excerpted from the book

Why Americans Don't Vote

by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward

Pantheon Books, 1988, paper

... our unrepresentative electorate and the resulting low voting rates have their historical roots in the exclusionary voter registration systems established at the end of the nineteenth century. Southern planters pushed through poll taxes, literacy tests, and obstructive voter registration policies to slash voting among blacks and poor whites. Northern businessmen reformers, claiming a "quality" electorate as their goal, introduced similar practices (including poll taxes in a number of New England states). As the new procedures took effect between 1888 and 1904, voting rates fell: from 64 percent to 19 percent in the South; from 86 percent to 55 percent in the North and West; and from 8 ~ percent to 49 percent nationally. And as the electorate shrank, party appeals and strategies also narrowed.

By contrast, during this same era of tumultuous industrial growth in the early twentieth century, working men and poor farmers in Europe were winning the franchise. Their votes, in turn, spurred the growth of socialist or labor parties. In Germany, the Social Democratic party actually won the largest share of the vote once the anti-socialist laws, which had disenfranchised many workers, were allowed to lapse. The Austrian Social Democrats won 21 percent of the vote in 1907, the Finnish Social Democrats 37 percent, and the Belgian Workers' party 13.2 percent-all in the first elections after universal male suffrage had been won. As parties on the left emerged, they in turn helped activate newly enfranchised workers, resulting in the continued rise of voting totals in these parties.'

Voting levels did rise in the United States during the Great Depression. Popular discontent, the growth of industrial unions, and big-city political organizations revitalized by Roosevelt's New Deal programs all helped working people hurdle registration barriers, producing a twentieth-century turnout high of 73 percent in the North and West by 1940. The effects of rising participation were immediate and dramatic as the Democratic party's appeals and programs shifted toward these new working class voters.

Still, this transformation was incomplete. National Democratic leaders continued to be constrained by the racist politics of the southern wing of the party, whose barriers to the franchise kept voting down among poor whites and blacks alike. Southern turnout finally rose in the 1960s and 1970s (although it remains marginally lower than the national average) following the civil rights movement's success in overturning the more extreme barriers to registration, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Once again, the rise in voting levels had an immediate impact on the two parties as Democratic politicians grew more liberal in response to a stronger black turnout (illustrated more recently by the role southern Democratic senators played in defeating Robert Bork's Supreme Court Justice nomination), while many newly enfranchised whites helped revive the southern wing of the Republican party.

Even as voter turnout rose after 1960 in the South, it fell in the North and West, and the system of personal voter registration must figure as part of the explanation. The overall national turnout slide from the 20th-century high of 65 percent in 1960 to about 50 percent in 1988 was not mainly due to fewer registered voters voting. Based on studies spanning two decades, the Census Bureau concluded that people "overwhelmingly go to the polls" once they are registered.

In 1984, fully 88 percent of registered voters went to the polls, and there is no reason to think the figure fell appreciably in 1988. (Voting was down by several percentage points, but so was the level of registration.) The drop in voting since 1960 resulted mainly from a decrease of roughly 10 percentage points in the registration levels themselves-to 61 percent in 1988 by our estimate-and much of the decline occurred among the less educated and the unemployed, and among residents of major cities where registration levels often account for less than half of the eligible electorate.

A good many commentators claim that registration procedures today are more liberal than ever before. True, poll taxes and literacy tests are gone, but outside the South, the major reform in registration procedures consists of allowing people to register by mail. This reform is more appearance than fact, since provision is rarely made for the wide distribution of the postcard forms. States with mail-in systems do not have higher registration levels, because people may still have to travel to a county seat or to a downtown office in a central city simply to register.

Not only has the voter registration system not been liberalized to the extent claimed by many commentators, but the political parties are also less likely now than in the past to provide "hands on" assistance with registration procedures. National political campaigns run as media events do not put voter registration cards in people's hands. Furthermore, the local party infrastructure created during the New Deal to help overcome registration barriers has decayed. Many of the traditional big city party machines persist more to organize graft than to organize voters, or they refuse to mobilize potential black and Hispanic voters for fear of fueling racial challenges. The shrinking industrial unions are no longer capable of reaching many unregistered workers, especially the low-wage nonunionized workers in the vast and growing service sector. Without local organizations to help people sign up, registration barriers become more restrictive, gradually driving turnout down.

