The Third Electoral System 1853-1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Cultures

By Paul Kleppner | Go to book overview

5 Political Confessionalism: The Ethnoreligious Roots of Partisanship

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Karl Marx ( 1869)

Marx probably would have characterized the American electoral universe as a sequence of recurring nightmares. Its long-term stability, sporadically punctuated by brief bursts of electoral reorganization, evidenced the weight of the "tradition of all the dead generations." That systemic stability, in turn, resulted from the fact that the voters who comprised the system voted under circumstances "encountered, given, and transmitted from the past." Their orientations were shaped by those "dead generations" as well as by their own past experiences and were channeled by the standing images of the contending parties. To understand their voting behavior at any time requires a historical explanation.

Modern social scientists implicitly recognize this need when they refer to the differences between long-term and short-term forces as distinguishable components of the election outcomes. Indeed, the short- term component, the circumstances unique to a given election, becomes "notable primarily because it lacks continuity with the past."1 Yet our capacity to notice and evaluate that discontinuity depends on an adequate description and explanation of the underlying bases for partisan continuity. And that necessitates an understanding of the way group partisanship was established and was sustained. Indeed, understanding the "normal," or regular, pattern of partisanship that characterized an electoral era is more important to historical political analysis than describing its fluctuations.

____________________
1
Philip E. Converse, The Concept of a Normal Vote, p. 15.

-143-

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