Review of Mark Lawrence Kornbluh's Why America Stopped Voting (2000)

Culture Watch

Mr. Summers teaches political history at the University of Kentucky.

Somewhere around the dawn of the twentieth century, the political system reformed itself so badly that it may never recover. The law made voting cleaner, more orderly, more honest. The parties lost their grip over the election process and, to some extent, over the hearts of the electorate. At the same time, and not by coincidence, Americans dropped out of active political involvement in droves. More of them could vote than ever before; fewer of them wanted to. This is the story that historians have told, and with as many explanations for why and how it happened as there are monographs on the subject. Now Mark Lawrence Kornbluh brings that scholarship together and adds to it, in the first really comprehensive survey of Why America Stopped Voting.

An associate professor of history at Michigan State University, Kornbluh has had this book years in the making, since it began as a dissertation at Johns Hopkins, but the results are well worth the wait. Looking first at what partisanship meant in the 1800s, and how it permeated white adult males' lives, this monograph chronicles the transformation, rounding up the usual suspects and a good many more besides. It turns out that many of the competing historians are right, and mistaken only in deprecating rival theories of vote decline. Voters stopped voting for various reasons including the party system no longer had the organizational machinery or the set of rewards (the spoils, that is) to bring them out in force; the press and popular culture turned partisanship into a dirty word; social changes made politics so much less central to the public's sense of how to amuse itself; the voting laws were changed to make it harder for would-be electors simply to show up on Election Day and cast a ballot; American politics in the 1890s evolved into two sectional, uncompetitive one-party systems, instead of a national, competitive two-party system; functions that once the party-run state had done were taken out of the arena of competitive politics and handed over to administrative agencies; and, the needs of the burgeoning republic were growing too technical for political hacks to handle them, and too diverse for grass-roots democracy to meet them all. The growth of an administrative state only sped up as the partisan competitiveness diminished.

With no pressing need for spoils, and with laws on the books cutting into the range of those spoils, the parties no longer were willing to fight to the death to keep every function of government in their hands, and, with some of the most ticklish responsibilities, even welcomed the chance to be free of what might be a political liability if the voters had to pass on how elected officials had handled matters. But the more independent agencies made policy, the less reason voters had to reward or punish parties at election time--or even to show up at all. Government became something separate from politics and still more from the people. Somehow, in making good government, reforms had stripped it of its good name as a people's government.

Kornbluh is at his very best in analyzing voter turnout, using sophisticated methods and statistical techniques. He shows when the vote fell off and where, and by how much. This is no modest achievement. Nor is it so paltry an accomplishment to give a convincing, comprehensive synthesis of the reasons why and the mechanics of how this shift occurred.

It matters, if we are to appreciate the mess that American politics are in today, and how little hope there is of reversing the trend.

And yet, granting that America Stops Voting is a tremendous work of synthesis, and a very useful echo of many other fine books and discoveries (and, when it comes to statistical analysis a very good work of original scholarship in the decline of popular politics, South as well as North), the delving moles of the historical profession cannot read the endnote without a pang--however impressed and admiring they certainly will be. There can hardly be a secondary source that Kornbluh has missed. That is the book's strength, and the shadow of what many readers will find its weakness. To see how politics worked--and stopped working--there are so many other sources that capture both the life and the day-to-day meaning better than an article in a scholarly journal: legislative debates, memoirs, newspapers, congressional hearings, and private manuscripts, to name just a few. Anyone wanting to see vote buying in all its rich variety would do well to dip into the Houk Family Papers in Knoxville, and for the excitement, the hoopla, and the sinuous partisan designs behind so many reforms, newspapers like the New York Herald, the New York Sun, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to name but a few, hardly can be done without. Kornbluh has none of them. A quotation from the Congressional Record turns out to be a quotation second-hand, taken from a history of Republican administrative structures, but there are not even many of these. Readers hoping for a glimpse of the mysticism and fanaticism that stirred the heart and soul of the partisan, the white-hot passion of the reformer, had best look elsewhere. Those who are comfortable with vote-explaining formulae like "PPVI=[abs(P%Dy - P%Dy+4)] + [abs (P%Ry - P%Ry+4)]/2" will aappreciate the quantitative measures, as well as accepting them on faith. Those that love a mystery (one easily solved, fortunately, if one reads the text at the same time as the tables) will delight in pie-graphs labeled Figure 4.9, 4.10, 4.11, and so on, with no other explanation or title explaining just what the pie-graphs represent.

