Why Progressives Wanted Less Democracy and Lower Voter Turnout

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[From “Taking Government Out of Politics: Murray Rothbard on Political and Local Reform during the Progressive Era” by Patrick Newman in the spring 2019 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.]

Political Reform: Expanding Democracy by Restricting Democracy

The increased government intervention during the Progressive Era, beginning during the McKinley (1897–1901) and especially the Roosevelt (1901–1909) administrations, could only take place after a seismic shift in the political realm. When the third party system (1854–1896) of fierce ideological and ethnoreligious conflict devolved into the fourth party system (1896–1932) of bland party similarity, this allowed for increased technocratic and governmental rule. Rothbard attributes this change to the collapse of the laissez-faire contingent of the Democratic Party, namely the liturgical Bourbon Democrats of the Northeast and the Midwest, of which President Grover Cleveland (1885–1889, 1893–1897) was champion. Before, these Democrats had formed a mighty bulwark that helped block many interventions on the state and federal level. President Cleveland and his allies worked to try and defend the gold standard, lower tariffs, and limit government spending such as by blocking increases in Civil War pensions.3 But in the important presidential election of 1896 the Bourbon Democrats, already weakened in the 1894 midterm elections from the aftermath of the harsh Panic of 1893 (for which they were unjustly blamed), were overthrown by the southern and western Populist Democrats. These pietistic and interventionist populists were led by William Jennings Bryan on a holy crusade of silver inflation and socialistic reforms. The modern interventionist Democratic Party was born. The Bourbons either left politics altogether, stayed in weakened positions in the Democratic structure, or joined the Republican Party.

The Republican Party was traditionally more interventionist than the Bourbons and was also the party of Yankee pietism, populated by evangelical Protestants, as opposed to the Democrats who were dominated by liturgical Lutherans and Catholics. Republicans and Democrats had traditionally fought over various social issues, such as prohibition, public schools, and immigration, with Republicans taking the more interventionist and Democrats the more laissez-faire stance. This extended to the economic realm. But with the threat of William Jennings Bryan on the left, the new Republican Party under the newly moderate William McKinley became less pietistic and more center statist. Liturgicals, notably the German Lutherans, left the Democratic Party en masse in 1896 for the Republicans, delivering a crushing victory for McKinley and the Republicans. As Rothbard put it:

In short, the election of 1896 left the United States with a new party system: a centrist and moderately statist Republican Party with a comfortably permanent majority of the country, and a minority Democratic Party roughly confined to the one party South and to Irish-controlled big cities of the Northeast and Midwest, which were nevertheless a minority in those regions. Gone was the sharp conflict of ideology or even of ethnic-religious values; both parties were now moderately statist in different degrees; both parties contained pietists and liturgicals within their ranks. The McKinley Republicans were happy to be known as the “party of prosperity” rather than the “party of great moral ideas.” The familiar lack of clear and genuine ideological choice between two dominant parties so characteristic of modern America was beginning to emerge. Above all, there was no longer a political party, nor a clear-cut constituency, devoted to the traditional American ideology of laissez-faire (Rothbard 2017, 178).

The stage was set for the fourth party system of general Republican dominance, and the Republicans increased their partisan lead in virtually every region except the South and the thinly populated Mountain states. The lack of a viable rival party to the Republicans, the increased intervention and similarity of Republicans and Democrats, and a decline in ethnoreligious issues to rally the masses, led to a drop in voter turnout. For example, from 1840–1896 voter turnout in presidential elections outside of the South was 70–84 percent. In 1896 it was 78.3 percent, but afterwards declined to 59.7 percent in 1916. It has remained at 50–60 percent ever since (Rothbard 2017, 195).4 The stage was set, then, for the Progressive Era and the alliance of big business, big government, and court intellectuals to take over the political and economic system. The new corporate elite and their interventions would stand in the middle-of-the-road between “unworkable” laissez faire capitalism (because it prevented the establishment of monopolies) and extremist socialism (because it led to threatening confiscatory legislation) (Rothbard 2017, 163–97).

But voter turnout did not only decline from a decrease in ethnoreligious emphasis and the perceived similarity between the parties. In fact, there were new political “reforms,” beginning in the 1890s, that had ostensible democratic motivations but were really designed to reduce voter choice, especially among poorer, liturgical voters. They include changes in voter registration, the Australian secret ballot, the short ballot, women’s suffrage, political primaries and referendums, and the direct election of senators. Rothbard planned to devote significant space to these issues in Chapter 10.

Voter registration requirements and other restrictions became prominent during the Progressive Era. These included poll taxes and literacy requirements. They placed additional regulations on voting (such as to disallow alien voting), increased the time it took to become a citizen, and made it more difficult to become one. The ostensible reason was to reduce election fraud and increase transparency, but the real intended effect was to reduce participation of certain minorities, such as ethnic urban immigrants. These immigrants were generally liturgical (i.e., Catholics and Lutherans from southern and eastern Europe), who tended to vote for the Democrats and supported them on social issues (Rothbard 1986, 1:05–07, audio source).5 Nowhere was this restrictionist trend clearer than in the case of the South where restrictive Jim Crow legislation and racial hostility towards blacks caused voter turnout to plummet.6

The progressives openly praised the drop in voter turnout, since it allowed for “better” voting by more “knowledgeable” people and put planners and bureaucrats in greater control. As Thomas Leonard writes:

The progressive economists—or certainly the most outspoken among them—were not egalitarians and never entertained the notion that expertise could work through the people. They were frank elitists who applauded the Progressive Era drop in voter participation and openly advocated voter quality over voter quantity. Fewer voters among the lower classes was not a cost, it was a benefit of reform (Leonard 2016, 52).7

