(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

This past spring, the coronavirus pandemic added a layer of difficulty for voters wishing to cast their ballots.  Already voters in Texas and other states have faced long lines in recent years, due to a decrease in the number of polling places. In April, Wisconsin voters waited for hours due to the hitches from safety guidelines after the state supreme court rejected the governor’s request for an extension.  However, voters in some states did not have the same experience.  Some states, like Pennsylvania, had adopted no-excuse absentee voting prior to the pandemic or made this change after its onset.  This shift, along with pushing back the date of primaries, allowed voters the opportunity – though it did not require them – to vote by mail.

Although the current context has put the idea of voting by mail front and center in the public conversation, it is by no means a new way to cast ballots.  Rather, states have adopted various reforms to increase voter access to the polls.  The power to establish election practices has been primarily left to the states, based on the provisions of Article I, Section 4, Clause 1 of the US Constitution.  The benefits of the federalist system are that states are able to experiment and also learn from successful practices elsewhere.  Based on the data from states that have used mail-only voting systems, as well as the number of states that have moved to no-excuse absentee ballots, this method of voting is not only established, the results are encouraging, even though it is important to recognize that the way that such a system is put into place impacts its results.

Oregon has nearly 40 years of experience with an effective vote-by-mail system.   Some counties have used the option since the early 1980s and the state as a whole experimented with it in a special congressional election in 1995.  The response was so strong that they modified the entire system a few years later, with resounding support in a state-wide referendum.  Not only did this policy change extend the practice across elections, but also made it the only method of voting.  Officials note minimal issues of fraud/security and champion the increase in turnout.  More broadly, alternate means of voting have served an increasing percentage of individuals across the country.

Ultimately, the vote-by-mail method is part of a larger topic of voting accessibility, which has long been a concern for those studying democratic systems.  The United States has had fairly low levels of turnout in comparison to other developed democracies, only rising in the last few general elections. Part of the difference relates to the need for US voters to actively register, as opposed to automatic registration that occurs in other countries.  (And of course, Australia stands out in its rates due to compulsory voting, a characteristic for which there are valid philosophical disagreements.) In addition, compared to parliamentary and/or unitary systems, the United States has many more elections across its levels of government.

Over the years, there have been numerous reforms designed to help promote voter turnout, especially among lower-income individuals who may have challenges in transportation or taking time from hourly jobs to vote.  Early on, the idea of Election Day as a holiday drew attention, but the reality is that it would not help those individuals whose jobs continued day to day in retail and other necessity positions.  As a result, states have explored several other options.  Early in-person voting has existed in some states for several decades, allowing voters multiple days over which to cast their ballots.  Mail-in ballot systems, as noted more recently, have grown to include five states that operate solely by mail (in addition to Oregon – Washington, Colorado, Hawaii and Utah).  However, more recently we have seen a rise in another method that seems to offer more promise for prompter reform – no-excuse absentee voting.

Although the practice of no-excuse absentee voting has been around for quite a while, with California first launching the practice in the early 1980s, it has spread as an option in subsequent years. With absentee voting already present in states, allowing individuals to cast their vote by mail – even if they will be in their area of residence on Election Day – builds on existing systems in the states for managing, distributing and counting ballots.  There is certainly something to be said for casting a ballot in person – this system allows both.  In addition, the hybrid approach allows for states – and voters – to have more time to consider the impact of a longer-term shift to vote-by-mail as the primary option.  Currently, 30 states have opened their absentee ballot process to allow no-excuse option, in addition to the five states that conduct voting by mail only.

Although some challenges exist with this option, they can be effectively addressed.  The timing of such a transition, depending on how existing systems work, can make or break the process, as the responsible offices/bureaus will need to have sufficient staff and resources. In addition, voters will need to adapt to the new process, especially if they have never cast an absentee ballot. Some states mail the ballots automatically, others require the voter to request the ballot; the voter must then return the ballot by the deadline.  Thus, states that allow for both may allow people to shift more gradually. (More information related to common concerns is offered by the Bipartisan Policy Center.)