Copyright 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses contact the Reviews editorial staff:

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ryan - 4/22/2003

you're talking about things that have no real substance or backing. so stop talking..

Tom Kellum - 11/11/2002

If, as you say, the Republicans forced the Democrats to evolve; at least they have come much further along the way than the typical Republican.

Republicans still try to prevent minorities from voting, for goodness sakes. And, Mr. Belafonte had a point, didn't he?

Bill Heuisler - 11/11/2002

Mr. Kellum,
Clarence Thomas crossed my mind the other day. He was chatting with Condi Rice and Colin Powell about how Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, how the first black US Senator was a Republican, how the Republicans voted to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act and how many states whose banners incorporate the Confederate Battle Flag have been governed by Democrats.
Republicans have forced the Democrats to evolve, Mr. Kellums. There's still a long way to go.
Bill Heuisler

Tom Kellum - 11/10/2002

Although it has probably never crossed your mind, Mr. Heuisler, isn't it fair to say that the major difference in the recent history of the two major U.S. political parties is that the Democrats have evolved or progressed more than the Republicans have in the past 50 years?

The Bull Connors-style politician has thankfully lost its appeal to most Democrats today. Unfortunately, the Newts, Reagans ("Nice to see you, Mr. Mayor") are still very popular and emulated in the other party today.

Gus Moner - 11/10/2002

No one seems to have given but passing consideration to what may well be the main cause behind voter “drop out”. It simply makes no significant difference, most - if not all the time- whether a Democrat or Republican gets elected (Asaf, I am sorry to disillusion you). Since party politics ceased to be ideologically distinguishable, there’s little choice to be had in their gormless discourse.

In other democracies, even one ruled by the military as in Israel, various parties form a disparate, dynamic political spectrum. You get to select from a broad array of radically different views on major issues. You have real socialists, conservatives, centrists, left-wingers and the extreme left, environmentalists, religious and extreme-right parties. Parties formulate ideological platforms, and by golly, they implement them! People can identify much more clearly with a party espousing their heartfelt political views. They vote their ideological convictions, so there’s motivation to vote. They are forced to cooperate in political coalitions, giving more people a say in government.

No Democrat or Republican will ever rise to upset the existing political applecart; they daren’t offer true and significant changes to have the political system respond to the needs of times. People have been lulled and ‘dulled’ to political sleep, by everyone trying to be ‘in the centre’. Where is the beef?

The Democrats lost the 11-02 elections because they failed to provide a clear and ideologically sound alternative position to challenge the Bush-Sharon RepubLikud platform. They let the Bush oil executive’s views control the political agenda with inane war talk and sabre rattling coupled with large dollops of fear mongering in the run up to the election. It has been increasingly obvious how the US’s foreign policy has become an appendage to Israel’s 100-year Palestinian colonisation adventure. Yet not a peep has been heard from Democrats, undoubtedly afraid to lose massive campaign contributions. Everyone’s feeding from the same trough.

For failing to exercise their political role of opposition the Democratic Party have been rightfully relegated to redundancy for the next bienium at least. What is nigh is the political equivalent to ‘the end of history’, the era of ‘the end of politics’. Had the Democrats crafted an alternative approach to Iraq, fighting terror, international relations, economic and environmental policies corporate crime and healthcare they may have sparked the apathetic voters deluged with irrelevant nuances and chatter by both parties.

In the end, all we get from politicians are vacuous slogans and sound bites. No political party in the USA actually follows their platform. Can anyone cite or discuss any significant aspects of the Republican 2000 platform Bush ran under except tax cuts? The candidate is the platform.

No one is left wing or right wing. Everyone’s a low-tax, tough on crime centrist. With the creed and values gone from politics there simply is no significant difference between the two parties with the chokehold on the system. It’s an ideological wasteland in politics, with a ‘one idea but two parties’ system. The question is not why people don’t vote, but rather why vote?

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 11/8/2002

All them thar suthu'n Republicans, they's what Dixiecrats used tuh be. Contemporary Republican politics have nationalized the agenda of the post-Reconstruction South, and they'd do away with progress in racial and gender equality if they could--note the tenor of the gubernatorial campaign in Georgia.

