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The Return of American Democracy

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We don’t really live in a democracy.

For generations, normal American politics has meant boring, rigged, low turnout elections, voter apathy and two parties dominated by the professional class and the mainstream media. Politics became a stage managed show on television that was carefully channeled toward legitimizing whatever the ruling class wanted to do. College educated voters are much more likely to vote than working class voters. It wasn’t always like this though before “our democracy” was created in the early 20th century.


“Imagine a 2020 every four years, for 40 years.

Or consider living in an age when, instead of individual incidents of political violence, the news contained so many outrages that the papers could barely list them all: Black voters murdered during Reconstruction, organized labor crushed with brute force, urban machines warring like gangs, regular “knockdowns” and “awlings” — when campaigners actually stabbed people with awls to keep them from voting for the opposition. Literally thousands of people died in political warfare. These were the years, after all, that saw three of the four presidential assassinations in American history. …

The result was a carnival of public, partisan, passionate politics. Although today we wince when we see men with torches marching in the night, this was how nearly every campaign hyped up voters in preelection rallies from the 1860s through the 1890s. Citizens grew used to watching thousands of torch-waving, uniformed young partisans streaming through their towns and cities, surrounded by crowds of cheering, jeering, fighting, flirting onlookers. This style predominated nationwide, burning the brightest in swing districts, big cities, the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest—basically wherever the political fight was hottest. And each successive campaign upped the ante, turning out banners and broadsides, whiskey and lager, barbecues and clambakes, brickbats and revolvers. …

Such public, partisan campaigns fired up the nation’s passions. Thousands of newspapers stoked a steam-punk outrage machine, cranking out verbose insults and sarcastic accusations. There was no assumption of objectivity — fewer than 5 percent of papers identified as “independent” — keeping most readers locked in their partisan bubbles. Such heated emotions drove what one unimpressed political scientist called “government by indignation.”

“The law of everything,” explained Conkling, the U.S. senator in love with the new doctrine of survival of the fittest, “is competition.” …

It was no longer polite to talk politics at the dinner table. Tribal partisanship withered, until by midcentury, political scientists noticed that voters really couldn’t distinguish between the two parties. And people restrained the raucous energies politics had once unleashed. Political violence declined. In the late 1800s, one congressman was murdered every seven years, on average; in the 20th century, it was one every 25.

This is the origin story of “normal” politics — the style that has been under “unprecedented” assault over the past few years. …”

New York Times:

“Over the years, politics alienated widening circles. On the right, America’s old aristocrats — like the revered Boston historian Francis Parkman — hissed that the very idea of majority rule was a scheme to steal power from “superior to inferior types of men.” On the left, populists and socialists denounced political machines that had hoodwinked working-class voters. These populations would never agree on what should come next but had a consensus on what had to end.

After 1890 or so, a new alliance began working toward the secret cause of making politics so dry and quiet that fewer of those “inferior types” wanted to participate, often explicitly viewing mass turnout as harmful. Many cities, scarred by the rising labor movement, banned public rallies without permits, hoping to shove public political expressions back into “the private home,” as the Republican National Convention chairman put it. They closed saloons on Election Day, shuttering those key working-class political hubs. And they replaced public ballot boxes with private voting booths, turning polling places from vibrant, violent gatherings into a confessional box.

Though each change felt small, taken together, they amounted to a revolution in political labor. Campaign work once done in the streets by many ordinary volunteers was now done in private by a few paid professionals.

What came next was predictable. Voter turnout crashed by nearly a third in presidential elections from the 1890s through the 1920s, falling from roughly 80 percent to under 50 percent. Voting decreased most among working-class, young, immigrant and Black citizens (even in Northern states where African Americans maintained the ability to vote). For the first time, wealth and education correlated with turnout. To this day, class remains the largest determiner of participation, above race or age. …

Political objects can tell the story of this change. From 1860 to 1900, parties held torch-lit midnight marches to rally the faithful. In 1900, after a sweltering Republican convention in Philadelphia where participants wore straw hats, the jaunty boater became the new icon of a cooler approach to politics. A glance at political cartoons from 1920 or 1960 or even 2000 finds caricatures still wearing boaters — a style far removed from the torch-lit democracy of the 1800s. …”

After World War II, layer after layer of new norms were added to this edifice. Most of the -isms and -phobias we take for granted today were invented in this period which pathologized what used to be conventional opinions. Disciplinary organizations were created which worked with “journalists” to identify, shame and isolate “extremists” who were cast out of the “mainstream” (the spectrum of acceptable elite opinion) which was also invented in the mid-20th century.


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