This past week, I received an email notification of eligibility to vote by mail in Pennsylvania.  (Due to my registration category, I was not eligible to vote in the primaries in June, so I had not previously been set up in the system for this process).  It was pretty simple.  PA tracks confirmation with emails notifying sending/ receipt and processing.  It also allows you to select automatic mailing of future ballots, making it a one and done step if you continue to vote in future elections unless you move.  For more information on the processes available in your state, please check this information from Ballotpedia, an initiative of the non-partisan Lucy Burns Institute.  You can also have a deeper look into election information on your state, and even access the link to its online voter registration.

In case you are interested, Lucy Burns was one of the suffragettes who teamed up with Alice Paul and others to launch the National Woman’s Party and lead the final push to secure support for the passage of the 19th Amendment. They and others have sacrificed much to secure and protect the right to vote; we not only honor their efforts but increase the responsibility of our system when we cast a vote — especially an informed one.


(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post for the series!)

Over half of my career as a political scientist has included serving in organizational or institutional positions of leadership – treasurer, chair, director, dean.  I have found that my discipline has had much to offer in those experiences – the value of understanding how institutional/organizational structure, culture and purpose interact with each other and shape decisions.  Moreover, as a researcher in political psychology, I have found that applying knowledge of what “makes people tick” helps to promote constructive collective solutions, whether addressing a smaller scale need or a larger initiative. Thus, it came as little surprise when I came across a reference to Tocqueville in a recent work by organizational psychologist, Dr. Adam Grant.

In Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, Grant takes the stereotype that “nice folks don’t get ahead” and turns it on its side.  Rather, in addition to traditional ideas about the value of “motivation, ability, and opportunity [for success]…[it] depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people” (3). Distinguishing between takers (who focus more on what they gain from situations and relationships), matchers (who look for even reciprocity in their work with others), and givers (who focus on how others benefit from our interactions), he finds that givers actually are more successful in the longer term.  (He characterizes success as a life of meaning and effective work).  In this finding, his argument and evidence harken back to Tocqueville’s assertion of the value of stepping outside of ourselves and our own circumstances, which improves not only the collective good but our own as well.

We may be very aware of our relationships, but yet relatively unaware of how our pattern of interactions with others shapes our lives.  Although sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and others have led to a more tangible visibility of networks, their existence has long preceded the internet and social media.  Observations on the social nature of humans stretch back at least as far as Aristotle (Politics) and are grounded in the sacred texts of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – especially in their shared use of Genesis.  Unsurprisingly, we tend to leverage the strong ties- those people whom we know better and with whom we have enduring bonds.  But, Grant notes, two other sorts of ties can also be meaningful: weak and dormant. Weak ties involve individuals who are less likely to have the same central network and thus offer new ideas and opportunities; dormant ties, which while currently inactive, have a history of trust that allows for ease of contact (47-50).

Within the context of networks, givers enrich the good of others, and by extension, the larger whole.  Grant discusses the model of the “five-minute favor” that entrepreneur Adam Rifkin encourages in his network,  106 Miles; members seek to proactively offer assistance, building ties, and securing connections for the future (54-60).  This example, and other psychological research on the presence of giving members of a group, show that the actions can have ripple effects to give first and ask later.  (It also makes asking later easier!)  Moreover, the role of collaboration shows benefits in entertainment, education, medical, financial and other fields (Chapter 3).  The evidence is fairly compelling that giving matters to individuals and society.

Grant is quick to point out that being a giver does not involve being a martyr or putting yourself at the risk of burnout.  Rather, attending to others’ interests can involve “giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others” (5).  He is quick to point out the importance of supporting potential in others, first introduced as “growth mindset” by Carol Dweck (100). In addition, we must recognize that success involves repeated work at a goal, as supported by Angela Duckworth’s conception of “grit” (105).  Ultimately, recognizing these values in ourselves can help us burnish them in others.

Grant found some givers among the least successful individuals because they were so focused on tending to the needs of others that they did not accomplish their own tasks (5).  He asserts that attention to self and other are two distinct dimensions – it is possible to be low, high, or somewhere in between on both.  The givers who were not successful exhibit behaviors classified as “selfless givers” – who rate high on others’ interest and low on their own – are classified as “pathological altruism” – or, in other words, have unhealthy behaviors just as much as someone overly focused on oneself – even to the point of narcissism – might (157). Thus, successful givers are “otherish” – concerned about the well-being of self AND other.  In some ways, Grant’s assertions here are not new; Jewish theologian Martin Buber articulated his I-Thou framework, showing that the healthy person is one that values self AND other as worthy of concern.

