"It is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error."
— Robert H. Jackson, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, American Communications Association v. Douds, 1950
With the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, the country's Founding Fathers created a new system of government. The idea behind it — quite revolutionary at the time — appears at first glance to be simple and straightforward. The power to govern comes directly from the people, not through primogeniture or the force of arms, but through free and open elections by the citizens of the United States. This may have been tidy and direct as a theory, but in practice it was far from inclusive. Complicating things from the very beginning was the question of eligibility: who would be allowed to cast votes and who would not.
The Founding Fathers were, of course, men of their time. To them, it was self-evident that only those with a stake in society should have a voice in determining who would govern that society. They believed that, since government was established to protect property and personal freedom, those involved in choosing that government should have some of each.
This meant, at the time, that only white Protestant males who owned property could vote. Not women, not poor people, not indentured servants, not Catholics and Jews, not slaves from Africa or Native Americans. "Women, like slaves and servants, were defined by their dependence," says historian Michael Schudson. "Citizenship belonged only to those who were masters of their own lives." Because of these restrictions, only about 6 percent of the population of the brand-new United States chose George Washington to be the country's first president in 1789.
Even though these new Americans were proud of the fact that they had gotten rid of royalty and nobility, "common" people, at first, continued to defer to the "gentry." Therefore, members of rich and well-connected families generally won political office without much opposition. This state of affairs, however, did not last long. The concept of democracy turned out to be so powerful it could not be contained, and those who were not so rich and not so well-connected began to believe that they, too, should have the opportunity to help run things.
Throughout the 19th century, politics in the United States became, slowly but inexorably, more inclusive. The old ways broke down, groups previously excluded became involved in the political process, and the right to vote was given, bit by bit, to more and more of the people. First came the elimination of religious and property-owning restrictions, so that by the middle of the century most white male adults were able to vote.
Then, after a Civil War was fought (1861-1865) over the question of slavery, three amendments to the U.S. Constitution significantly altered the scope and nature of American democracy. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery. The fourteenth, ratified in 1868, declared that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the country and of the state in which they reside, and that their rights to life, liberty, property, and the equal protection of the laws are to be enforced by the federal government. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited the federal or state governments from discriminating against potential voters because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The crucial word "sex" was left off this list, not through oversight; therefore, women continued to be barred from the polls. The extension of suffrage to include former slaves gave new life to the long-simmering campaign for women's right to vote. This battle was finally won in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment said that voting could not be denied "on account of sex."
Ironically, at this point the situation was reversed. Women could now vote, but many black Americans could not. Beginning in the 1890s, southern whites had systematically removed blacks from electoral politics through voting regulations such as the "grandfather clause" (which required literacy tests for all citizens whose ancestors had not been voters before 1868), the imposition of poll taxes, and, too often, physical intimidation. This disfranchisement continued well into the 20th century. The civil rights movement, which began in the 1950s, resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a federal law that outlawed unfair electoral procedures and required the Department of Justice supervise southern elections. The Twenty-fourth Amendment, ratified in 1964, abolished the imposition of a poll tax as a qualification for voting, eliminating one of the few remaining ways that states could try to reduce voting by African Americans and poor people.
One final change was made to the Constitution to broaden the franchise. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War during the 1960s and early 1970s gave new impetus to the idea, first discussed during the Revolutionary War and revived during every war fought since, that people old enough to bear arms for their country were also old enough to vote. The Twenty-sixth Amendment, ratified in 1971, reduced the voting age from 21 to 18 years. Now, nearly all adult citizens of the United States, native-born or naturalized, over the age of 18 are eligible voters. Legal restrictions deny the vote only to some ex-felons and to those who have been declared mentally incompetent.
The most important question in U.S. electoral politics these days is not who is eligible to vote, but rather how many of those who are eligible will actually take the time and trouble to go to the polls. The answer now, for presidential elections, is around half. In the election of 1876, voter participation reached the historic high of 81.8 percent. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, it averaged around 80 percent, but then began a gradual decline that reached a low of 48.9 percent in 1924. The Democratic Party's "New Deal Coalition" during the Great Depression of the 1930s caused a revival of interest on the part of voters, resulting in averages up around 60 percent. Turnouts started back down again in 1968, reaching a low of 49.1 percent in the presidential election of 1996.
