American Politics Presidency: A Quiet Revolution This Second Installment Marking Nine Decades of the Monitor Looks at How the Faces and Methods of Government Have Changed. Series: Celebrating 90 Years

By Lawrence J. Goodrich, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

American Politics Presidency: A Quiet Revolution This Second Installment Marking Nine Decades of the Monitor Looks at How the Faces and Methods of Government Have Changed. Series: Celebrating 90 Years


Lawrence J. Goodrich, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In the 90 years since The Christian Science Monitor first went to press, American politics has moved from presidents who rode to their inaugurations in a horse-drawn buggy to senators orbiting in space.

While the superstructure of American politics is the same, many of the details are profoundly altered. Consider: In 1908 the United States Senate had only 92 members, because there were only 46 states. Senators were elected, not by voters, but by state legislatures. The House had 386 representatives.

Women could vote in only 12 states, and no women served in Congress. The voting age was 21, and there was no income tax. Most Americans lived in rural areas, and the population was centered in the Northeast: New York had 39 electoral votes and Pennsylvania had 34, while California had 10, Florida 5, and Texas 18. Blacks in the North could vote, but most still lived in the segregated South, where specially crafted literacy laws kept them from the polls. Voters met their candidates in person or read about them in newspapers. No one had heard of radio, TV, or exit polls. The changes since 1908 have been profound: Arizona and New Mexico joined the union in 1912, followed by Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. That brought the number of senators to 100. Meanwhile, the process of electing senators was distorting both the election and work of state legislators. So in 1913 the 17th Amendment was adopted, providing for direct election of senators by the voters of each state. The House of Representatives also changed with dramatic effect. Until 1929, as the population grew and states were added, the House simply added new seats. In that year, Congress limited the number of House seats to 435. This meant that eventually each House member would represent far more people than in the past. And it also meant that when a state gained seats as its population grew, they would come at the expense of another state. A changing population That's significant, because the United States has seen a number of important population shifts over the 20th century. For one thing, the population has almost tripled from 92 million in the 1910 census to 249 million in 1990. Ever mobile, Americans moved from the countryside to urban areas, until, by 1920, most lived in cities. After World War II, they decamped to the suburbs that now surround every major urban center. In addition, the population drifted south and west: California passed New York as the most-populous state in the early 1960s; today New York ranks third behind Texas. The geographic "center" of US population moved from Bloomington, Ind., in 1910 to near Steelville, Mo., 80 years later. As a result, while New York now has dropped to 33 electoral votes and Pennsylvania to 23, California now has 54, Florida 25, and Texas 32. The electorate has also grown more diverse. Women got the vote in federal elections in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment. While blacks migrated north to industrial jobs by the millions beginning in World War I, the end of segregation and the passage of civil-rights legislation in the 1950s and '60s guaranteed them access to the ballot box. The 26th Amendment in 1971 extended the vote in federal elections to 18-year-olds. The result was to slowly open politics and government to people who had been excluded. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin (R) of Montana became the first congresswoman. President Franklin Roosevelt named the first woman Cabinet member, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, in 1933. President Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, in 1981. And in 1984, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to win a major-party nomination for vice president. Robert Weaver became the first African-American Cabinet member in 1966, appointed secretary of Housing and Urban Development by President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson also named the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, in 1967. …

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American Politics Presidency: A Quiet Revolution This Second Installment Marking Nine Decades of the Monitor Looks at How the Faces and Methods of Government Have Changed. Series: Celebrating 90 Years
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