Missing the tea party

The talk about the results of the US mid-term congressional elections is all around President Obama’s Democrats losing control of the lower House of Representatives and only narrowing holding the Senate.  And it’s all around the success or otherwise of the so-called Tea Party movement based on voters in the richer and mid-West parts of the America is getting the Republicans into control of Congress.

We don’t have the full and complete figures of the mid-term election results yet.  But much more interesting to me than the Tea Party is how many Americans never turned up for their tea.  In the 2008 presidential election, there were 208m Americans eligible to vote.  There were many millions more adults who failed to register to vote.  But of those who did register only 63%, 131m, turned out or cast a vote by mail or internet in the Obama election.  That was better than in the second Bush victory in 2004, when 61% voted.  Indeed, it was the best turnout  since 1960 when 65% voted.  But it still meant that more people did not turn up for their tea than those who voted for either the Democrat or Republican candidate.

If we look at Congressional mid-term elections, the turnout is much worse.  We don’t know the turnout yet for these 2010 elections.  But it won’t be much better and maybe lower than in 2006 when only 40% of those eligible to vote did so.  The voter turnout in mid-term elections has been as low as 38%, as in 1998 in Clinton’s second term.  The days of 48-49% turnouts seen in the 1960s have gone.  There was a lot more enthusiasm to vote then – in presidential elections the voter turnout reached 68%, probably the only time the ‘no voters’ lost an election.

In the ‘world’s greatest democracy’, voter turnout is among the lowest in the advanced capitalist world.  In Europe, turnouts are above 80% and even in the UK it is usually around 70% (although here too turnouts are declining).  Increasingly, those coming to tea in America’s elections are predominantly middle-class and upper class voters.  The majority of  ‘blue collar’ working-class and bottom of the rung staff in shops, offices and sites across the land, particularly those not unionised (and that’s most) and those not working for whatever reason, are not voting.

Why is this?  This capitalist democracy increasingly only has voters who believe in it.  That assertion is revealed in another statistic.  The Center for the Study of the American Electorate (http://www.american.edu) has measured the percentage of American citizens who vote in the primaries of the major political parties.  This is a very good guide to those Americans who are active politically, at least at some level.  And it is their activism that can invigorate or encourage the ‘passive’  to turn out for elections to vote for the two capitalist parties.

Well, the data show that activism is in decline at least in the two major parties.  In the 1958 party primaries 32% of eligible voters registered and voted in the mid-term primaries for both parties.  In 2006, that ratio had fallen to 16.7%, or about half.   And it becomes clear why.  Back in the 1960s, when activism was high, it was the Democrats who went to the tea party through their unions and in party caucuses.  Over 20% of all voters went and voted in Democratic primaries compared to just 12-13% in Republican ones.  But whereas Republican activism has stayed pretty static since then, Democratic activism has dropped away.

In the 2010 primaries, before the mid-term November vote, only 8.3% of voters took part in Democratic primaries, down by nearly two-thirds from the 1960s.  In contrast, the Republicans’ Tea Party movement achieved a rise in the proportion of citizens voting in Republican primaries to 10.5%, the highest level since 1970.  Indeed, this was first time that more voters turned out in Republican primaries than in Democrat ones since 1930!  It is ironic that in 1970, Democrat primaries got 19% of voters compared to Republicans getting 11%.

This tells us the depth of disillusionment in the Democratic party that has steadily built up over the last 30 years.  Working-class activists are increasingly not going to tea with the Democrats.  No Tea Party movement there.

4 thoughts on “Missing the tea party

  1. Another thing that helps to account for the low Democratic Party primary turnouts is that the Democratic Party re-did their rules. After McGovern got the nomination but lost the general election badly to Nixon in 1972, they changed the rules in order to make sure that this didn’t happen again. They made it much harder for grassroots activists to influence the outcomes of the primaries. New Labour may have studied what they did; in any case, the reactions were similar.

    Another factor is that the primaries keep getting earlier. Only people who follow politics all the time, which isn’t many Americans, are generally aware of the candidates, etc., at the point when the early primaries are held.

    The front-loading of primaries has the same purpose as the changes in rules.

    Could you explain “This capitalist democracy increasingly only has voters who believe in it. ” I didn’t understand what you meant by this.

    1. Andrew
      I suppose my comment was shorthand for saying that vast swathes of the working-class no longer reckon it is worth voting for either of the two capitalist parties. As yet they do not see any alternative and so don’t vote. By the way, I see that America’s political leaders don’t want to use the term ‘working-class’. For them, it seems, there is only the ‘middle-class’ who must be looked after. By that they either mean that they don’t want to help the working class at all or they use the word ‘middle class’ as an all-embracing smokescreen to cover industrial, shop, transport and office workers at all levels including management, because they dont want to recognise class at all. Working class is a dirty word.


    2. I’ve been politically active here since 1968 and I don’t see ANY connection whatsoever between the post-McGovern rules changes and the voting data in Michael’s post. With all due respect to Dr. Kliman for his efforts in clarifying the transformation muddle, he’s just not saying anything that even remotely bears on why the vote is dropping across the board, and why the more explicitly reactionary of the 2 parties has the upper hand. We get this type of stuff all the time here from “leftists” who can’t face realtiy re the Democrats– A bit like Billy Bragg and Labour in the UK I suppose. I am surprised that Andrew of all people would appear to still carry a torch for the other party of American capitalism. Correct me if I’m wrong please.

  2. From Boston I’d say Michael’s reading of the “tea leaves” is spot on. To concretize it: The average person (once a Democrat) does not bother to vote (“How will this affect me?”). The average income of Tea Baggers is polled @ $100,000– very near the top 10%– So they’re very motivated to “get gov’t off my back, lower taxes, cut spending, sock the unions etc etc. In short, the Dems are a dead party. Even the AFL-CIO took a low profile in this election because it knows little will come of any “vote Dem” mobilization efforts. It’s like in the U.K.– not long ago some big Dem said he was happy that “now all Democrats are ‘new Democrats” (NDems is short for neoliberal, like New Labour). The Tea Party is gobbling up what “populist” anger boils against the “banksters,” who are (oddly) increasingly identified w/ the DP. With only 2 parties, & one riding in on a “Change you can believe in”slogan in ’08, yet delivers more of the same– well, if you’re working class or poor, why bother voting at all? And the Greens aren’t connecting w/ working people. Were a labor party to emerge it would shake up things. The old bugbear, “it will split the Dems,” d/n hold any longer as there’s nothing left “to split.” Depressingly simple– We now have a one party system.
    Bob M

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