The fact that more people do not vote is distressing to many. "There is currently a widespread sense, shown by public opinion surveys and complaints by informed observers, that the American electoral system is in trouble," says political scientist A. James Reichley in his book Elections American Style. "Some believe that this trouble is minor and can be dealt with through moderate reforms; others think it goes deep and requires extensive political surgery, perhaps accompanied by sweeping changes in the larger social order. Complaints include the huge cost and long duration of campaigns, the power of the media to shape public perceptions of candidates, and the undue influence exerted by 'special interests' over both nominations and general elections."
Many commentators believe that what the U.S. electoral system needs is more direct, less representative, democracy. Televised town hall meetings, for example, at which voters can talk directly to elected officials and political candidates, have been encouraged as a way to "empower" the people. And the use of ballot initiatives, referendums, and recall elections is growing rapidly. The precise mechanisms vary from state to state, but in general terms, initiatives allow voters to bypass their state legislatures by collecting enough signatures on petitions to place proposed statutes and, in some states, constitutional amendments directly on the ballot. Referendums require that certain categories of legislation, for example, those intended to raise money by issuing bonds, be put on the ballot for public approval; voters can also use referendums to rescind laws already passed by state legislatures. A recall election lets citizens vote on whether to remove officeholders before their regular terms expire.
Initiatives, now allowed by 24 states, have been especially popular in the West, having been used more than 300 times in Oregon, more than 250 times in California, and almost 200 times in Colorado. All sorts of issues have appeared on the ballot in the various states, including regulation of professions and businesses, anti-smoking legislation, vehicle insurance rates, abortion rights, legalized gambling and the medical use of marijuana, the use of nuclear power, and gun control.
Citizens of the United States, it is clear, have a great many rights that give them freedoms all peoples hold dear: the freedom to think what they like; to voice those opinions, individually to their elected representatives or collectively in small or large assemblies; to worship as they choose or not to worship at all; to be safe from unreasonable searches of their persons, their homes, or their private papers. However, the theory of democratic government holds that along with these rights come responsibilities: to obey the laws; to pay legally imposed taxes; to serve on juries when called to do so; to be informed about issues and candidates; and to exercise the right to vote that has been won for so many through the toil and tears of their predecessors.
Another major responsibility is public service. Millions of American men and women have entered the armed forces to defend their country in times of national emergency. Millions more have served in peacetime to maintain the country's military strength. Americans, young and old alike, have joined the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations for social service at home and abroad.
The responsibility that can make the most lasting difference, however, is getting involved in the political process. "Proponents of participatory democracy argue that increased citizen participation in community and workplace decision-making is important if people are to recognize their roles and responsibilities as citizens within the larger community," says Craig Rimmerman, professor of political science, in his book The New Citizenship: Unconventional Politics, Activism, and Service. "Community meetings, for example, afford citizens knowledge regarding other citizens' needs. In a true participatory setting, citizens do not merely act as autonomous individuals pursuing their own interests, but instead, through a process of decision, debate, and compromise, they ultimately link their concerns with the needs of the community."
Tom Harkin, U.S. senator from Iowa, says that the kind of activists who fueled the earlier civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and environmental movements are now focusing their energies "closer to home, organizing their neighbors to fight for such issues as better housing, fair taxation, lower utility rates, and the cleanup of toxic wastes.... Cutting across racial and class and geographical boundaries, these actions have shown millions of people that their common interests far outweigh their differences. [For all of them], the message of citizen action is the same: 'Don't get mad, don't get frustrated, don't give up. Organize and fight back.'"
Some concerned American voters have chosen to stay involved by being in touch with their elected officials, in particular the president and their senators and representatives. They have written letters, sent telegrams, made telephone calls, and gone in person to the official's office, whether in Washington or in the home state or district. During the past few years, however, a new medium of communication has burst upon the scene and given voters extraordinary power — the power to learn what is going on in their world, to comment on those events, and to work to change the things they don't like. This medium is the Internet, the World Wide Web, the Information Superhighway. Whatever it is called, it is changing politics in America, rapidly and irrevocably.
The Internet can be "a powerful instrument for collective action, if we choose to use it as such," says political activist Ed Schwartz in his book NetActivism: How Citizens Use the Internet. "It has the potential to become the most powerful tool for political organizing developed in the past 50 years, and one that any citizen can use.... [What] community activists often need most is hard information, both about government agencies and specific programs, as well as on how the political system works." They can find this information, easily and at practically no cost, on the Internet.
"Virtual communities" of men and women of similar interests, who may live thousands of miles apart and might never have known about each other any other way, are now coming together on the Internet. Quite often, these people never do meet in person, but they get to know each other well, through sustained, intelligent conversations over time about the issues that they care the most about.
