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.