional parade was simply a curiosity, a pale reminder of an earlier time.” In that year the businessman’s parade in New York City for the Taft-Sherman ticket was half the size of the sound-money parade of 1896. Banner raisings and pole raisings fell off, and the parties stopped hiring the glee clubs and brass bands that had once been indispensable to rallies. Where political spectacle survived, it was regarded as distinctly old-fashioned.

Amidst the multitude of reforms and revisions, the most important was the Australian ballot. Instituted in the mid-nineteenth century in Australia and shortly thereafter adopted in Britain, it was essentially the modern state-printed ballot Americans still use. It took control of the ballot away from the parties and made possible secrecy in voting. The state provided both the ballot and a physical space or voting booth in which to confidentially mark it. Endorsed by the champions of civil service reform but supported as well by labor and other groups, it swept the country beginning in 1888. By 1892 most states employed it. Until it appeared, a voter on his way to the polls would expect to be handed a party-printed ticket; now he received his ballot from the state, making the act of voting a civic obligation enforceable only by private conscience, not a party obligation enforceable by social pressure.

Before the Australian ballot it took a concerted effort to split a ticket. “Scratchers” could scratch out a name, and “pasters” could paste a name over the one on the ticket, but the machinery of voting clearly favored party loyalty. The new ballot, especially in its “office block” form, grouping the candidates by office rather than by party, encouraged ticket splitting. So did the growing independence of newspapers from parties and the increasing emphasis in campaigns on issues rather than party slogans.

All of this placed new intellectual demands on the voter that struck many contemporaries as onerous and even dangerous, so a new short-ballot movement emerged between 1910 and 1915 to make voting easier. A political scientist named William Munro, a short-ballot supporter, cited ballots containing 300 to 400 names and one whopper in a New York State Assembly district listing 835 candidates. “There is something wrong with an electoral system which requires from every man a service that not one in ten thousand is willing to give,” he observed. Gov. Charles Evans Hughes of New York urged a reduction in the number of state elective offices in 1910: “The ends of democracy will be better attained to the extent that the attention of the voters may be focused upon comparatively few offices, the incumbents of which can be strictly accountable for administration.”


The Australian ballot had shifted the center of political gravity from party to voter and asked voters to make a choice among alternatives rather than perform an act of group loyalty. With this the “informed citizen” as a civic ideal was born, and it was institutionalized in the ritual of voting.

The Progressives faced the curse of getting what they wished for: the elevation of the independent, educated, rational voter as the model citizen. They made voting more logical but less enjoyable, more information-centered but less dramatic. The result: Voter turnout fell. The large voting public of the late nineteenth century, with turnout routinely 70 percent or higher, became the vanishing public of the 1920s, with turnout under 50 percent. If the road to reasoned public participation was finally open, the pleasure of festive ritual was gone.

Today’s political pieties come from this reform era and separate us dramatically from mid-nineteenth-century and earlier politics. As the Progressives abandoned political show for debate over issues, parades for pamphlets, streets for parlors, so we have accepted an ideal of citizenship at once privatized, effortful, cerebral, and not much fun. Citizenship became spinach, unappealing but good for you.