U.S. Voter Turnout (And Registration) In Comparative Perspective
As is too often the case, Election Day last week was marred by stories of voter suppression and difficulties, from voter roll purges, to long lines and machine malfunctions at polling stations. Despite these disturbing situations, many of which were either avoidable or deliberate, around 100 million Americans turned out to vote for the first time in a midterm election.
This is heartening to be sure, but even with this landmark, only about half of eligible voters showed up to the polls. In a very real sense, everyone who turned out voted for two people. And this was not a random sample. Voters tend to be disproportionately white, older, better-educated, and higher income than their eligible, non-voting counterparts. The story of any U.S. election, particularly a midterm election, is as much about who didn’t vote as who did, although the question of how outcomes would change if non-voters showed up is not as clear-cut as is sometimes assumed (e.g., Leighley and Nagler 2014).
In any democratic election, there will always be people who do not exercise their franchise, for a wide variety of individual and institutional reasons. Voting behavior is complicated. There is, however, something not quite consistent about having a (possibly) record turnout midterm election in which half of eligible voters stay home. Those of us with a comparative research inclination might wonder if this is the case in other developed democracies.
Can American Democracy Survive?
Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and principal author of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web, an extra-curricular resource for teachers. He also edited the journal Uncaptive Minds from 1988 to 1998.
“Which world is ‘natural’? That which existed before or the world of war?
Both are natural if both are within the realm of one’s experience.”
- Czesław Miłosz The Captive Mind, 1953
It was a political eternity ago.
In 2016, several political commentators (myself included) warned about the potential consequences of electing a presidential candidate who relied on authoritarian tactics and appeals — mass rallies of adoring crowds, nationalist slogans, race-based electoral strategies, and promises of strong leadership and repressive policies to solve the country’s problems. As the popularity of that candidate, Donald Trump, rose, there was serious alarm that America’s citizenry might choose an outcome damaging to American democracy and world security.*
Trump’s victory, determined by a close and unpopular outcome, was greeted with both shock and acceptance. According to tradition, it was the only possible reaction. The serving president from the opposition party welcomed Trump to the Oval Office, signaling a peaceful transition to power. The editorial boards of America’s newspapers, nearly all of which had advocated Trump’s defeat, now appealed to readers to accept the electorate's decision. That the “will of the people” in a presidential election was so distorted by its antique Electoral College system — with the “winner” losing by nearly 3 million votes in the national tally — had no bearing on the matter. Nor the fact that the republic’s Founders had established this unusual system to protect against the people selecting an inexperienced, unfit demagogue to national office. Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017.
The Casual Cruelty Of Privilege
Our week began with yet another profoundly disturbing chapter in the Trump Administration’s treatment of immigrant and refugee children. The New York Times reports that hundreds of underage Latino youth are being taken under the cover of darkness from their foster homes and shelters across the country and shipped off to a “tent city” in Texas near our southern border. These children will no longer be able to attend school, their access to legal services to pursue their immigration claims will be dramatically reduced, and their new settingswill not be licensed and monitored by the state child welfare authorities who ensure the safety and education of children who have been separated from their families.
The justification for these nighttime evacuations is that the government has run out of space in appropriate facilities. There is no choice, we are told, but to subject these children to the trauma of being torn, yet again, from places where they enjoyed some minimal level of normalcy and being taken to (what must be properly called) an internment camp. Yet the current crisis is not a result of increased immigration – since the numbers of those crossing the border have remained steady – but the predictable consequence of the Trump’s Administration’s draconian immigration policies. These policies have reduced the willingness of relatives to come forward for fear of their own deportation, thus lengthening the time it takes to place these youth with caregivers. The Trump administration apparently anticipated the consequences of these policies, yet made no preparation to deal with them.
This latest episode comes at the same time that hundreds of Latino children, who were forcibly taken from their parents by the Trump administration earlier this year, still remain separated from them months after a court ordered deadline for reunification. In most of these cases, the Trump Administration has deported parents, while keeping their children; it now claims that it cannot locate the parents. Children were taken from parents seeking asylum without any thought, much less a plan, on how, when and under what circumstances they would be reunited.
In Memoriam: Eugenia Kemble
It is with great sorrow that we report the death of Eugenia Kemble, the founding executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, after a long battle with fallopian tube cancer. “Genie” Kemble helped to conceive of and launch the institute in 1998, with the support of the late Sandy Feldman, then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Endowed by the AFT and named in honor of the AFT’s iconic former president, the Albert Shanker Institute was established as a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding research reports and fostering candid exchanges on policy options related to the issues of public education, labor, and democracy.
