MIT political scientist Burnham, a leading analyst of voting statistics, is one numbers man with a message. In a series of...



MIT political scientist Burnham, a leading analyst of voting statistics, is one numbers man with a message. In a series of essays, 1965-80 (extended with two new chapters here), he has both charted and tried to explain the significant decrease in American political participation as measured by voter turnout. Looking backward, Burnham discovered that the American and European patterns were reversed: European turnout has grown steadily in the past two centuries (until it averages 85 percent today), while Americans turned out in droves in the 19th century. Political parties were stronger then, Burnham notes, with stronger voter identification. There were few large shifts between parties, and on the rare occasion when a landslide occurred it was because the voters of one party stayed home. Today, our electoral politics are much less stable. For the explanation, Burnham looks to transformations in the larger political and economic system. Parties, he says, are a good way for people who otherwise have little power to challenge the powerful. In 19th-century America, where feudal barriers to political participation did not exist, the franchise grew rapidly; and by the end of the century, the new industrial and commercial elites were confronted with serious political opposition to their control over society. Burnham does not suggest that they got together to devise a preemptive strategy--though the results were the same as if they had. Around the turn of the century, the introduction of voter registration procedures, the scheduling of local elections in off-presidential years, and other reforms instituted by Progressives to break urban political machines had the effect of reducing electoral participation and loosening party identification. In his most recent articles, Burnham identifies the nonvoters as largely the poor, both urban and rural, and the lower middle classes--the very people who, in Europe, regularly vote social democratic and socialist. At a time of economic distress and general unease, therefore, discontent has no democratic outlet. For Burnham, the need to open the participatory gates is acute. A lot of statistics and some jargon--but solid and probing, and thus well worth the effort.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1982