At first glance, the turnout slide is puzzling; it flies in the face of the logic of competitive elections. The Democrats have lost five of the past six presidential elections. Why doesn't the party therefore exert itself somehow to expand its political base among minorities and the less well off? Of the nearly 70 million Americans who are not registered to vote, two out of three have family incomes that fall below the median, and the opinion polls show that their preferences lean toward the Democrats.

One answer is that the Democrats are more a confederation of individual entrepreneurs than an organized party. Moreover, most of these entrepreneurs are doing quite well; a substantial majority of elected positions below the presidential level are controlled by Democrats who are regularly reelected and so see no need to expand the electorate; indeed, they have good reason to want to keep things as they are. The presidency doesn't matter nearly as much to this establishment of incumbents that reign over the Congress and state and local governments.

The only practical way to produce more differentiated parties is to expand the electorate, and that in turn requires a system of universal registration.

... Consistently, the virtual absence of large-scale protest during the 1980S facilitated the spate of domestic policies that has dramatically worsened the bias of public policy against working- and lower-class groups.

Although movements and voting are sometimes treated simply as conflicting alternatives, the bearing of each on the other is in fact multifaceted; each form of political action both undermines and supports the other, as we tried to show in our earlier work. There are, for example, ways in which electoral politics suppresses the possibilities for collective protest. The elaboration of electoral arrangements entails a system of powerful meanings and rituals that define and limit the appropriate forms of political action. The very availability of the vote, and of the social ritual of the periodic election, is like a magnet attracting and channeling popular political impulses. Other forms of collective action, and especially defiant collective action, are discredited precisely because voting and electioneering presumably are available as the normative ways to act on political discontents. In addition to constraining the forms of popular political action, the electoral system tends to limit the goals of popular politics, and even the orientations of popular political culture, to the political alternatives generated by the dominant parties. Further, involvement in electoral politics exposes people to the fragmenting influences associated with electioneering, and can thus weaken the solidarities that undergird political movements, a development that takes its most extreme form under clientelist or machine modes of appealing to voters. And, finally, electoral political institutions generate seductions that distract people from any kind of oppositional politics. People are hypnotized by the circuses of election campaigns, while their leaders are enticed by the multiple opportunities to gain (often trivial) positions in the electoral representative system. In short, involvement in electoral politics channels people away from movement politics.

Despite the zeal and overstatement with which this sort of view is sometimes expressed, it is supported by a long and serious intellectual tradition. Reinhard Bendix, for example, argued that the class consciousness of European workers was enhanced precisely because they were barred from electoral participation during most of the nineteenth century; Ted Robert Gurr and some other movement analysts explicitly posited that electoral institutions channel people away from protest; 3 and Murray Edelman stressed the symbolic manipulation associated with electoral participation. And there is clearly some broad historical "fit" between the idea that electoral arrangements constrain protest movements and the actual course of movements in American history. For instance, as electoral participation expanded in the first third of the nineteenth century, and particularly with the emergence of machine-style political organization, early workingmen's insurgencies did, in fact, tend to become absorbed in regular party politics. And, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Populist movement was fragmented, diminished, and ultimately destroyed by its venture into national electoral politics. Much of the momentum of the labor movement of the 1930s was lost as it became absorbed in Democratic party politics. Similarly, the black movement dissipated as it turned "from I protest to politics" in the 1 970s.

The bearing of electoral politics on movement politics is more complicated, however. Some aspects of the electoral environment nurture rather than suppress movements. True electoral politics usually absorbs political activism so that people do not turn to protest. Nevertheless, the idea of popular rights associated with democratic electoral arrangements encourages the belief that change is possible, and by the efforts of ordinary people. This is the implication of the core democratic idea, the idea that ordinary people have the right to participate in governance by choosing their rulers. Furthermore, movements also may be nurtured by the protection that electoral politics provides. The anticipation of adverse voter reactions often restrains state leaders from the use of repression as a way of dealing with political defiance.