A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the University of Manila, Genie entered the teacher union movement as part of a cohort of young Socialist Party activists who were close to Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. She began her career in 1967 as a reporter for the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the AFT’s New York City local, and became a top aide to then UFT president Albert Shanker. She was a first-hand witness to the turbulent era during which Shanker served as UFT president, including the UFT strike for More Effective Schools in 1967, the harrowing Ocean Hill Brownsville strike over teachers’ due process rights in 1968, the remarkable UFT election victory to represent paraprofessionals in 1969, and the masterful bailout of a faltering New York City government through the loan of teacher pension funds in the mid-1970s.
Let's Not Forget About Dreamers
March has arrived, and there is still no action on DACA. Around 800,000 people remain in limbo, those who voluntarily registered under the provisions of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Let me repeat: 800,000 people are at risk – people who grew up in this country as Americans, people who might very well be your friends, colleagues, students, classmates, and neighbors and you might not even know. They have had moments of hope and promise taken from them repeatedly. From one moment to the next, their lives change on a political whim.
Since before President Trump took office, there have been promises of bipartisan legislation. Under the Trump administration, there have been debates and stalemates, budget fights and threats of government shutdowns, and yet nothing has been done. DACA’s Dreamers have been used as leveraging tools in an attempt to secure money for “the wall” along the Mexican border and stricter immigration laws. They are being treated as bargaining chips and not as human beings. It is time for a clean “Dream Act”. The time for pointing fingers is over. How much longer do Dreamers have to wait in uncertainty, fearing that their lives may change every time there is a new U.S. president?
When the program was rescinded in September 2017, Attorney General Sessions said the following: “The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences. It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens” (Full speech here). This was misleading on many levels.
For A More Just And Prosperous America
Our guest author today is Michael Maccoby, an expert in leadership. His most recent books are The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow and Strategic Intelligence. He is a member of the boards of the National Coalition on Health Care and the Albert Shanker Institute.
It can be argued that President Donald Trump’s marketing skills accounted for a large part of his electoral success. He fashioned an ideology embracing right-wing values and a vision that connected with his supporters’ anger, fear, resentment and hope. In contrast to Trump’s message, which was weak on facts and policies but strong on emotional appeal, Hillary Clinton’s was strong on facts and policies, but weak on vision and emotional appeal. Although she ended up with the larger popular vote, Clinton failed to connect with key voters in the Midwestern states that gave Trump his electoral college victory.
Recent polls report 31 percent of voters identify themselves as Democrats, 24 percent as Republicans, and 42 percent as Independents. By appealing to Independents as well as Democratic voters in this year’s congressional election, Democrats might be able to take a large step toward bringing this country closer together. Given the recent negative messages of the Republican Party, Independents could be especially likely to vote for Democrats who offer an inspiring vision and compelling ideology based on the best of American values and who present their policies in a framework of progressive adaptation to a changing world, emphasizing human values as well as economic growth.
The Importance Of Civil Society And Civic Education: The Bulgarian Example
Our guest author today is Tatiana Vaksberg, one of the founders of the 1989-90 Bulgarian students movement and an award-winning investigative journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria, concentrating on issues of human rights and transitional governance. This post was adapted from her remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.
My country is one of those places in Eastern Europe that said “no” to communism 28 years ago in an attempt to build a new and democratic society. Back in 1989, I was among the young students in Bulgaria that formed the first free student organization in 40 years. We struggled for a new constitution that would allow a multiparty system, freedom and respect for human rights.
In 1991, I started working for Bulgarian television’s central news desk. I have worked in the field of journalism ever since, which obviously changed my perspective. I started reporting on the way the new constitutional provisions were implemented and on the way other people continued to struggle. But what has never left my mind was the importance of one repetitive and persistent question which is common to many Bulgarians today: have we achieved what we struggled for?
The quick answer is “yes.” In 28 years, we achieved almost all of the main goals that we had in the beginning of the 1990s: Bulgaria is now a NATO and European Union (EU) member and all of its citizens’ rights and freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed. Even if Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU —with an average monthly salary of only 420 dollars — the country has the fourth highest GDP growth rate in the EU. Technically, we live in a democracy with a poor but growing economy. Like Germany, we have elected for a third time the same conservative government, which could be seen as a sign of political stability. Nevertheless, something is terribly wrong with our achievement. The more we look democratized and stable, the worse are our achievements in the field of constructing a true civil society and true democracy.
