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Is Our Civic Life Really In Decline?

June 2024
12min read


If you look at the decline in voter turnout since 1960 or the steady decrease in young people’s interest in electoral politics, it is easy to get the idea that America’s democratic experiment stands on increasingly shaky ground. Voter turnout fell from 63 percent in 1960 to 49 percent in 1996. In national surveys 58 percent of college freshmen in 1966 said they considered it important to keep abreast of political affairs; by 1996 only 29 percent felt that way. Has our era broken trust with a great heritage? In fact, history has a more complicated, more surprising, and in the end more hopeful story to tell.

Imagine yourself a voter in the world of colonial Virginia, where George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson learned their politics. As a matter of law, you must be a white male owning at least a modest amount of property. Your journey to vote may take several hours, since there is probably only one polling place in the district. As you approach the courthouse, which is more likely to be a common tavern than a fine example of Georgian architecture, you see the sheriff supervising the election. Beside him stand two candidates for the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s legislative assembly. Both of them are members of prominent local families. Ahead of you the most prominent members of the community, the leading landowner and clergyman, approach the sheriff and announce their votes in loud, clear voices. When your turn comes, you do the same. Then you step over to the candidate for whom you have voted, and he treats you to a glass of rum punch.

That was Election Day, colonial style. Voting was an act of assent, restating and reaffirming the social hierarchy of the community. No one but a local notable would think of standing for office, voting was conducted entirely in public view, and voters were ritually rewarded by the gentlemen they favored.

Colonial voting was different from voting today not because our Founding Fathers were inept at achieving a world that protected the individuality, rationality, and privacy of voters in a voting booth but because they hadn’t thought of such a thing. They held to very different ideals of what civic participation was all about. The history of American voting is only in part the story we have long prided ourselves on, the progressive extension of the franchise to once excluded groups. It is also a tale of radically changing ideals of what voting means and what a good citizen should be.

It is easy to find among the Founders great praise for the education of citizens and the diffusion of ideas. In colonial America, as in Britain, education was mainly for gentlemen, not for the general populace. Property was much more widely distributed in the colonies than in Britain, and there was a looser understanding of who counted as a gentleman, but still, colonial education aimed to instill religious virtue, not to encourage competent citizenship. Schooling and reading were understood to be instruments of inducting citizens more firmly into the established order. When people praised public enlightenment, this is what they usually had in mind.


Even the most broad-minded of the Founders had only limited ideas about public education. Jefferson’s never-enacted “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” in Virginia, sought only to create leaders. The idea was to make elementary education generally available so as to cast as wide a net as possible to discover those of “genius and virtue.” But these leaders would be a “natural aristocracy,” not ordinary citizens.

As for the latter, their civic obligation was to recognize virtue. Voters should be able to discern the character of candidates so they could turn back the ambitious and self-seeking at the polls, but they were not to question candidates about public issues, since they were not themselves qualified to evaluate them. That was what representatives were for. When the framers established the Constitution, they believed that not parties, not interest groups, not news- papers, and not citizens in the streets but Congress—and Congress alone—should deliberate and decide the public questions of the day.

Indeed, the founders established a system of government with surprisingly little room for direct or regular citizen involvement apart from elections. The Federalists actively discouraged political interest and activity. Congress could govern better than the people could themselves, even were it possible to assemble them all, James Madison argued. In the tenth of the Federalist papers, he held that the people would choose their betters for representatives. The experience of the colonists was that only social notables had the local prominence and the leisure to serve in public office, and Madison believed that these people would generally be wise, virtuous, and competent.

These representatives would deliberate, not just decide. That is, they would listen to one another so that their votes would be based on a consideration of the public good, not just on a constituency’s interest. This was a filtering system. To have people represented indirectly would remove from the proceedings the heat and passion that might otherwise cloud judgment. The Federalist papers are full of praise of the “cool” and “calm” virtues of representative government. Public views would “refine and enlarge” when “passing through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the truest interest of their country.”

It is well known that the Founders had only disdain for political parties. It is less often recalled that they also discouraged civic associations from taking any interest in politics. George Washington detested the political discussion societies that sprang up between 1793 and 1798, called “Democratic-Republican clubs,” most of which had strong sympathies with the French Revolution. These clubs seemed to Washington a genuine threat to civil order, presuming, irresponsibly and dangerously, to offer suggestions to the government about what it should decide without having been elected by the people or having sat in the chambers of the Congress to hear the viewpoints of all. The first President spent much of his famous Farewell Address warning his countrymen against the baneful “spirit of party.” He opposed “all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the Constituted authorities.” Such organizations could only “put in the place of the delegated will of the Nation, the will of a party; often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the Community...”

The Founders were not much fonder of a free press than of free associations. The First Amendment set limits on Congress’s power to curtail free speech, but not on the states’. This was originally an act more of federalism than of libertarianism; it protected state legislation against interfering national authority. Opposition to a truly free press was also manifested in continuing adherence to the doctrine of seditious libel. The wrong in criminal libel was not that it harmed the libeled party but that it threatened the public peace when the victim was stirred to violence and revenge. Prosecutions for libel sought to protect the peace at the cost of individual freedom of expression.

The Sedition Act, in 1798, made matters worse, ruling it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish” anything “false, scandalous, and malicious” against the government, the President, the Senate, or the House “with intent to defame ... or to bring them . . . into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States. . ..” The Federalists engineered no fewer than fourteen indictments under the act. At a time when there were only about two hundred newspapers in the country, with less than a quarter of them strongly opposed to the Federalists, this was a substantial assault on the press.

For the Founders, the press was a political instrument. Its independence could be championed or attacked depending on how well it was serving the cause of popular liberty. All agreed that when it operated on behalf of popular liberty, against the king, it was of inestimable value. But operating within a system of popular liberty and elected representatives, it was a danger to republican order.