The adoption of the Australian “secret” ballot, beginning in the early 1890s, also fits this trend. Before, the parties themselves, particularly the urban political machines, distributed their own party ballots to make sure their constituents voted. With the Australian system the government provided both the ballot and the slate of candidates from which the different parties’ voters could choose. Again, a noble feature ostensibly enacted in order to increase transparency and reduce voter intimidation, but the real intended effect was twofold. First, it weakened urban party machines, which were mainly Democratic, by reducing their important function of providing ballots and whipping up the masses, educating them, and getting them to vote. Outside of the South this benefited Republicans.8 Second, the government could decide who got on the ballot, which weakened third parties. Once again, voter turnout decreased. The short ballot innovation of the time period also had similar motivations and effects. Before, the people voted on a wide range of government positions. Now, the number of elected positions was reduced (i.e., shortened). This diminished voter participation because people would be less interested in voting since there were less positions to vote on (Rothbard 1986, 1:02–05). In addition, as will be explained in more depth below, it was part of the general movement to take various elected positions out of politics because the “ignorant” masses did not know how to vote on certain issues, and protect the entrenched bureaucrats in those positions. Let the experts decide instead of the hoi polloi.

Admittedly, there was one significant area where the electorate was actually broadened. This was the women’s suffrage movement, which culminated in the nineteenth amendment that passed in 1920. This movement had been building since the 1880s on the state level and was a drive sponsored by moralists because pietist Yankee women were more likely to vote than their ethnic female counterparts. Progressives eagerly continued this trend in the early twentieth century because women were also more likely to vote for interventionist policies and candidates. Once again, the progressives were concerned more about improving the quality of the electorate rather than the quantity per se (Rothbard 2017, 156–62).

When discussing the political interventions designed to reduce voter turnout, it is important to note that Rothbard always emphasized that the major reason for the decline in voter turnout during the fourth party system was not the registration requirements. Instead, it was the reduced emphasis on ideology and increasing similarity between the parties. Voter turnout actually increased in the thinly populated western Mountain states from the increased competitiveness between the populist Democrats and Republicans in the region, and voter registration restrictions generally applied only to urban voters, while turnout declined in both urban and rural areas (Rothbard 2017, 191, 194).

There were other examples of election reform that had different effects than traditionally assumed, effects which helped contribute to the decline in political ideology discussed above. These included the direct referendum, compulsory political primaries, and the direct election of senators (the latter fulfilled in the seventeenth amendment in 1913). All of these were deemed necessary to increase voter participation and the range of issues and candidates the public could “directly” control. In reality, the real motivation was to weaken political parties and centralize power in the federal government. When state legislatures and state parties chose presidential nominees, senators, and decided on platforms, it increased the power of the decentralized political party branches and state governments. This acted as a bulwark against federal centralization and increased government intervention. In this system the political parties and their local organizations were important and meaningful, they collected similar positions on issues to produce a coherent and salient ideology, an ideology that instilled in the public a desire to join a political party and be active in it.9 Now, since candidates could directly run for positions and the people directly vote on certain issues, the decision making function of the political party was circumvented and hence weakened. Now anyone could run based on their public relations and charisma, disassociated from the party’s ideology, and this helped turned politics into a bland popularity contest with little difference between both candidates and parties. Combined with the contemporary enthusiasm for statism, this was a disaster for any system of limited government (Rothbard 1986, 1:07–09). To quote Rothbard on the new dispensation:

For the new non-ideological party system and demobilized electorate meant also that the political party itself became far less important in deciding government policy. And, along with the parties, their constituencies—the voting public—became less important in influencing government actions. This decline of the political party as well as its voting constituency left a power vacuum which… the new order of experts, technocrats, and organized economic pressure groups rushed to fill. The dominance of the new elites alienated still more citizens and swelled the ranks of non-voters. The way was paved for the Progressive period (Rothbard 2017, 196).10

  • 3. For more on the battle over Civil War pensions to Union veterans, see Rothbard (2019).
  • 4. For a recent work summarizing the research on the decline in voter turnout in American politics, see Burnham (2010). In contrast to other political scientists, Burnham argues that the decline in turnout was real and not due to a drop in voter fraud, which was relatively insignificant.
  • 5. This clearly went hand in hand with the movement to restrict immigration and introduce quotas during this period (Rothbard 2017, 151–56, 190).
  • 6. Whereas voter registration requirements in the big cities was generally at the behest of rural pietist Republicans, in the South it was due to Democrats who wanted to disenfranchise blacks. Despite voter turnout plummeting in the South, the Democrats actually increased their partisan lead there while it fell in other regions (Rothbard, 2017, 40, 193–94). On the staunch racism of southern Democrats, see Bartlett (2008, 61–92). For the populists’ racism, which has generally been downplayed, see Postel (2007, 173–203).
  • 7. For a review of this very important work, see Newman (2017).
  • 8. In the South the government ballots were obtusely written so blacks could not read them. This helped the Democrats (Burnham 1970; Kousser 1974; Kleppner 1978, 465).
  • 9. The standard myth of late-nineteenth century politics was that the party bosses in smoke-filled rooms chose presidential candidates against the wishes of the voters. For a recent work that challenges this myth and argues that party bosses often opposed the eventual presidential nominee, see Haynes (2016).
  • 10. On the seventeenth amendment weakening decentralized state control, see DiLorenzo (2008, 151–59) and Napolitano (2012, 75–92).

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