I want to speak about this discrepancy.
Democracy Under Siege
Our guest author today, Mac Maharaj, is a former African National Congress (ANC) leader, friend and prison mate of Nelson Mandela’s, who smuggled the first draft of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of Robben Island. Over the past 50 years, he has been an anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, exile, underground commander, negotiator, bank director, professor and a cabinet minister in South Africa's first democratic government. This post was adapted from his remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.
I come from the generation that negotiated South Africa’s transition from race rule to a constitutional democracy that has been acclaimed throughout the world. We put together a constitution founded on an entrenched Bill of Rights, with a separation of powers, bolstered by a set of independent institutions. Having entrenched freedoms, such as that of expression, the media and assembly, and having secured the protection of the individual from arbitrary arrest, we believed that we had established a system that would enable the mediation of conflicts of interest that are immanent in society—evading the civil strife that degenerates into violence and preventing any group from having to go to war.
But our democracy is only a little over two decades old, and there are already growing concerns that our system has not delivered and is under threat.
The Authoritarian Challenge: The Concordance Between Trump And Putin
Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and primary author of ASI’s Democracy Web civic education resource. This post was adapted from a longer essay, which can be found here.
Since November 8, 2016, American citizens and international observers have faced a startling new situation. On that day, the United States, the longest continuous representative democracy in the modern world, elected the seemingly authoritarian-minded Donald J. Trump to a four-year presidential term. Trump, a man with little apparent knowledge of, experience in, or appreciation for either representative government or America‘s international treaties and alliances, promised to upend U.S. domestic and foreign policy and reshape the international order. He has succeeded.
In the face of the decade-long rise of dictatorial leaders and nationalist and chauvinist parties in a number of countries around the globe, Trump’s election brought broad acknowledgement of a crisis of world democracy. Given its position and role in the world, the United States is now center stage in that crisis.
One of the most troublesome aspects of the election was that the rules of the U.S. Constitution awarded Trump victory based on the preference of a minority of voters using an antique and unique electoral college system that overrode a substantial national vote margin in favor of the election’s loser. Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s supposed unpopularity, the Democratic Party candidate won 2.85 million more votes in the national ballot, 48 percent to 46 percent, while Trump’s electoral college victory was determined in three decisive states by a total of 77,000 votes (out of 13.4 million). Putting aside that the results were influenced by foreign intervention (see below), the election process itself should be a cause for serious concern over the state of American democracy. For the second time in recent U.S. history, a national minority government has been imposed on the majority. No other democracy elects national leadership in such a manner. Yet, there is still little discussion of addressing this structural weakness in our political system.
Domino Effect: The AFL-CIO And The End Of Communism
Our guest author today is Paweł Zyzak, an award-winning Polish historian, civic activist, and currently an advisor to the Polish Investment and Trade Agency. The following is drawn from a recent talk about his new book, Efekt Domina: Czy Ameryka Obaliła Komunizm w Polsce? (Domino Effect: Did the United States of America Overthrow Communism?).
Surprisingly, the Polish publishing industry has very few works on the topic of Washington’s policies towards communist Poland. There are a few reprints of books by American authors dealing with Polish issues, but these are hardly Polish experts and they focus on secondary issues, such as John Paul II’s cooperation with Ronald Reagan or the CIA’s support for Solidarity, which is in fact hard to trace. Or, for example, Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), in which Greg Domber tells mainly an official version of the Reagan Administration.
Thus, mine is the first history published in Poland to recognize the American labor movement and the American anti-communist Left as having a rightful place in bringing about the Polish transition from communism. Thanks to a grant from the Albert Shanker Institute, I was able to reach all available American archives and historical witnesses, as well as articles and studies on the AFL-CIO’s activities and the American government’s policies towards Poland. And thus my book, which one might say is a “missing link,” deals with not only Poland’s modern history, but America’s as well.
Poland was indeed an element in the political strategy of the Reagan administration as part of the destabilization of the Soviet empire (at least during President Reagan’s first term), but the title of my book (Efekt Domina) recognizes that it was the AFL-CIO‘s leadership that argued Poland was the place from which the domino effect leading to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc would originate. And it was the AFL-CIO leadership that actually had the decisive impact in bringing that about.