I also, on a less sardonic note, don't think personal reminiscence of recent history is all that bad a thing, and to return to the topic of this thread, if as historians we were able to encourage personal engagement with history, we might well engage the young civically as well.

David Richards - 11/8/2002

Mr. Asaf, I'm delighted that you voted and to make such a long trip is commendable. However, you misunderstand American politics. It is traditional - perhaps even expected that there will be conflict over which party or candidate best represents individual as well as national interests(intellectual conflict, I hope). Moreover, history can be used to support arguments for and against a particular view. The fact is that we have had wonderful elected officials that have represented liberal and conservative values(not at the same time!). I'm delighted that the Republican Party has a majority in both houses and time will tell if they use their power well. I would hope that our youth will develop a passion for politics and understand that their choice is important and should be the result of study, education, proper guidance and proper information. Unfortunately some voters lack education, refuse to study, have their facts distorted and end up misguided.

Bill Heuisler - 11/8/2002

Mr. Leckie,
Your muddled response proves my point: hatred confounds.
Everyone sympathizes with the fever-dreams of childhood, but you must get on with your life and face adult reality.
This is a history site. You said you were a Missourian. Whites only drinking fountains existed in your Democrat South. Your Democrat congressional delegation voted unanimously against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Southern Dixiecrats were all Democrats. The Civil Rights act would not have passed without the votes of a majority of those Republicans you hate so much.
Remember J. William Fulbright? George Wallace? Sheriff Bull Connor? All racists,all Democrats, but you held your nose Tuesday and voted the party line just like a ward heeler.
Where are your principles? That youthful indignation?
Cling to the shibboleths of your peculiar creed if you must, but get the history right and drop the phony outrage. Mr. Mintz is probably watching.
Bill Heuisler

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 11/8/2002

Nixon a well-intentioned opponent? This is revisionism with a vengeance or the aid of some hallucinogen. As for regarding opponents as enemies to be demonized, wasn't it Newt who said liberals weren't real Americans? What kind of scurrility and nonsense has poured from the Right since the days of the John Birch Society and whites-only drinking fountains? Was I wrong to poke fun of those boys--them thar Texan patriots--back when I was a kid and my high school civics teacher was calling me part of a Fifth Column for the Reds who would take over a small town Texas phone company building any day now? Was I wrong to think the Right was both malign and more than a little nutty and conflicted, when my jaw hit the floor on a visit to the local 1960 Nixon campaign headquarters, where the son of the worker there, a doctor's wife, in tears screamed at me, embarrasssing her boy past shame, that if JFK were elected president it would mean socialized medicine and "the end of my marriage?" (Whoa! Good conservative, family-values-loving female patriot admits to being a wallet-chaser?) Just four years after vaqueros on the King Ranch were fired for voting for Adlai? In a town with a newspaper that called professors at the local college "pinks?" Where the US Navy sent out young ensigns to warn our neighbors to vote the right way or the communists would take over, violating the ban on military involvement in civilian politics? I mean, forget the later rise of the Chistian Right and that mellow fellow Rush or the chicanery of the crowd at The Spectator. I assure you, I have long and first-hand experience since youth of right-wing nastiness. Am I responding to a message from some alternative universe or what?

Asaf - 11/8/2002

In the last election back in 2000 I left my work and crossed the Atlantic, went early the next morning into my old nieghborhood in Jerusalem and voted against an appeasist and FOR a responsible man. Today I look forward to vote for the big guy again. The reason is simple. I care, Americans for the most part don't. They are constantly told that nothing will change, everyone is bad, one candidate is a crook and the other one is stupid, or that the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. Many good Americans think this is nonsence. They however are a minority.