Another profound change is the quick access the Internet gives people to information about government, politics, and issues that had previously been unavailable, or hard to find, for most of them.
EnviroLink, for example, is a Web site devoted to environmental issues. Community organizations can get specific facts from this site about such concerns as greenhouse gas emissions, hazardous waste, or toxic chemicals. In the past, these groups might have been limited to talking about these issues only in general terms. Now, EnviroLink makes detailed resource materials instantly available. The site provides access to educational resources, government agencies, and environmental organizations and publications, all listed by topic of interest. EnviroLink also offers information and advice on how to take direct action by providing names and e-mail addresses of persons to contact about specific environmental concerns, and it includes "chat rooms" where users can engage in discussions and share ideas.
Activists at the local level are finding the Internet to be particularly helpful. These are the people who get involved in politics as a way to improve conditions in their own neighborhoods and communities. They organize block cleanups, trash recycling efforts, crime watch groups, and adult literacy programs. "Their aim is not merely to perform community service," says Ed Schwartz, "although that's part of it. They simply believe that healthy communities are possible only when residents make a personal commitment to contribute to their well-being."
One example of the way these people are using the Internet is Neighborhoods Online, a Web site set up by Schwartz to promote neighborhood activism throughout the United States. Hundreds of people visit the site every day, including organizers, staff members of nonprofit organizations, elected officials, journalists, college faculty and students, and ordinary citizens looking for new ways to solve neighborhood problems.
"From a modest beginning," says Schwartz, "we've reached the point where virtually every community development corporation, neighborhood advisory committee, adult literacy program, job training agency, and human service provider is either already online or trying to figure out how to get there."
The groups discussed above and others like them are called public interest groups, in that they seek a collective good, the achievement of which will not necessarily benefit their own membership. This does not mean that such groups are correct in the positions they take, only that the element of profitable or selective self-interest is low.
Private interest groups, on the other hand, usually have an economic stake in the policies they advocate. Business organizations will favor low corporate taxes and restrictions of the right to strike, whereas labor unions will support minimum wage legislation and protection for collective bargaining. Other private interest groups — such as churches and ethnic groups — are more concerned about broader issues of policy that can affect their organizations or their beliefs.
One type of private interest group that has grown in number and influence in recent years is the political action committee, or PAC. These are independent groups, organized around a single issue or set of issues, that contribute money to political campaigns for Congress or the presidency. PACs are limited in the amounts they can contribute directly to candidates in federal elections. There are no restrictions, however, on the amounts PACs can spend independently to advocate a point of view or to urge the election of candidates to office. PACs today number in the thousands.
"The political parties are threatened as the number of interest groups has mushroomed, with more and more of them operating offices in Washington, D.C., and representing themselves directly to Congress and federal agencies," says Michael Schudson in his book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. "Many organizations that keep an eye on Washington seek financial and moral support from ordinary citizens. Since many of them focus on a narrow set of concerns or even on a single issue, and often a single issue of enormous emotional weight, they compete with the parties for citizens' dollars, time, and passion."
The amount of money spent by these "special interests" continues to grow, as campaigns become more and more expensive. Many Americans have the feeling that these wealthy interests — whether corporations or unions or PACs organized to promote a particular point of view — are so powerful that ordinary citizens can do little to counteract their influence.
But they can do something. They can inform themselves and then act on that information. Perhaps the quickest and most efficient way is by using the Internet to keep track of each of their elected officials. Within a matter of minutes, they can find out which "special interests" have given political contributions to an official and how that official has voted on recent pieces of legislation. These citizens can then use this information to make their opinions known.
A fact of political life is that thinking about issues, gathering information about them, and discussing them with friends and neighbors make no difference in how elected officials act — or, more important, vote. These officials care a great deal, though, about whether those who elected them are likely, or not likely, to elect them again. When letters, phone calls, faxes, and e-mail messages from constituents start to arrive, attention is paid. It is still the people, each one with a vote whenever he or she chooses to cast it, who have the ultimate power.
The road from 1787 and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution to the present has not been a straight one. Voters have been moved by passions and events first in one direction, then in another. But, at some point, they have always found a way to come back to rest near the center. Somewhere between the pragmatic and the ideal, between the local and the national, between the public and the private, between selfishness and altruism, between states' rights and the good of the nation as a whole, exists a common ground on which the people of the United States have, through the years, built a strong, prosperous, free country — a country that is flawed, granted, but always spurred on by the promise of better days to come.