Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Evolution of Participatory Democracy

In these skeptical, borderline cynical days we have a tendency to overlook the reality of what has transpired before. Sometimes scholarship outright fails us, leaving out helpful details that would guide us towards a greater understanding of the truth. I've unearthed some interesting facts that help explain why we are where we are today.

In these times, where we'd rather spin out the merits of our candidate and blacken the reputation of our opposition than advance a common dialogue, it's helpful to know how politics and politicians have been influenced by reforms and reform measures. Some of these have helped and some of them arguably made the system worse. Voter turnout is one such metric which is rather revealing.

It is fashionable to decry low voter turnout as symptomatic of a broken system, and these arguments are not without merit. Yet, it is overly simplistic to simply condemn those who do not turn out on Election Day as shirking their civil responsibility. If only it were that easy. Often there is nothing new under the sun and while history might not necessarily repeat itself, the old motifs of human conduct and human comprehension do often find themselves at play.

In the 1876 Presidential election which pitted Rutherford B. Hayes against Samuel Tilden, voter turnout was as high as upwards of 80 percent. Yet, within fifty years it had slacked off to barely 50 percent. The reasons why are many, but I will attempt to highlight a few of them.

1. State legislatures established restrictive laws that disenfranchised many undesirable voters, namely blacks and poor whites. Threatened by the populist movement which sought to unify both races as a means to challenge the status quo, the powers that be acted decisively to nullify and restrict the voting rights of many citizens.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored the franchise of many, but it didn't completely remove the feelings of helplessness and fatalistic frustration that had built up over the years as a result of being powerless and deliberately written out of the equation.

2. A remarkably close balance prevailed between the two major parties. Democrats and Republicans had virtually the same level of electoral support, one reason why they worked so hard to get out the vote. Control of the Presidency and Congress frequently shifted back and forth. Rarely did either party control both branches of government at once.

-The American Journey

For nearly forty years after the Civil War, neither party had control of the government. With the failure of William Jennings Bryan and the Silverites in 1896, the Democratic party was effectively destroyed. The Republicans ruled essentially unchallenged until 1912. The party of Jefferson didn't completely revive itself until the ascent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, but it took a massive catastrophe, The Great Depression, to re-establish the party.

3. Competition for the attention of an increasingly distracted and satiated electorate is another big reason why voter turnout has declined over the years. In the late 1800s, elections were often the sole means of entertainment at a time where other options were severely limited. Nowadays we have all sorts of ways to pass the time and a multitude of demands upon our time and our focus.


Attitudes like these typify the sort of damned if I do, damned if I don't mentality that keeps people away from the polls.

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