Bill Heuisler - 11/8/2002

Mr. Leckie,
Your first argument - that the Republican victories will result in Democrat mobilization, solidification of opposition and louder obstructionism - is unfortunately correct.
Since the Vietnam War, modern Dems seem to regard Repubs as enemies rather than well intentioned opponents. Nixon, Bork, Helms, Watt, Reagan, and now W, are treated as evil foes - stupid and malicious - rather than Americans with contrary opinions about the continued prosperity of our beloved country.
You continually use the term "bi-polar" to describe the two-party system. Fine. Bi-polar means containing two contradictory qualities or opinions. Contradiction is good for our United States; malice is destructive. Hatred does not encourage polite colloquy or the participation of voters like Mr. Mintz.
Many Left Wing Dems hate free markets, suburbs, the military, patriotism...and this country's successes. Danny doesn't vote because he is constantly told by Dems and liberal talking heads that the U.S. is wicked, the West is malevolent and that humans in general are ruinous to Mother Earth.
Hell, we're lucky poor Danny doesn't kill himself in despair.
The two party system is the reason this Democracy has lasted two centuries. Parlimentary governments have been distinguished by their instability (excepting Britain which has remained "bi-polar" in spite of their system).
Lastly, disparaging "over the top" partisanship on the HNN site,
you apparently refer to robust opinions held by conservatives who reject mean-spirited, ad hominum attacks disguised as Leftist arguments.
Typical. The Left has always preferred no contradiction at all.
Bill Heuisler

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 11/7/2002

Mr. Richards had best recall the old Chinese curse: May you get what you wish for. If recent history is any guide, GOP control of the house and senate will lead to more changes in Democratic leadership, solidification of opposition, and much louder obstructionism of judges with the "judicial temperament" (for which read ideological purity), and perhaps to greater success in mobilizing the Democratic base in future elections as Republicans overreach, as they so famously have done.

My take is that the recent election results are a consequence of DLC-style Democratic centrists (really conservatives by the standards elsewhere) wimping out. That's partly because our politics has become so highly managed as a (literally) commercial, not a civic enterprise, with both parties striving to minimise turnout to undecideds at the margins. As a Missourian, I held my nose and voted for Carnahan, because her opponent was a character of dubious ethics and a suburbanized critter out of Dickens deceptively portraying himself as a moderate, and I think the public deserved a better, perhaps wider range of choices.

But partisanship in HNN commentaries has gone over the top. Acknowledging this is not a new thought, I'd suggest that there's been a growing, structural obstacle to participation built in since the the Early Republic--the winner-take-all election, which forces bipolar organizations on us. Its much-vaunted contribution to political stability is belied by the "reforms" required by elites to control access and the decline in voter participation that has accompanied them in the past century, and and recourse to that judiciary Mr. Richards is so enthused about in the very recent past. We have the collapse of that bi-polar formation in the 1850s, when those impediments to the franchise did not exist, as the real trump to defense of our two-party system.

Efforts at opening up choices such as the instant runoff can be manipulated (as the GOP did in Louisiana). It's time we took proportional systems seriously.

David Richards - 11/7/2002

Danny - Please don't vote. It might diminish my vote in which I will do my best to empower my party to select judges that have the right constitutional temperment, develop a foreign policy that reflects my values, pass legislation that addresses social issues in a manner that is consistent with my thinking and a host of other legislative issues that are on my political agenda. I suspect the nation will take a different path from the past two years now that the Republican Party controls the Senate and House. Remember the "New Deal", "Great Society" et al were the result of voters.

E.T. Strobridge - 11/7/2002

Bad guess Danny! I would guess that those Americans that choose not to vote are just plain lazy. Too lazy to really study the issues and consequently don't really understand what is going on, who are the enemies to their freedom and generally leave to the next guy (that does vote) to protect their freedoms and best interests. Look at the special interests (Unions, Minority groups, gender groups, the dead and missing and the like) that try to turn out the vote using supporters who dont have the slightest idea why or what they are voting for just as long as someone else tells them what to do. Too much of that Danny, your country needs your input and support and even though an election may not go your way, you will never know, that one vote may have made a difference. I know that I sure do not want someone else making decisions for me, so win,lose or draw I will continue to keep voting every time the oppertunity presents itself. Wish you would reconsider your opinion and excercise your right to vote.

Danny Mintz - 11/6/2002

I haven't done the research, but I'll guess that most Americans don't vote because we know it doesn't matter which party wins.

To take just one current issue, Iraq: Both Bushes have bombed it, but so did Clinton. The current debate in Washington on expanding war into Iraq revolves around whether it will be cost-effective. This is strictly a technical question. Maybe it will be cost-effective; perhaps it won't. But neither party is discussing the morality of mass killing of innocents.