Certainly givers can burn out, if they attend only to one dimension selflessly.  However, givers also may burnout because they are unable to help effectively; the perception of impact serves as buffer of stress in busier times (166).  (For more discussion on this relationship, see additional research on animals and humans in Chapter 18 of Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)  Moreover, how we give – whether professionally or through volunteer opportunities makes a difference in its effect.  Those who were “chunkers” – putting all their acts in a specified period – had better psychological and physical gains than sprinklers” who did the same level of giving across a longer period of time (170-173).  In fact, 100 hours per year of volunteering in a way that one finds energizing, building on our talents and purpose, seems to be the sweet spot between too much and too little (173-177).  In addition, we also need to see our own negotiations as self-advocacy (208).

By this point, especially for those familiar with Tocqueville’s work and followers of this blog series, you might anticipate the connecting point, but it is perhaps different than one might think!  Although Tocqueville critiques the dangers of individualism, as discussed in this previous post, he had a much more nuanced view of the motivations of the American people:

It is as often to be met with on the lips of the poor man as of the rich. In Europe the principle of interest is much grosser than it is in America, but at the same time it is less common, and especially it is less avowed; amongst us, men still constantly feign great abnegation which they no longer feel. The Americans, on the contrary, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the State. In this respect I think they frequently fail to do themselves justice; for in the United States, as well as elsewhere, people are sometimes seen to give way to those disinterested and spontaneous impulses which are natural to man; but the Americans seldom allow that they yield to emotions of this kind; they are more anxious to do honor to their philosophy than to themselves. (Book 2, Section 2, Chapter VII, par. 3).

In other words, back then, Americans asserted self-interested motives at times when they actually were seeking to help others!

Research from more recent times shows that Americans still may be hiding their lights under a bushel.  People are likely to identify themselves as givers, and the larger society as self-interested. Thus, perceived social norms shape how people view themselves within society and how they present to others.  It has led to a tendency to convey self-interested motives for their efforts to avoid being seen as weak (240-243).  These findings offer more reasons to be generous in how we interpret the motives of others, especially absent strong evidence otherwise.

Give and Take offers compelling research – both in-depth examples and statistical findings – that is practical in its use (one of the facets I treasure about Adam Grant’s work in general).  Through it we learn more about the value of effective personal interaction that values others, allowing us to live more meaningful and impactful lives.  Grant’s work also complements well Daniel Coyle’s work in Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, which offers action steps to build belonging and effectiveness for those working with others for a larger goal.  I would also be remiss if I did not recommend Grant’s podcast series WorkLife, which addresses issues at individual and organizational levels.  Although I have stepped back from administration – at least for now – to refocus on the energy-giving experiences of teaching and writing, my experiences have indelibly impacted my work because of the way that I recognize the inherent relation between the individual and common good – whether in my institution, social groups or society at large.


Colleen Quinn

(What is From the Field? Read our welcome to find out!)

How are the characteristics of the Republican and Democratic parties from nearly a century ago relevant to political parties today? In more ways than one might think at first glance. As the coronavirus sweeps across the country, statistics show that unemployment rates are reaching a high point only seen previously during the Great Depression. Although our current parties have no clear dominance in the government as the Democratic Party previously did, the fifth party system has ultimately shaped the current party system into what it is today, highly divided with clear separations between the two major parties.

On October 29, 1929, the American stock market crashed, leaving the American people in an economic crisis. An event beyond the control of the parties became the primary concern of American voters, thus, electing the candidate who would provide a solution became the focus of the election. The Democratic Party strategized by focusing on a progressive reform and relief platform, and the electorate responded by overwhelmingly supporting the Democratic Party and their candidate, Franklin Roosevelt, in his run for president in the 1932 election.

The realigning election of 1932 marked the commencement of the fifth party system. This system endured from 1933 to 1968 and is marked by a period of the previously inactive Democratic Party coming to power due to a progressive approach to the economic crisis. Never before had the U.S. government intervened so much in its people’s lives. New voter coalitions were formed as a result of the change in the party platform, bringing the Democrats to power and changing the precedents of executive powers and acceptable interaction with American private life and business.

