Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 1999 /11 Kislev, 5760
When We Enjoyed Politics
THE NATION held its breath. Or was it stifling a yawn? In any case,
presidential politics became serious last week because a bunch of candidates
broadcast TV ads. Consider how far American politics has come to be this
sort of spectator sport.
Once upon a time, Americans' zest for politics astonished the world. In Jules
Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1873), Phileas Fogg, passing
through San Francisco, gets swept up in a tremendous election hullabaloo.
Fogg asks if the awesome commotion is for "the election of a
general-in-chief, no doubt?" He is told, "No, sir; of a justice of the peace."
Nineteenth-century political speeches, writes Michael Schudson, were "long
enough to help kill two presidents--William Henry Harrison, who died from
complications of exposure at his own inauguration, and Zachary Taylor, who
died following the dedication ceremonies for the Washington Monument." In
1858, the first of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, in Ottawa, Ill., a city of
about 7,000, was witnessed--you cannot say heard--by about 20,000, none of
whom, in those days before direct election of senators, could vote for either
American politics, at that time the best entertainment money did not have to
buy, was entering its era of maximum popular participation. But soon
"progressive" high-mindedness would help put a stop to that.
Schudson, of the University of California, San Diego, argues in his book,
"The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life," that politics from the
colonial period through the Revolution was a "politics of assent." Elections
were acts of deference, ratifying rule by the gentry, which regarded political
office as an obligation connected with social standing.
But urbanization produced heterogeneous populations, newspapers (by 1794
they were 70 percent of the weight in the postal system) fueled
argumentation, and immigration produced fierce rivalries among ethnic
communities. Soon mass-based parties replaced the politics of deference
with the "politics of affiliation."
Between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, writes Schudson, no president
captured the public's imagination, yet "these were the years of the highest
voter turnout in our entire history. Americans of that era enjoyed politics." It
was not elevated politics. It was a sport of rival social groups organized into
teams (parties) around "ethnocultural" issues--immigration, church schools,
temperance--as bitterly divisive as today's social issues.
But in the late 19th century in the North, 70 percent or more of those eligible
usually voted in presidential elections. This was partly a tribute to political
machines: Pennsylvania's Republican organization had 20,000 wage-earning
workers--more employees than most of the state's railroads. And Schudson
says that during the Gilded Age as many as 20 percent of New York City
voters may have been paid in some form or other as Election Day workers.
Then righteous reformers and caring government took much of the fun, and
a lot of the voters, out of politics.
Reformers wanted fewer parades and more pamphlets--voting should be not
an act of group solidarity but an individual act of informed competence.
Parties, said well-bred reformers, should not just rally committed followers,
who often were, well, not the sort of folks who knew which fork to use with
the fish course. Rather, parties should persuade the uncommitted. The
progressive aspiration, says Schudson, was a "citizenship of intelligence
rather than passionate intensity."
The coming of solicitous government gave people rights to things they once
received for services rendered to the party. In the 19th century, Schudson
says, people could "smell and taste the material benefits in politics." In this
century's sanitized, omnipresent and omniprovident government, services
became less connected with elected officials than with bureaucracies, so
"self-interest in political life became more of an imaginative leap."
By 1924 the New Republic was wondering about "the vanishing voter." But
by then World War I propaganda had proved that opinion could be
manufactured. And Freudians, crowd psychologists and sociologists
(sociology, virtually untaught in 1890, was taught at more than 300
universities by 1910) were suggesting that individual autonomy is a chimera.
This theory emancipated intellectuals from the obligation to respect
democracy and became an (unspoken) axiom of modern liberalism and
Today government does more and more for citizens who vote less and less.
Celebrating expertise and stigmatizing partisanship, the remorseless
improvers of our politics have the reformers' perennial aspiration of replacing
politics with administration. Witness John McCain's John Brown-like passion
to purge politics of "special interests": Only unspecial interests should be
The improvers have always aimed at reducing the passionate and increasing
the cognitive ingredient in voting. Think of that as you watch the candidates'
Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.
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©1999, Washington Post Writer's Group