How did we get from the Federalists’ pinched perception of popular involvement in government to our powerful ideal of the informed citizen? The simplest answer is that the political party was born. Political parties as we know them today—enduring, mass-based organizations dedicated to contesting elections and winning offices—originated in the 1820s. They invented the grand nominating convention, taking nomination out of the hands of congressional or legislative caucuses. They pioneered political campaigning as a vast participatory pageant. They developed leaders more passionately devoted to the party organization than to any ideological principles the party might stand for.


The parties spearheaded the rise of a far more egalitarian social order—at least for white males. Other developments contributed to this too. These included the rapid growth of evangelical Christian groups more egalitarian than traditional churches; the birth of powerful, broad-based social movements, notably the temperance movement; and the beginnings of the penny press, whose more accessible, news-centered papers had a wider popular appeal than earlier ones. Meanwhile, changes in the family began to chip away at the power of husband over wife, parents over children, and first-born son over siblings.

Political parties in these early years not only ran elections but directly or indirectly controlled many of the newspapers. They also operated the most visible agencies of the federal government—post offices and customhouses—as employment bureaus for their loyal members. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter , describes his experience as a customhouse clerk, a job he won in return for loyal support of the Democratic party.) In the rapidly growing cities, parties also controlled government contracts and services.

In this party-dominated world, picture a scene of voting, about 1850 or ’60, a bustling event with the area around the polling place crowded with the banners of rival parties. Election Day by then was not a convivial respite but the culmination of a campaign of several months and many barbecues, torchlight processions, and “monster meetings.” If you (still a white male) were not active in the campaign, you might be roused on Election Day by a party worker to escort you to the polls on foot or by carriage. On the road you might encounter clubs or groups from rival parties, and fisticuffs or even guns might possibly dissuade you from casting a ballot after all.

As you proceeded to the ballot box, you might step more lively with the encouragement of a dollar or two from your party, less a bribe than an acknowledgment that voting was a service to the party. A party worker would hand you a printed ballot bearing the names of the party’s candidates. You did not have to mark this “ticket” or even read it; there was no need for you to be literate. You had only to deposit it in the ballot box.

You generally voted not out of a strong sense that your party offered better public policies, for the parties tended to be more devoted to distributing offices than to advocating policies. During most of the nineteenth century, parties were loose aggregations of state organizations, focused on local or regional concerns. A presidential candidate was not usually linked to issues close to home, but voter loyalty was related more to comradeship than to policy, something like contemporary loyalty to a high school or a college and its teams. Voting was not a matter of assent but a statement of affiliation. Drink, dollars, and drama brought people to the polls.

Only with reform efforts, by the Mugwumps in the 1880s to make elections “educational” and by the Progressives in the 1890s and early 1900s to shield voters from the distorting enthusiasms of party, did the ideal of the informed citizen come into its own. In the 1880s political campaigning began to shift from parades to pamphlets and so put a premium on literacy. In the 1890s the government-printed ballot, listing the candidates of all parties, swept the nation, and because of this, literacy became a prerequisite for voting for the first time in American history. In the early 1900s nonpartisan municipal elections, presidential primaries, and ballot initiatives and referendums all emerged, giving prospective voters harder work than ever before. These changes enshrined “the informed citizenry,” incidentally providing a new mechanism and a new rationale for disenfranchising African-Americans and immigrants, as well as inaugurating our enduring tradition of handwringing over popular political ignorance.

What happened between 1880 and 1910 was that the most basic understandings of American politics were challenged and reformed. Much of this change came about in an assault on the power of political parties. Mugwump reformers were not keen on wild and woolly party democracy, with its elevation of the election to a collective, carnivalesque ritual. Carnival was not their style. What some observers called a “political Protestantism in American life” produced a series of attacks against overzealous partisanship, against corruption in campaign financing and practices, and even against the very idea of parties, on the grounds that they usurped the direct connection between citizens and their governmental representatives.


Political patronage, the heart of nineteenth-century political life, also came under fire. Every President from Lincoln to the turn of the century complained of the plague of “office seekers.” President Garfield, astonished by the “inundation,” cried, “My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?” Chester A. Arthur met with office seekers “only” three days a week.

The nineteenth-century parties raised money by requiring their candidates to make substantial contributions and by taking part of the salaries of government workers they had placed, usually 3 percent of their gross pay. Amid this domination of government by parties and of parties by patronage, with what amounted to an extortionate party-run income tax on government workers and candidates for office, civil service reform came into its own.

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.

Today we are at the tail end of the long Progressive Era. We know it has got us less than we hoped, but we don’t know how to picture a mode of citizenship that might give us more. Not that it is at all the whole story of citizenship in this century. Citizenship has changed again in the past fifty years, as the civil rights movement and the “rights revolution” broadly added the courtroom to the voting booth as a locus for civic participation. Social movements and political organizations that in the past could hope for change only through legislative action have found that the judicial system can offer a powerful alternative route to their goals.

The civil rights movement opened the door to a widening web of constitutionally guaranteed citizen rights and state and federal laws that expanded citizens’ entitlements and the reach of due process. This affected not only the civil and political rights of African-Americans but the rights of women and of the poor and, increasingly, of minority groups of all sorts. A new notion of citizenship has thus overflowed the banks of electoral activity, opening a new channel in the courts and streaming on across the terrain of everyday life into schools, workplaces, and homes.

The acts and avenues of citizenship today are a world away from anything Jefferson and Washington lived with or conceived of. Today we are left with the legacy of each of the past eras of citizenship. Our inheritance of the politics of assent, the politics of partisanship and loyalty, the politics of the informed citizen, and the politics of rights, together, in all their variety, gives us our historical resource for forging a new model of citizenship for the new century.

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