As noted, the principal cause of the realignment to the fifth party system was the voters’ reaction to the stock market crash of 1929 and the economic crisis, better known as the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover, president at the time of the stock market crash, believed it was best for the American economy and electorate if the government took a laissez-faire approach instead of intervening. He thought that the people should ride out the wave of economic crisis and poverty and that the issue would resolve itself over the course of a few months. However, nearly two years passed and the Great Depression was unresolved. During this time, Hoover vetoed numerous bills that would provide relief. Instead, he focused on shaping a conservative reconstructive plan that would focus on financial reform.

After Hoover’s limited intervention showed little sign of improving the crisis, the Democratic Party, previously inactive on the issue, began to take an activist stance on reform and relief in the crisis. The party pandered to the most affected voters by emphasizing their plan of action, as well as promising relief to remedy the economy. Democratic senators and representatives began proposing bills to fund relief programs, all of which were not passed by the Republican majority.

Two-and-a-half years after the Great Depression began, the Democratic National Convention nominated Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt enticed skeptical voters with his New Deal program, which combined social reform and economic recovery, which attracted the attention of the majority of voters from both parties and allowed him to win the presidency.

Support for a change in the status quo drove voters to shift their alignment to the Democratic Party, with the 1932 election at the center of the New Deal Realignment. New coalitions based on class, region, religious affiliation, and race became prevalent during the fifth party system. This system also saw a shift in support for large voter coalitions such as African Americans, who previously voted nearly exclusively Republican, to the Democratic Party. These and other voter coalitions, as well as labor unions, aligned themselves with the growing and changing Democratic Party as its platform began to take shape and become the party of minorities, social rights, urban living, and liberalism.

In addition to voters from the opposing party shifting their political alignment, political scientists theorize that formerly inactive voter coalitions were a greater cause for higher Democratic voting numbers. These non-voters were newly able to vote and sought to encourage the new trend of progressivism in government and expand relief programs. For example, in Chicago, first and second-generation American immigrant families were highly mobilized in the 1936 election, contributing to the growing number of Democratic supporters in the New Deal Realignment Era.

Conversely, conservative voters, particularly coalitions in rural regions and with Protestant ties who previously supported the Democratic Party began to solidly align with the now conservative Republican Party, which opposed the progressive Democratic platform, instead advocating for a laissez-faire approach. These new divisions — or cleavages — dividing the electorate were solidified in the elections after 1932, creating a lasting change in voter support to the two parties, characterizing a period of Democratic favor that would last until 1968.

The shift of dissatisfied conservative Democrats to the Republican Party began an era of polarization and homogenous parties. Conservatives became exclusively Republican, while liberals became exclusively Democrat. As Roosevelt’s progressive Democratic ideals were proposed as bills, conservative voters pushed back against what they believed to be excessive spending as well as the federal government overreach into the private lives of citizens. This push-back revealed itself in the form of the 1938 midterm election, where the Republican Party gained seven seats in the Senate and nearly doubled their numbers in the House of Representatives. These Republican victories were likely a blend of the reaction of independents to the progressive policies of the Roosevelt administration, as well as the delayed response from conservative Democrats shifting party affiliation as they began to feel alienated from the new Democratic Party.

The relevance of the realigning factors of the fifth party system to the modern party system is that they have influenced the way that cleavages divide the current party system. Divisions such as racial, religious, and socioeconomic status are cleavages voters are influenced by in the sixth party system, and these were initially developed in the fifth party system.

According to Pew Research Center, in 2008, voters elected the first African American president, Barack Obama. The electorate in 2008’s presidential election was the most diverse in U.S. history, with nearly one-in-four votes cast by non-whites. As the electorate becomes more racially diverse, parties must acknowledge these new cleavages and react in order to appeal to the electorate and win elections. Although these divisions seem to threaten political stability, cleavages among the electorate do not mean that the democratic system is failing. However, as the electorate enters a time when political parties seem more divided than ever, the division of the electorate is not some new, unprecedented threat. Polarization has existed since the foundation of political parties, and although divisions can cause polarization, those divisions have the capacity to change as voters react to external influences and allow the parties to evolve.

As new issues and divisions arose towards the end of the fifth party system, the cleavages of the fifth party system began to lose prevalence among the electorate and parties. The class-based voter coalitions of the New Deal realignment became somewhat obsolete, and religious groups became divided as moral issues arose in politics during the late 1970s and 1980s. The 1960s brought along a wave of detachment from parties, and during this time, voters were more inclined to vote in elections as individuals than to identify with a party.

