Segment from Pulling the Curtain

Listener Calls

The American Backstory hosts take three calls from listeners.

View Transcript

PETER: All right, guys. We got a call from Durham, North Carolina. It’s Dan.

DAN: Hey, how’s it going?

PETER: Well, pretty good. How about with you?

DAN: Excellent. I was wondering, through American history, what has voter turnout been like? I know that always ends up being a big deal in elections. I think right now, it hovers somewhere around 50%. But I wondered historically what has voter turnout been like and what kind of factors have influenced it?

ED: Well, I’m gonna jump right in here because I speak for the time of the 19th century when voting turnout was at its all-time peak. So this is Ed, the 19th-century guy.

PETER: Almost communistic levels from Eastern Europe.

BRIAN: That’s ’cause some of Ed’s voters turned out more than once, as it turned out.

ED: They rose from the grave sometimes. But we do have a sort of a paradox that in the 1880s and 1890s, the time that fifth graders would have the hardest time naming the list of presidents in a row, sometime between Reconstruction and Teddy Roosevelt–

BRIAN: And not just fifth graders, Ed.

ED: Yeah. Well, I just didn’t want to pick on them. But I thought maybe there weren’t as many fifth graders listening to the show, and I wouldn’t offend anybody else. But sort of an obscure time in American politics, where it doesn’t seem like anything happened. We weren’t at war. The issues we look back on now, what were the big deals? The tariff? Whatever.

And yet you were having over 90%, 95% of people voting sometimes.

PETER: Hey, the tariff is important. Come on.

ED: Oh, I’m sorry. You know, that was just a gratuitous swipe.

PETER: It was! I take the tariff very seriously.

ED: So I take that all back. But my general point being is that this is not a time when less enlightened people than Peter understand really what was at issue.

PETER: Yes. So Ed, why was it so much fun to vote back then?

ED: Yeah, it was all fun ’cause it was like a big frat party because there was a lot of drinking. It was all guys. It was basically like making teams. And you’ve have these contests– who could make the coolest flags and uniforms and all these different kinds of public–

BRIAN: Yeah, and Ed, if I could just add– also, those teams were really evenly matched.

ED: Yeah.

BRIAN: So turnout– it’s like good football. People show up at a football game that they think is going to be close.

ED: Yeah. And it’s like they were giving away free items at every football game, too, that was really close.

BRIAN: Bobbleheads. Bobbleheads.

ED: Exactly. But this time, you were getting jobs or turkeys or hams or things like that. And then we think of the Progressive Era, which is all about direct democracy and direct election of senators.

BRIAN: Good government.

ED: Yeah. And what happens is it begins to kill off voting pretty precipitously. So I’d want to throw the ball to Brian to say, why the heck did the secret ballot and increased literacy and women’s suffrage, why has it actually not helped voter turnout?

BRIAN: Well, Ed, I think the government’s doing less that people felt directly and immediately and concretely affected their lives. So let’s take something like the kind of people who worked in government. Those machines that you talked about and that high turnout produced lots of patronage jobs, lots of jobs that were handed out as a direct result of being connected with a political party. And that meant someone in your family might well get a job as a result of it.

Well, that got replaced by civil service jobs, where people took tests and were hired based on merit. So there was much less of a direct connection between turning out to vote and getting a job. And here’s one of the great ironies of American history– people didn’t see the connections between voting and how it would change their lives, even as the national government especially started making all kinds of decisions that influenced people’s lives much more– literally war and peace, if you count World War I, World War II, et cetera.

DAN: That’s very interesting.

BRIAN: Yeah. Now, I will say, Dan, that voting took an uptick. Ed took us, really, to the 1920s, the end of that Progressive Era. That 1920s were the low point in voter turnout. The New Deal saw a surge in voting turnout, not up to the levels of Ed’s days, but a surge compared to the ’20s. And there was another uptick in the Kennedy-Nixon election in ’60. And very recently, it looks like there is yet another uptick in voting.

But again, Ed’s absolutely right, much as I hate to agree with him. None of this compares to the levels at which people were turning out in the late 19th century.

DAN: Right. Well, thanks a lot.

PETER: All right.

BRIAN: Yeah.

ED: Great question. Thanks.

BRIAN: Thank you.

PETER: Dan, thank you so much for calling. That was terrific.


ED: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory. We’re talking to listeners about the history of voting and elections in America.

PETER: Hey, guys. Rally around. We got a call from the great southwest– that would be southwest Virginia, in Grayson County. And we have Ken on the line. Ken, welcome to BackStory.

KEN: Thank you.


KEN: When I was in college many years ago, I agreed to campaign for candidates outside the polling places on two different November election days. And I remember standing out in the cold all day. And aside from that, I learned my lesson that it wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable experience. And voters weren’t exactly crazy to see a pollster standing outside to greet them.

