The percentage of eligible voters participating in presidential elections has declined markedly since the 1950s and 1960s, even though the total number of citizens casting votes has increased steadily over the years. This seeming discrepancy is explained by the fact that the number of Americans who are eligible to vote has expanded rapidly while the number who actually register and vote has not kept pace. In looking at the large numbers of people who do not vote, and at evidence that other forms of political participation have languished, many political scientists find reason for concern about the health of the American political system. They argue that Americans have become cynical about politics and distrustful of government, and a few contend that this distrust stems from the failure of political parties to attract and include the large numbers of new voters. These observers warn that such trends could lead to the breakdown of democracy. But other social scientists do not share this pessimism about the condition of American democracy, maintaining that simple reforms in the electoral process could encourage voters to participate in greater numbers. Further, Democrat and Republican partisans have a great deal of confidence in their respective parties’ ability to draw support and votes and to restore Americans’ faith in government.
Lost faith in democracy?
A number of political scientists contend that the high level of nonvoting in the United States is a sign that Americans are losing faith in democracy. Harvard University professor of international affairs Robert D. Putnam agrees, noting that Americans’ participation in all forms of political and civic organizations has fallen off dramatically since the 1950s. He finds that churches, labor unions, fraternal organizations (such as the Shriners, Jaycees, and Elks), volunteer organizations (such as the Red Cross), parent-teacher associations (PTAs), and other such organizations that encourage participation in community affairs have all experienced significant reductions in their memberships. For Putnam, this “is striking evidence . . . that the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined.” Putnam concludes that this erosion of what he calls “social capital”—social affiliations that support citizens’ democratic attitudes—fuels rising distrust of government among Americans, which leads to their withdrawal from politics.
This rising distrust of government, which is consistently expressed in public opinion polls, is a source for concern, according to Seymour Martin Lipset, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, but it does not signal that Americans’ faith in democratic society is in danger. “Most Americans remain highly patriotic and religious [and] believe that they are living in the best society in the world,” he asserts. Rather, Lipset contends, the erosion of voters’ confidence in government is the result of the decline of political parties— their inability to incorporate the large numbers of new voters and to formulate policies addressing citizens’ concerns. In his view, political parties are the primary tools with which citizens choose representatives and influence policies to address social problems. Because fewer voters are identifying themselves as either Democrats or Republicans, the political parties have weakened, undermining government’s ability to respond quickly or effectively to problems identified by Americans, he argues. Lipset maintains that it is this “gridlock” that leads to the decrease of Americans’ trust in their government, which in turn produces the spiraling decline in voting and other forms of political participation.
Getting out the vote
Other political scientists dispute the idea that declining voter participation is a response to the state of American politics and the platforms of political parties. Ruy A. Teixeira, author of The Disappearing American Voter, contends that the increasing cynicism about politics and the distrust of government expressed in public opinion polls have little to do with declining turnout. Instead, he argues, voters are every bit as cynical and distrustful as nonvoters. “Someone who doesn’t trust the government is no less likely to vote than someone who does trust the government,” he asserts. Teixeira maintains that indifference to politics, rather than distrust of government, is the main reason Americans do not vote. He advocates political reforms that he believes would motivate more Americans to vote. Chief among the reforms that he supports is making voter registration easier. The decision not to vote is almost always the result of a decision not to register, he contends, so registering a greater number of citizens would encourage people to vote and raise levels of political participation.
In addition, Democratic and Republican partisans defend their respective parties’ abilities to mobilize voters in support of policies and agendas. Republican activist Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, maintains that the results of the 1994 congressional election—in which a Republican majority gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1944—demonstrate that voters enthusiastically support the Republican party and its legislative agenda. Norquist holds that government intrusion into the lives of citizens—mainly in the forms of taxation and regulation—is the cause of Americans’ distrust in politics and government. He believes that the Republican program of lowering taxes and reducing the size and scope of the federal government will restore voters’ trust in the political process. Speaking for his party, Democratic National Committee pollster Stanley B. Greenberg points out that the 1992 presidential election produced both a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate. Greenberg believes that government actions and programs to protect working and middle-income citizens’ standard of living will restore Americans’ faith in government. With a platform that addresses middle-class economic concerns, he argues, the Democratic party can get voters to the polls in future elections.
Despite partisan enthusiasm, many eligible voters do not bother to cast their ballots. Whether this situation can be (or needs to be) remedied is a continuing topic of debate among politicians and political scientists. At Issue: Voting Behavior explores not only the reasons why some Americans do not vote, but also the factors that influence the decisions of those who do vote.