Those who did remain attached to their party did not seek out as much voting guidance from the party as in elections past. The 1968 election that heralded the transition from the fifth to sixth party system was characterized by cleavages highlighting geographic location and weak party identification. This shift emphasized a change in Republican mindset towards traditional views, solidified by Regan’s presidency in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the Democrats continued to build their platform of social rights and liberal progressivism. As the parties shifted their platforms gradually over the course of the subsequent elections, voters have reacted to these changes by either switching parties, remaining staunchly loyal, or becoming increasingly independent.

Characterized by cleavages dividing voters by religious affiliation, geographic location, and race, the fifth party system was dominated by the Democratic Party. During this system, the two parties became less diverse, a characteristic that has bled over into the current party system. The 1932 election that marked the realignment to the fifth party system was caused by the voter’s reaction to the Great Depression, and a desire for relief. In the upcoming months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, it will be interesting to see how the government responds to the current widespread unemployment.


Colleen is a rising sophomore in the Politics and International Relations major.

Retracing the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL

Retracing the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL

(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

As I have spent the last couple of weeks thinking deeply about the events that have given rise to the most recent round of social justice protests — the deaths of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery most recent in a long line of others — I spent time assembling a puzzle.  As something that I had not done in quite a while, due to personal and professional responsibilities, I had forgotten how such tasks allow you to both work and process your thoughts.  I was also reminded of the way that individuals contribute to a larger picture, as well as previous writing I had done on the topic in 2016, as a participant in the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights tour, which I thought relevant to share again, with a few updates from the original.

Observing the reactions of individuals to current events, it is clear that our own life experiences expose us to different segments of the larger system.  The sense we make of our own experiences, especially in trying to understand the larger context, can help us better understand whether those experiences are isolated or part of a larger pattern.  Patterns in many spheres of life have differed along racial lines in our society. Although economic opportunity and interaction with the legal system, among others, have reflected significant racial gaps, one of the most fundamental areas has involved access to voting rights, which allow people the ability to speak into and be represented by the political system.  Despite constitutional amendment and legislation, barriers remain today and impact groups differently.  The better that we understand the circumstances of other’s life experiences may differ from our own, we can promote a more inclusive system of democratic government that better protects the rights of others – as well as ourselves.



(June 23, 2016 – originally titled, “The Ever-Present Relevance of Civil Rights Within Our Democracy”)

”A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”

– Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963) “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


For nine days, we traveled through nine states, visiting historical and contemporary sites of significance and talking with veterans of the Civil Rights movement. Of all the impactful takeaways – and there were many – this experience affirmed my value of civic engagement, especially the extent to which the right to vote supersedes other rights and privileges because of its ability to check government power and inhibit the infringement by citizens on the rights of one another through legislation. Potential weakening and reversals of legislation upholding citizens’ rights to register and vote reveal that not only must we appreciate the sacrifices for this right, but we must also remain vigilant in its ongoing protection.

My first personal experience with the topic of race and ethnicity – at least the first of which I had awareness – came in grade school when something inconceivable, at least to my elementary-school mind, occurred. One morning, in the early 1980s, I awoke to news and a picture of a burning cross, at a home just next to my school in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY. That home belonged to a class-mate, our school’s only African American student. This incident shocked, sickened and scared me; I can only imagine the impact it had on her and her family.

Following a rather superficial education in this area during elementary and secondary school, not an uncommon experience even to this day, I began to dig in deeply to these issues in both my undergraduate and graduate studies in political science: Context courses, legal and other policy courses, and even a year working as a research assistant to a faculty member working on a book about Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which denied federal funding to entities discriminating on the basis of characteristics prohibited in the legislation). My academic work – teaching, research and institutional service -has had continued attention on this issue, especially as it relates to civic engagement. The civil rights tour vividly reinforced the importance of voting, as well as the sacrifices, which are often underappreciated in low voter turnout, made by those citizens who fought to exercise their rights.

