Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Virtuous voting

By Claude Fischer


As the 2012 campaigns start to accelerate, they strive to motivate their supporters – to get them off their passive posteriors, get them to talk up the party candidates, and at least get them to vote. Political scientists and political practitioners have learned that American elections, with their abysmal turnouts, are typically won not by the side that does the best job of changing people’s minds, but by the side that does the best job of getting out its vote.

The problem of mobilizing one’s partisans raises a long-standing puzzle, the political scientists’ old chestnut: Why should anyone bother to vote, given that the chances of his or her single vote changing an election and that election in turn significantly changing the voter’s life is virtually zero?

Washington portrait

The Founding Fathers stressed Civic Virtue — citizens of a Republic must put the common interest ahead of their own. George Washington’s return to public service as president serves as the classic example. Because the Fathers assumed that only men of property could be sufficiently educated, be sufficiently motivated by the public good rather than by private gain, and, unlike women, servants, apprentices, tenants, etc., be sufficiently independent to make their own choices, then only such men could attain Civic Virtue and therefore only such men should vote. Alas, they found out that even gentlemen often had corrupt interests, enough to corrupt voters.

An irony of our age is that, in effect, we expect everyone to exemplify Civic Virtue.

Noble voting

In an earlier post, I reviewed the ups and downs of voting turnout in America since about 1800. While much of that fluctuation resulted from cycles of widening and narrowing access to the ballot, much also reflected the extent to which voters had material self-interests at stake, such as patronage jobs, trading a vote for money, or tapping a keg on election day. “Good Government” reformers took much of the spoils out of voting by the early 1900s and voting turnout plunged. These “Goo-Goos,” as political scientists sarcastically termed them, had noble motives – they, too, appealed to Civic Virtue – but they also very much wanted to blunt the power of immigrants and the urban political machines that turned out the working class at the polls.

Much of the political conflict before and after the Revolution, which intensified as Andrew Jackson’s politics of the common man took hold, can be understood as mobilized workingmen’s insolence — their assertion that gentlemen, claims of Civic Virtue piety notwithstanding, were as self-interested as anyone (even Washington, at least in his campaigns of 1758 and 1761). If even the elites were self-interested, then average folk need give them no deference nor their claims to be stewards of the common good. And no shame ensued in demanding more jobs, cheaper credit, or larger army pensions. When 20th century political campaigns promise a “chicken in every pot,” lower gasoline prices, or a middle-class tax cut, they are baldly appealing to self-interest rather than Civic Virtue.

Yet the commentariat clucks and many of us worry about this. Much of the interest in a book such as Putnam’s Bowling Alone flows from the belief that we have lost a Civic Virtue we once had — the belief that people do not cast principled votes as they “used to”; that when they vote they don’t look to the common good as they “used to,” but to their own good. Such tsk-tsking is more nostalgia than history.

More striking to me is what seems to be an escalation in our expectations of voters: the notion that, even if we often fall short, all of us — men and women, white and non-, educated and un-, young and old, propertied and not — are expected to approach voting as an exercise of disinterested Civic Virtue.

And then we are disappointed.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.