So I’m just wondering, has there been any discernible change in how volunteers have campaigned for their candidates over the last 200-plus years of American elections?

PETER: Well, we’re gonna answer this one, Ken. But what we want to know is why you came out the second time.

KEN: Peer pressure.

PETER: Peer pressure, OK.

KEN: What can I say?

PETER: Peer pressure. Nice segue here. There used to be a lot of joy in politics. And the joyful noises still echo down through the centuries. They come from the 19th century. Ed, it’s all yours.

ED: Peter, we had so much fun with politics back in the 19th century. It did lead to civil war. But other than that, it was a blast. And from the very beginning of the great system where the Whigs and Democrats went against each other tooth and claw, the whole idea was to mobilize as many men as possible. And to do that, one of the best ways to do it was to get volunteers out there to rouse their buddies from their barstools or from their farms and get to the polls.

And over the course of the 19th century, they just got better and better at that. The Republicans have the Wide Awakes. They’re really young guys dressed up in fancy outfits and carrying torches before the Civil War. The Democrats go into the cities with the ward heelers and making sure that everybody turns up. And as a result, by the 1890s, you’re getting over 100% voter turnout.

PETER: Over 100%.

ED: Not because of fraud but because these volunteers are finding more voters than there were people found by the census takers. So that’s just how great volunteering was in the 19th century.

BRIAN: Yeah, now Ken, I want to make a case for the 20th century. And I hate to do it.

PETER: He should have been having fun. Is that what you’re saying?

BRIAN: I hate to do it by going negative on my good friend, Ed Ayers, and the 19th century.

ED: Oh, no.

BRIAN: But there’s a dirty little secret that he’s not dwelling on here. And that’s that a lot of that excitement in the 19th century and a lot of that fun was because there were tangible, concrete, material rewards at the end of the election.

ED: Heck yeah!

BRIAN: Yeah, exactly.

PETER: That’s a contradiction?

BRIAN: Yes, it is because Ken wants to know about volunteering in a pure sense, people doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Right, Ken?

KEN: Right, altruism all the way.

BRIAN: Exactly.

ED: Yeah, we didn’t have that.

BRIAN: Is that right. So it’s really in the 1960s– most political pundits date it to the Kennedy-Nixon election in 1960, when that charismatic, young John F. Kennedy turns out thousands, tens of thousands of well-meaning, altruistic young people volunteering for the Kennedy campaign. And a lot of people say that’s what put Kennedy over Humphrey, and that’s what put Kennedy over Nixon. And that’s how we got the Peace Corps, a federal program appealing to that idealism.

ED: Don’t, Brian! There are lots of wonderful people in your century.

BRIAN: Really? I haven’t met that many, actually.

PETER: We spent much of our lives in your century. And so we know what we’re talking about. But I think there’s a big difference between fun in the 19th century and these outbursts– very occasional– of youthful idealism. In Ed’s century, when you were at the polls– Ken, if you were at the polls then, if you could flash back, you would know the people you were dealing with. There would be that familiarity. On the other hand, they get themselves all worked up. It’s the best of both worlds. Now we do get ourselves all worked up, but we’ve lost some of the local community familiarity.

BRIAN: And networks. And networks.

PETER: Yeah, I think that’s right.

BRIAN: Family networks, community networks.

PETER: Yeah. And I think the thing is that you felt connected, for instance, to Andrew Jackson through a series of people in the party structure. I think you could explain the Tea Party phenomenon now as trying to recover some of that sense of engagement at the ground level, at the grass roots, in the absence of meaningful party structures that link you to the top.

ED: Yeah, I think that we’re taking our own medicine on this, Ken, because we dream of an idealistic, somewhat disembodied, highly self-aware political system. And what we get is volunteers feeling like, what the heck am I doing standing out here?

PETER: Yeah, exactly.

ED: Right? And what the heck are people doing undecided two whole weeks before the election, right? So in many ways, we’ve gotten what we wished for.


BRIAN: Have you gotten what you wished for, Ken?

KEN: Oh, absolutely.

PETER: Oh, man. Keep calling, then.

KEN: Yeah, will do. This has been a blast. Thanks.

PETER: All right. Thank you very much.

BRIAN: Thanks a lot.

KEN: All right. Thank you guys.

ED: Bye-bye.


KEN: Bye.


PETER: Hey, guys, get ready for another phone call. We got Keith from Northville, Michigan. Keith, welcome to BackStory.

KEITH: Hi, guys. How are you?

ED: Good.

BRIAN: We’re excellent. Good.

KEITH: Good. I know your topic today is voting, which has sometimes included cheating. So here’s my question– the white only property owner voter was cheating in our view today in that a system denied other Americans their natural rights. But representation also included non-voters. How did the non-voters feel about this, say, in the 18th century? Where they insulted to the point of petition? Or are they more inspired to become property owners if they were white?