After all these years, it is still mindblowing to consider that it took almost 100 years to pass a voting rights act to protect the right guaranteed to African Americans by the 15th Amendment. This delay is especially troubling because the lack of voting rights equated, as Dr. King noted, to a lack of representation in effect, both in the candidates who won and in the legislation that they passed. Although the right was backed by constitutional amendment, many tactics degraded African American access to the ballot, including but not limited to:

Legal barriers

  • Literacy tests, which included problematic wording so that even those who knew the answers might not get it right (For example, one question asks which type of cases before the Supreme Court may be changed by congressional law; the answer included the term co-appellate rather than appellate
  • Poll taxes
  • Requirement for a white person to vouch for a non-registered African American

(Poor, uneducated whites excluded by any of the mechanisms had their voting rights restored by the adoption of grandfather clauses.)

Informal power barriers

  • Eviction from sharecropping property
  • Termination of employment
  • Lynching and other terrorist acts against individuals, black and white, who attempted to register voters.

Although legislation prior to the Voting Rights Act attempted to redress some of these issues, they were, at best, only partially successful. Understandably it would take more to motivate more significant change, as only 325 African Americans living in Dallas County, including Selma, had successfully registered by 1965!

Of the many pieces of the voting rights story shared throughout the tour, the part that most viscerally impacted me was the time spent in Selma, Alabama with Joanne Bland. Hearing from her about her experiences in the movement more largely – she had been arrested something like 13 times for countering segregation laws by the time she was 11 – gave a personal context for the struggle. Her description of the events surrounding the planning for the march from Selma to Montgomery, including its unsuccessful first attempt that resulted in Bloody Sunday, conveyed the scope of the participants’ support and determination to work peacefully within the system to challenge the deprivation of their rights. When we concluded our time with Ms. Bland and retraced the steps of the March over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I had chills and brimmed with emotion that surpassed anything I had grasped from reading historical descriptions, watching actual footage or seeing the dramatic presentation of the events in the movie Selma.

Further study and attention to current events reveal that progress towards full access to these rights is not irreversible. The Voting Rights Act was significant, but still suffered from challenges in enforcement – there is a reason why policy folks note that the implementation of a law is the key to its success. Although registration rates have increased among the African American population, recent elections still have evidence of tactics discouraging individuals from exercising their rights at the voting booth. Renewals of specific sections of the VRA, requiring clearance of plans for states with history of most egregious deprivation of voting rights, have been watered down. In addition, partisan gerrymandering, which is an ethical but not illegal activity, provides a proxy for diluting the vote of African Americans and others through “cracking” and “packing” of districts when the boundaries are redrawn every 10 years following each census. (North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District has been a gross example for decades and only recently successfully challenged by federal court decision as racial gerrymandering). Some states have also recently adopted strict voter id laws, which disenfranchise the least economically privileged, even in the absence of ANY systematic evidence in professional, non-partisan research that voting fraud exists in any measurable levels.  In short, the struggle is not yet over.

Ms. Bland shared an idea with us that captured both the historical and contemporary significance of the civil rights movement. She noted that social movements are like a jigsaw puzzle, in which each of the participants is a piece; without any one, it is incomplete. I think that analogy can be extended further, by considering the movement as a mosaic puzzle, in which smaller images come together to create a larger picture. The aspect of voting rights, is just one segment of the movement, albeit one so fundamental as to affect all other rights. We must be aware of our individual role within democracy and act to preserve as well as strengthen it.



Select additional resources on the context of race in America:


Kendra Pic

(What is From the Field? Read our welcome to find out!)

The fourth alignment of the American party system lasted from 1896-1932, with the election of 1896 considered the critical election. Republican William McKinley’s win, Stonecash and Silina note, “presumably produced a pronounced, abrupt, and enduring shift to the Republican Party… because the Republican win created a political alignment that largely stifled the consideration of certain policy issues for the next 40 years,” (7). Ultimately, realignments usually occur during times of national crisis or conflict, as the electorate is seeking new ways to address issues, especially ones that have yet to be confronted. This search for change was the case, or at least a significant contributing factor, for the fourth realignment in the response to the Panic of 1893. However, the alignment was also inconsistent with other realignment trends, since there were multiple transitions between the political parties during this era.  Each of these elements reflects in contemporary party politics.

With industrialization underway, a significant issue surrounding the 1896 election was that of how the country would navigate this change, with Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan’s platform resting on improved environments for workers.  This approach resulted in the isolation of urban areas, creating an electoral shift towards the Republicans. Political scientist Robert Saldin, suggests the realignment towards the Republican-driven era, was also heavily influenced by the economic disruption in the late 1800s due to the failure of banking and other economic sectors.