... in the United States, the formal right to the franchise is virtually universal, a condition much celebrated in the political culture. Only those who are aliens, or felons, or not yet of age, or undomiciled are denied the vote as a matter of acknowledged policy. At the same time, the ability of large numbers of people to act on the right to the franchise is impeded by a series of procedural obstructions embedded in the voter registration process. Those obstructions are selective in that they are more likely to interfere with voting by the poor and unlettered than by the better off and educated. Still, they do not bar entire categories of the population, and the method by which people are barred remains obscure. People often fail to register precisely because they do not know much about the requirement or how to complete it, and under these circumstances they do not know just why they do not have access to the ballot. It is in the nature of these barely comprehended procedural obstructions that people tend to blame themselves for their failure to comply. In these cases, the idea that voting and elections provide the means for acting on political grievances remains largely intact, even though the means are not in fact available to tens of millions of people. The demobilization of large sectors of the American electorate has thus been secured at relatively little cost to the legitimacy of electoral processes as the prescribed avenue for political change.

... protests from below are more likely to arise in the first place when contenders for office are forced to employ rhetoric that appeals to less-well-off voters, and thus give courage to the potential protesters. Such movements are more likely to grow when they are at least somewhat secure from the threat of state repression because political leaders are constrained by fear of adverse reactions by workingclass or lower-class or minority electoral supporters ... protesters are more likely to win when the issues they raise stir support among significant numbers of these voters, threatening to lead to voter defections. The complementary dynamic between movements and electoral politics thus depends both on the composition and orientation of movements and on the composition and orientation of significant blocs in the electorate. In other words, the sharp underrepresentation of poorer and minority people in the American electorate creates an electoral environment that also weakens their ability to act politically through movements. This is one important way that massive nonvoting has shaped American politics.

Nonvoting has influenced American politics in other ways as well, and that is why the question of who shall vote has been at the volatile core of American politics for over a century. It may bear on our political future as well.


The Politics of Nonvoting

The right to vote is the core symbol of democratic political systems. Of course, the vote itself is meaningless unless citizens also have the right to speak, write, and assemble; unless opposition parties can compete for power by offering alternative programs and leaders; and unless diverse interest groups can also compete for influence. And democratic arrangements that guarantee formal political equality through the universal franchise are inevitably compromised by sharp social and economic inequalities. Nevertheless, the right to vote is a basic feature of the democratic polity that makes all other political rights significant. "The electorate occupies, at least in the mystique of [democratic] orders, the position of the principal organ of governance."'

Americans generally take for granted that ours is the model of a democratic polity. Our leaders echo this conviction when they regularly proclaim us as the world's leading democracy, and assert that other nations should measure their progress toward democracy by the extent to which they develop electoral institutions that match our own. At the core of this self-congratulation is the belief that the right to vote is indeed firmly established.

... the United States is the only major democratic nation in which the less well off are substantially underrepresented in the electorate.

The basic facts of contemporary nonvoting are undisputed. The universe of actual voters in the United States is shrunken and skewed compared with the universe of formally enfranchised citizens. Only a little. more than half of the eligible population votes in presidential elections, and fewer still vote in off-year elections. As a result, the United States ranks at the bottom in comparison with other major democracies... Moreover, those who vote are different in important respects from those who do not. Voters are better off and better educated, and nonvoters are poorer and less well educated. Modest variations notwithstanding, this has been true for most of the twentieth century, and has actually worsened in the last two decades. In sum, the active American electorate overrepresents those who have more, and underrepresents those who have less.

... at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the historical moment when the working classes in other Western countries were winning the franchise and even becoming contenders for state power, a series of changes in American electoral arrangements sharply reduced voting by the northern immigrant working class and virtually eliminated voting by southern blacks and poor whites. By World War I, turnout rates had fallen to half the eligible electorate and, despite some vacillations, they have never recovered.

... the distinctive pattern of American industrial capitalist development at least partly stems from the fact that the United States was not a democracy, in the elementary sense of an effective universal suffrage, during the twentieth century.

