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Burnham: The Current Crisis in American Politics

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Burnham. 1982. The Current Crisis in American Politics.

Main Point

Wants to explain decline in turnout (Y) during mid 20th century (compared to late 19th century). Two variables:

  • X1: Institutional barriers to voting (registration laws, poll taxes).
  • X2: Functional barriers: The presence or absence of mass-based political organizations (parties and party machines) that mobilize the latent electorate.

The Historical Story

Increasing participation during the 19th century attracted the concern of upper- and middle-classes; they felt the mass-based electorate was too large and destabilizing. Thus, they initiated a series of legal changes to disenfranchise the mass electorate (X1: institutional barriers). Also, this era witnessed the dismantling of party machines. This dismantling is very significant: without party organizations, legal and functional barriers to voting cannot be overcome.

'The result': An oligarchic electorate (skewed toward upper classes) to protect laissez-faire capitalism. The low levels of further democratization during the 20th centrury is evidence of the disadvantages of the lower classes in the United States. The New Deal led to a slight increase in turnout. But despite the Civil Rights Act, voter turnout continued its decline in the 1960s-1970s.

X1: Voter Registration Laws (and other institutional barriers)

Registration laws were adopted 100 years ago at the urging of progressives who wanted to prevent corrupt machines from manipulating the vote. However, Burnham argues there was also a more sinister motive: The oligarchic elite wanted to exclude immigrant and working classes from hitting the polls.

What Did 'Not' Cause the Decline

Increasing the electorate (to women, minorities) doesn't explain the decline in turnout; eliminating procedural barriers (e.g. poll taxes) won't reverse the decline.It is the degeneration of political parties and the lack of organizational and mobilizational opportunities previously offered by these parties that undermines both these changes (i.e. expanded electorate and reduced barriers).


Both parties are oligarchic, capitalist elites. If the lower classes voted more, political outcomes would be different.