Scholar Marjorie Hershey notes that the panic also contributed to internal conflicts within the Democratic Party, namely the low-income white constituents with the less progressive party leaders, looking for further support from their party, which continued to divide the constituents or reduce their vigor for their party identification (152). Prior to 1896, the discussion around the economy persisted around how to regulate industry, workers’ rights, and the class divide. Scholar James Sundquist captures the failed attempts by Democrats to marshal supporters in Dynamics of the Party System (Ch. 7).  While they were not successful in forming their coalition, class struggles were a regular issue with the rise in labor strikes and the creation of the Greenback Party and Populist Party.

This realignment took place at the end of the Reconstruction era (1876-1896), whereby at this stage in history, as noted by Aldrich et al., the two parties had a secure platform and influence within American politics. They were both fairly balanced in terms of support, and every election showed gains, “first for one party and then for the other, with divided control common,” (345). This sentiment is similar to that of contemporary election history, with each party making small advancements in some elections and experiencing setbacks in others. However, during the Realignment of 1896, the Republicans managed to sustain their majority in the different branches of governments throughout this period, an indication of a realignment.

Similar to the Fourth Alignment beginning with national crisis needing to be addressed and voters more willing to be rallied by a different party, it ended also amidst the new national crisis of the Great Depression. While social issues like Prohibition were at the forefront before, economic concerns were the only main concerns at the beginning of the Great Depression, and therefore the election of 1932, gave the Democratic Party their best opening for victory, While there were many that questioned FDR’s campaign and nomination,  Historian William Leuchtenburg recounts that “[h]is opponent, President Herbert Hoover, was so unpopular that FDR’s main strategy was not to commit any gaffes that might take the public’s attention away from Hoover’s inadequacies,” (“The Campaign and Election of 1932”). Under FDR’s leadership and his plans for the New Deal to surmount the national, economic crisis, he reassured Americans that his plan would alleviate the current conditions. While it may not have been as certain at the time, since realignment studies need a long-lasting change, FDR’s election ended the Fourth Alignment and paved the way for a new Democratically-driven era.

Not all scholars have been convinced of the value of realignment theory.  David Mayhew, an elections scholar, lays out an argument to debunk the value of realignment as a failed model in Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre.   Among the lack of evidence for a solid realignment? Woodrow Wilson served two terms for the Democratic Party from 1913-1921. The 1920 election resulting in the defeat of Democratic rule and restoring Republican dominance is not usually considered as “critical” as the election of 1896, although it essentially brought about the same results.

The question remains if nowadays, the United States is experiencing a period of realignment. Aldrich et al. share that, especially in recent years, “the House, the Senate, and the presidency have shifted partisan control several times, and each election opens with at least one, if not two or even three, of the elected branches of government under close competition for partisan control,” (343). Some believed that after Obama’s election wins in 2008 and 2012, that the United States was again foreseeing a new realignment era with a Democratic majority. With President Trump’s election in 2016, some argued this marked a shift towards a Republican realignment or at least make way for easier likelihood in the future. Regardless, the biggest issue with studying realignments is they must occur over a long period of time, remain durable, and electorate shift is necessary. Multiple elections will need to take place before one can decisively conclude that the electorate has made a considerable change either in partisanship or with their values within their parties.

Kendra graduated this May with a major in politics and international relations, as well as a minor in journalism.

Samantha Rockhill

Samantha Rockhill

(What is From the Field? Read our welcome to find out!)

For the two decades prior to the 1890s, neither the Democrats or Republicans maintained a stable majority; that status would change with the 1896 election of Republican William McKinley.  As historian Marc Horger notes in “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” the election culminated in concerns over the 1893 depression and debates over monetary standards.  The Fourth Party System also called the Progressive Era, spanned from 1896 to 1932. This system is a particularly interesting party system to evaluate in the context of today’s political climate because it began and ended with gradual secular realignments caused by demographic changes and economic concerns.