The contemporary business mobilization also illustrates the pivotal role of nonvoters. Numerous commentators have pointed out that American corporations have become more explicitly political than ever before. True, large corporations have always maintained a political presence to guard their particular interests in legislative and bureaucratic spheres, drawing on a repertoire of familiar techniques ranging from personal influence to campaign funding to public relations to vigilant lobbying. The economic instabilities of the past two decades, however, have goaded business leaders into more focused and coordinated political activity. They have tried to shore up sagging and uncertain profits by reorienting policies ranging from taxation to regulation to labor relations to social welfare to military spending. Given the scale of the changes contemplated, this sort of agenda demanded a new and broad-ranging electoral mobilization by business. The usual methods of political influence had worked well enough to promote and protect business interests under more stable economic conditions, but they were not equal to the boldness of the new goals being pursued, which, after all, entailed dismantling the programs won by working people through a history of protest and politics. Accordingly, in the 1970s, American business set out to create a vast political infrastructure capable of conducting national election campaigns. Business leaders revived and financed the sluggish U.S. Chamber of Commerce to reach and influence small businesses to enter the electoral arena in a concerted way; trade associations were similarly activated; new think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, were established to influence public opinion by articulating and legitimating the business program; meanwhile, corporate leaders also began to coordinate their political contributions in order to centralize control over a rejuvenated Republican party.

... a fair amount of academic work has been directed to explaining why nonvoting should not be considered a problem at all. In one major tradition, nonvoting is defined as a kind of voting, a tacit expression of consent and evidence of satisfaction. Since many people are so satisfied, their abstention actually demonstrates the strength of the democratic polity. Of course, no one has satisfactorily explained why "the politics of happiness" is so consistently concentrated among the least well off.

Another variant on this theme asserts that nonvoting contributes to the health of a democratic polity, not because the abstainers are necessarily so satisfied, but because mass abstention reduces conflict and provides political leaders with the latitude they require to govern responsibly. A functioning democracy, the argument goes, requires a balance between participation and nonparticipation, between involvement and noninvolvement. The "crisis of democracy" theorists, for example, reason that an "excess" of participation endangers democratic institutions by "overloading" them with demands, especially popular economic demands. This rather Olympian view of the democratic "functions" of nonvoting generally fails to deal with the decidedly undemocratic consequences of tempering the demands of some strata of the polity and not others.

A bolder but kindred argument fastens precisely on the characteristics of nonvoters-on their presumed extremism and volatility-to explain why their abstention is healthy for the polity. To cite one classic example, Lipset draws on evidence that nonvoters are more likely to have antidemocratic attitudes. Similarly, George Will, writing "In Defense of Nonvoting," says that "the fundamental human right" is not to the vote but "to good government," and he points to the high turnouts in the late Weimar Republic as evidence of the dangers of increased voter participation, an example widely favored by those who make this argument. Will's point of view is reminiscent of nineteenth-century reformers who proposed various methods of improving the "quality" of the electorate by reducing turnout. Consider, for example, the New York Times in 1878: "It would be a great gain if people could be made to understand distinctly that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness involves, to be sure, the right to good government, but not the right to take part, either immediately or indirectly, in the management of the state."

Existing registration arrangements are taken for granted as natural and inevitable. In fact, American registration procedures are Byzantine compared with those that prevail in other democracies. The major difference is that governments elsewhere assume an affirmative obligation to register citizens. People are certified as automatically eligible to vote when they come of age and obtain identity cards, or government-sponsored canvassers go from door to door before each election to enlist voters. The United States is the only major democracy where government assumes no responsibility for helping citizens cope with voter registration procedures. In 1980, 30 to 40 percent of the American electorate was unregistered, or more than 60 million in an eligible voting age population of 159 million, and two out of three of the unregistered resided in households with incomes below the median. Furthermore, the significance of low registration is suggested by the fact that once people are registered, they overwhelmingly vote. In 1980, more than 80 percent of registrants went to the polls, and the turnout among those with little education and income was only marginally lower. Consequently, when turnout in the United States is calculated just for registered voters, the rate here is comparable to rates in other democracies with more or less automatic registration systems.

... voter registration arrangements came to carry much of the burden of sustaining a system of limited electoral participation. State and local officials preside over "voluntary" procedures that place the burden of navigating the often difficult process on the citizen. And elections officials are relatively free to manipulate registration procedures so as to limit voting by poorer and minority groups.


