Partisan Passion Drives High Voter Turnout
On two propositions
most good-hearted civic-minded people agree: It is good to have
centrist politics, and it is good to have high turnout in elections.
But what if it should turn out that the two are in fundamental
is what political history, here and abroad, suggests. Consider
the 2004 election in the United States. George W. Bush, his opponents
contended, with some justice, governed as anything but a centrist.
Installed in office with a bare majority of the Electoral College,
he pushed successfully for massive tax cuts, for conservative
positions on cultural issues, for military action not only in
Afghanistan, but in Iraq. You can make an argument that Bush has
governed as a centrist, but it is not an argument that is widely
As for his
opponents, the Democrats in 2004 emitted rhetoric that was extravagant
in its denunciations of Bush and all his works. The Democratic
candidate who set the tone in the primary, Howard Dean, has told
us that "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for."
polarized politics, far from deterring Americans from going to
the polls, produced huge voter turnout. 2004 total turnout was
up 16 percent from 2000; John Kerry's vote total was up 16 percent
from Al Gore's; George W. Bush's vote total was up 23 percent
from what it was four years before. Rarely in American history
has turnout risen like this between two presidential elections.
Non-centrist politics, whatever else you may say against it, brought
voters to the polls.
this with the British election that will be held May 5. There,
the government is in the hands of Tony Blair's New Labor Party,
a self-consciously centrist operation if there has ever been one.
over as leader of his party in 1994, Blair has jettisoned Old
Labor's policies of nationalization and government superintendence
of the economy (one of Labor's first actions was to free the Bank
of England from government control). Little effort has been made
to roll back the privatizations and reforms of Margaret Thatcher's
Tory government. Spending and tax increases have been, by the
standards of Labor Party history, modest.
centrism has not produced increased turnout. The popular vote
for the Labor Party in the 2001 election declined from 1997. Labor
Party strategists this year identify as their main problem low
turnout from core Labor voters. Their Conservative opponents have
taken care to promise relatively small cuts in government spending
-- a Conservative MP who promised more was ruthlessly dropped
from the ballot. Yet the Conservatives, too, worry, with reason,
about low turnout.
the American election of 1996. Bill Clinton governed, mostly,
as a centrist, especially after Republicans won control of Congress
in 1996. His Republican opponent, Bob Dole, took pains to distinguish
himself from the Gingrich revolutionaries in Congress. Yet overall
turnout dropped from 1992 to 1996. It dropped even more as a percentage
of eligible voters going to the polls.
All of this
is not out of line with historical experience. Surges in turnout
occur not when parties hug the center, but when they strike out
to the extremes. William Jennings Bryan's populism produced a
spike in turnout in 1896, as did Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal
Look at record
turnout years, and you will see voters motivated more by something
like hate than something like love. The highest turnout as a percentage
of eligible voters in the United States since 1908 came in 1960,
when very many voters went to the polls determined to keep a Catholic
out of office and very many went there determined to put one in
-- the same impulses that produced the religious wars of the Reformation
Or look back
at the huge turnout of eligible voters in the years after the
Civil War. These were the years when Republicans were accused
of "waving the bloody shirt" and Democrats were accused
of disloyalty to the nation. Politicians were in effect refighting
a civil war that cost 600,000 lives in a nation of 38 million.
is that you cannot have all good things at once. Enthusiasm in
politics usually contains a large element of hatred. You could
see it in 2004 in the rants against George W. Bush and in the
surges in turnout in central cities and university towns. You
could see it as well in the surges in Republican turnout in exurban
and rural counties, surges produced partly by affection for Bush
but also by a hatred of cultural liberalism and moral relativism.
is produced usually by fighting faiths, not by mollifying centrism.
Copyright 2005 US News & World Report
Distributed by Creators Syndicate
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