Tuned-Out Voters

Thomas Patterson says that the juice has been squeezed out of elections for Americans, with changes in political parties, media tactics, campaigning techniques, campaign structure, and election law all sharing the blame. Patterson, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, bases these contentions on the results of nearly 98,000 voter interviews conducted weekly between November 1999 and January 2001, combined with surveys from previous elections.

Political parties used to put their messages forward in the form of big ideas, to which potential voters would entrust their future and that of the nation, Patterson says. As these ideas waned, partisan conflict shifted to a myriad of issues, such as civil rights, the Vietnam War, street crime, sexual liberation, abortion, school prayer, and welfare dependency. Now citizens are less able to identify with and understand a party, Patterson writes, which has diminished their incentive to participate. Lower-income whites have been most affected by the change; they account for an increasing share of the nonvoters.

Weakened parties and party ideas led to candidate-centered campaigns. Americans were initially attracted but now dislike nearly everything about them, particularly when candidates appear more interested in fighting each other than in solving the electorate's problems, and more willing to hand out promises they have no intention of fulfilling. Even when levels of education and income are controlled, Patterson's data suggests that those who believe candidates behave like "street fighters" or "Santa Claus" are less likely to talk, think, or follow news of political campaigns. Negative politics makes many want less of politics.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2003
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