New Constituencies, New Politics

At the close of the nineteenth century, the nation had reached a turning point. Enlarging state intervention in economic relations had become inevitable, given the requirements of a developing industrial capitalism. But what form that intervention would take, who would benefit, and who would bear the costs were not dictated by economic forces. Business mobilized on an unprecedented scale, overwhelming Populist demands and the protests of the new industrial workers, so that farm families and the working class paid the price for the transition to industrialism. The partial disenfranchisement of the northern working class and the more or less complete disenfranchisement of southern blacks and poor whites were crucial to this outcome. By reproducing in the twentieth century the class restrictions on the suffrage of a predemocratic age, economic elites ensured that they would encounter little political resistance as they moved to shape government policies in their interests.

The persistence of these disenfranchising measures has without doubt been the most remarkable feature of twentieth-century American electoral arrangements. It helps to explain why the United States followed a political path so different from Western Europe. There the consolidation of the industrial working class was coterminous with the winning of the suffrage, and with the subsequent emergence of labor-based political parties to compete for influence on the state. Under these conditions, increasing economic concentration precipitated a political struggle over the terms of state intervention. Working-class parties were able to force substantial political accommodations, including the right to unionize, limitations on working hours, less hazardous working conditions, and substantial welfare state protections.

In the United States, the working class did not win important concessions until the tumultuous events of both the 1930S and the 1960s produced an expansion of the electorate and correlative changes in the party system and in domestic policy. Even so, American workers still lag behind the workers in European industrial nations, especially in respect to social welfare protections.

Much about the current political situation in the United States is reminiscent of the closing years of the nineteenth century. A rapidly changing economy has once again made shifts in state policy inevitable. Now, as a century ago, the question is how government will intervene and who will benefit. Business has again mobilized on a huge scale to influence electoral politics; it has once again realigned in support of the Republican party; and it is again pressing for a series of radical changes in public policy that would depress workingclass living standards.

Business claims that existing labor policies and regulatory policies impede the capacity of the United States to adapt to the imperatives of international markets. This analysis is intended to persuade people of the narrow limits within which they can think and act politically. Invoking international market forces (especially cheap labor in the Third World) induces a sense of fatalism; there is presumably no option except to give way to business demands in the name of restoring competitiveness. But in fact, some industrial nations have forged different solutions. Sweden and Austria, for example, have so far managed to maintain low unemployment and high social benefits by enacting government policies oriented to improving competitiveness by promoting capital-intensive and high-wage economic restructuring while at the same time protecting the living conditions of workers during the transition. At the other extreme, England has responded to the same international pressures with policies that impose high unemployment, an increasingly polarized wage structure, and deteriorating social services. Whether the English approach to restructuring-and the relatively similar approach in the United States-will succeed over the longer run remains to be seen. Policies that sustain profits by driving down living standards may well be shortsighted and anarchic. In any case, what is clear is that this approach to the pressures of global economic change imposes the full costs of restoring competitiveness on the working class.

There is also the distinct possibility that, no matter what policies are adopted, the dominance of the world economy by Western industrial nations may finally be ending, with a consequent shift in the global distribution of wealth and a long-term decline in Western living standards relative to those in emerging industrial nations. If so, efforts to increase U.S. competitiveness will merely slow the drift toward relatively lower living standards. The resulting political issue is obvious enough. How should the inevitable costs of economic restructuring be allocated among the classes? And, if living standards cannot be maintained, how should the costs of economic decline be allocated? Who will be protected, and who will pay?

Once more, the political alignments that will determine our response to economic change are not foretold. Whether a majority coalition will be formed that might temper the current business program depends on two important conditions. One is the extent to which voting preferences among both southern and northern white workers will continue to be strongly influenced by racism; the other is the extent to which the ranks of the new working class are mobilized for electoral participation.

Much has been made of the realignment of southern whites, at least in presidential elections. As southern blacks began moving into the electoral system and the Democratic party after World War II, many whites deserted to the Republican party, which has come to embody the legacy of the region's racism and conservatism.' Lower-stratum whites are now divided evenly between the parties in the Deep South, and favor the Democrats only by a slight margin in the Border States.