PETER: Well, that’s a terrific question, and it reflects the kind of question that we do have when we ask historians about the past. That is, how would I do back then and how would I think about this? Now, the key term that you used is natural rights. That is, we now know that we’re just as good as everybody else. And we think of ourselves all as having rights. Now, what does that mean? It means that we’re independent. We have a will of our own, and we should be able to express it. And no government is legitimate that doesn’t build on the consent of people like us.

Well, that’s not true in the 18th century. And what you have to understand is that when Jefferson says, all men are created equal, that’s not the common sense of the thing. In fact, all men are created unequal. There are some who own, and some who are owned, to use the most extreme case. But the large majority of the population, even if it’s not enslaved or in some form of servitude, is dependent– that is, lacks an independent will and, therefore, a civic voice.

Nobody on the outside– or very few people, I should say– would feel that there was anything unnatural or wrong about that. For instance, if you were a child, a wife, a mother, a member of a family, you would think that your husband, father, the householder, patriarch, he’s the one who should represent the family in public life. So clearly, Keith, the thrust of the question is that this is not going to last forever. People are going to start questioning those boundaries.

KEITH: Right.

PETER: Yeah.

KEITH: Especially with the Constitution out there at one point and Bill of Rights.

PETER: Yeah. Yeah, except the Constitution left voting requirements to the separate states, which is significant.

ED: And so it was actually decades, really, before any kind of strong movement began to expand the franchise.

PETER: Oh, yeah.

ED: Well, what caused it to change then? This is what, Jacksonian democracy, right? We all learn about that in school. We hear about that and think, well, why did we have to reinvent democracy if we’d only wrote the Constitution 30, 40 years earlier?

PETER: Yeah, that’s a great question, Ed. That is, why don’t they read the Declaration of Independence and say, aha, we have to have universal voting? And I think that really the best answer– it’s going to seem evasive to you– but the best answer is that the society itself has to change in fundamental ways so that a notion of the equality of all adults– including, women of course. That takes a long time– that’s not something that would naturally be deduced from the kind of world that the revolutionaries lived in. They lived in a world of families. They lived in a world in which there weren’t a lot of equals.

BRIAN: So Peter, might you also be suggesting that some of the institutions that grow out of an earlier worldview in society have a real staying power, even as society is changing?

PETER: Yeah. Absolutely right. You could say that we had a kind of a deal. Take this notion of the independent, property-holding householder who gets to vote. Well, the deal is everybody gets to be like an independent householder in the political realm. That’s part of the deal. The rest of the deal is property’s going to be protected. But property and property rights, of course, are the basis of inequality in America and everywhere else. So think about it. We got an equal and unequal society. And those two ideas are in constant tension.

BRIAN: But really what you’re saying, Peter, is that they were in less tension originally. And property was unequally divided.

PETER: I think that’s right.

BRIAN: And votes were unequally divided.

PETER: Yeah. And that was a stable synthesis that lasted for a long time in Colonial America.

BRIAN: Yeah. And I just wanted to ask Keith why he’d be interested in these dispossessed folks from so long ago?

KEITH: This is a really crucial point, I think, because I’m a schoolteacher. And I think the way that a lot of the textbooks frame this time in history, a lot of it’s on the emphasis of the freedoms. You think about people dying for freedom is the way that’s often portrayed in the Revolutionary War. It sounds more like they’re dying for, maybe, property rights. And a lot of it was based on the money and that taxation issue.

PETER: Oh, Keith, what a vulgar conclusion to reach. I didn’t say that. People might die for family. What do you think about that?


PETER: They might die for their community. I don’t think these people are better or worse than we are. They live in a different world. But what I am saying is that the modern idea of equality, which we take for granted, was just not generally embraced at this period.

ED: I guess the argument would be, wouldn’t it, if we wanted to take the positive view, is that the founding documents created the context into which America grew, right? And you see a slow but steady march of enfranchisement to first all white men and then eventually to women and then, finally, after a long time, to all people regardless of skin color.

PETER: Well, Ed, that is the conventional narrative. And there’s a lot to be said for it. I just go back one step further. The first equality is the equality that provincial elites claim in the British empire for their corporate entities, for their provinces. The next kind of equality that’s really important in American history is the equality of states under the Articles of Confederation. That survives in the Constitution. You want to talk about anachronistic, archaic survivals, it’s state equality in the Senate.

BRIAN: And we could toss out another one, which is the electoral college, if you want to talk about–

PETER: We could. We could.

BRIAN: –anachronisms. I

PETER: Yeah. But I guess my point here would be, take an idea like equality. One of the reasons it has so much potential for change is that it migrates from one domain to another, from a corporate entity to an individual. That’s the story that we’re telling.

KEITH: Right.

PETER: Well, thank you so much for the great question.

KEITH: Sure, thanks.

BRIAN: Thanks very much.

KEITH: Thank you. Bye-bye.