The future of alignment of the South obviously depends upon the continuing ability of the Republican party to induce lower-stratum whites to coalesce with middle- and upper-class whites. A century ago, poor southern whites permitted themselves to be duped into giving up the franchise in order to ensure that blacks would be deprived of it. Now that they have the vote, the question is whether they can continue to be duped, this time by joining permanently in alliances with better-off whites to offset black electoral influence. However, racial animosity may not be adequate to the task of keeping southern whites aligned against their own interests. Phillips warns that "the social-issue constituency has a New Deal economic past," and the data show that voters are volatile and shift their allegiances in response to economic conditions. The possibility of change in southern electoral politics is suggested by the increased liberalism of southern Democratic congressmen who now depend on the support of blacks and moderate whites.

Meanwhile, the decay of the industrial working class continues, and this fact has profound implications for the future of the American parties. The transition to postindustrialism is being ushered in with a vast proliferation of low-paid jobs that are being filled by minorities and women. Bluestone and Harrison report that the rate of growth in low-paying jobs in the United States during the period from 1979 to 1985 was twice as high as it had been from 1963 to 1979. Many of these jobs are part-time or temporary, and pay few if any benefits, and most service workers are not unionized. Women and minorities are coming to constitute a new and unprotected service sector proletariat.

At a comparable stage in their evolution as a class, industrial workers in the United States were partially disenfranchised. Service workers are also being disenfranchised by an oligarchic Democratic party apparatus riddled with race and gender conflict. Formed in the 1930s on an older white male industrial working-class base, the Democratic party has not reorganized to incorporate the women and minorities who make up the new working class being created by the shift to a service economy. In the meantime, the Republican party has made some gains among the old industrial working class, whose loyalty to the Democratic party has been strained by race and gender conflicts and by the failure of the party to protect their interests. The resulting division and paralysis among the Democratic party constituency organizations smooth the way for increasing business influence.

The usual strategy to overcome this paralysis is to call for new leaders and new programmatic initiatives. But neither can be wished into existence. At those junctures in our history when political leaders have mattered, when they have reached beyond party platitudes and self-interested business programs to arouse popular hopes, it was because they were confronted by new voters or by unrest among existing voters, and by protest movements that gave those voters voice and leverage. In any case, programmatic initiatives are likely to evolve gradually and experimentally. And it will matter crucially whether they are formulated and implemented in an electoral context that is supportive of the interests of lower-stratum people. A "New Politics," in short, requires new constituencies. Throughout this book, we have emphasized the dynamic interaction between the shape of the electorate and party organization. As new constituencies enter the electoral system, the parties adapt, and their adaptations then also affect turnout. By this reasoning, a substantial influx of new voters can be expected, over time, to exert pressure for new leaders and programmatic appeals that reflect their interests. Widening access to voter registration could thus be the key to orienting the Democratic party toward the new service proletariat.

Although the Democratic party remains immobilized, the possibilities for a new stage in the metapolitics of participation are large. Voter turnout is down to almost half, mainly as a result of falling participation by minorities and lower-stratum whites in the North. If substantial numbers of these nonvoters were enlisted, the potential for a major electoral convulsion is evident, a convulsion that might eventually result in a party system capable of articulating the issues that divide American society.

Whether a more representative electorate eventually would lead to parties reorganized by class will, of course, be debated. On one side of the argument, there is survey evidence suggesting that political attitudes are not strongly differentiated by class in American society. On the other side, however, there is the experience of other countries, which suggests that political attitudes are not formed simply as a reflection of an objective class position. Rather, political attitudes are crucially shaped by the socializing influences of political parties competing to assemble majorities. In the United States, where many in the working class did not have the vote during the twentieth century, there was less reason for the political parties to play this role by projecting class appeals.

Finally, there is the evidence of the outlooks of elites. The history of conflicts over the franchise suggests that dominant groups are not confident of their capacity to manipulate the attitudes of the electorate or to subvert electoral decisions. Consequently, they have exerted themselves to forge and maintain electoral institutions that have kept the franchise limited to those who were at least somewhat better off. Elites are confirmed structuralists. If that were not so, they would have long since acquiesced to the universal registration of American citizens in the sure confidence that nothing would change.

Whether an enlarged electorate would transform American politics can only be known, finally, by obliterating the remaining obstacles to voting.

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