As a post-reconstruction era, issues of race and ethnicity were highly influential in determining voting coalitions, with Jewish and black voters supporting the Republican party of Lincoln for most of the period. In Politics, Parties and Elections in America, political scientist John Bibby notes that evolving events would shift these coalitions (Chapter 2).  Towards the end of the 1920s these minority voters switched to the Democratic Party, as these marginalized groups had been hit particularly hard by the Depression and supported Roosevelt’s job creation programs – and later, his international fight against the Nazis. The high rate of immigration in the early 20th century was also influential for the fourth party system, and interestingly, newly arrived immigrants tended to vote for the Democratic Party, providing them their largest support outside of the segregated South. Their success was in large part due to the role of party machines in providing jobs and benefits for working-class people in exchange for votes

Anyone who pays attention to the news would note that immigration, racial divisions, and a rapidly changing voting demographics continue to be important in determining the power balance of the parties even today.  Pew Research Center offers a data portrait of current trends in comparison with historical ones.  Instead of the arrival of European immigrants in the early 1900s, we are now seeing an influx of Southern and Central American immigrants, with about half of the current immigrant population arriving from Latin American and the Caribbean.  The result: an increasing number of ethnic and racial minorities compared to white America.  After the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, some believed that these demographic changes were leading to a party system realignment in favor of the Democrats.  However, Aldrich et al describe the 2016 election of Donald Trump as a “realignment of American politics” that “pitt[ed] college-educated whites, minorities, and millennials against blue-collar and evangelical whites” (343).  Whether that outcome represents a trend or not remains to be seen.

Economic depressions were also a major catalyst of both the realignment that led to the Fourth Party Party System and the realignment that ended it. Horger notes that when F.D.R was elected the high unemployment rate (25%) and banking system collapse caused Americans to turn away from the incumbent Republican party, which they viewed as failing them.  The election of President Barack Obama also came at a time of great economic distress, however, unlike the depressions of the Fourth Party System, the Great Recession does not seem to have brought about a realignment, but rather a period of overall political turmoil and change.  Political scientist Morris Fiorina affirms that the political system has been anything but stable over the last few decades. If we are in the midst of a realignment period, it is likely a secular realignment, rather than one which stems from a critical election.

Such a secular realignment would also reflect similarities to the Fourth Party System.  As Bibby notes, that system began after a period in which neither of the two parties had a substantial majority and ended with support for the Democratic party gradually increasing from 28.8  percent in 1924 to 40.8 percent in 1928 (83). However, recent data shows that most people do not yet find the parties representing their views well (17).  Such gradual turnovers of political power from one party to another over issues of economics and demographics echoes some of the concerns and factors we see in the United States right now as neither party has held a majority or consolidated power in my lifetime.  Scholars continue to argue that each new election is initiating a realignment; however, it is not likely until parties can build more stable coalitions.

Sam graduated this May with a major in politics and international relations, as well as a minor in gender studies.


Board Games

(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post for the series!)

For the last several years, my husband and I have spent Christmas Day with my cousins, joining in several traditions.  We begin our gathering with the “white elephant” gift exchange – which is really a misnomer as everyone has such creative ideas hidden in deceptive packaging, all of which recipients can gladly use.  Dinner involves an amazing spread, including delicious meats cooked perfectly by my cousin J.  As the evening shifts into an open house, it regularly features games of fun including – among others – Cards Against Humanity, leading us into laughter and deeper connection.

This human ability to connect can help to form enduring bonds with others; its absence can lead us into a more contentious social scenario.  In his TEDx Talk, Arkansas State University political scientist, Hans Hacker examines how the latter situation may be one of the indicators at base of the shortage of toilet paper during the current pandemic.  Hacker asserts that, rather than serving as another indicator of incivility, this lack of essential resources results from a growing disconnect with others.  Building on Tocqueville’s assessment of the relationship between individualism and collective efforts, Hacker offers important insights as to how we, as members of society, can more helpfully conceive of our own actions in promoting or discouraging our ties with others.

Hacker’s talk enlivens his discussion of the difference between incivility (rudeness) and disconnection (self-interestedness) with visually connective historical and contemporary examples.  Incivility has long plagued our political system – and others.  However, after clashing on important issues, people were often able to gather together – for recreation, as well as other shared activities focused on a larger good (1:56).  However, trends of social isolation resulting from more individualized forms of recreation, as well as sorting in the current party system have decreased such opportunities for collaboration and a sense of a shared larger good.

In order to think more constructively about the contemporary social environment, we can consider how something as elemental as a game makes an impact on our outlook.  Hacker looks at three types of games: collective games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, in which those playing “convince others not to exploit common resources and take advantage of others by acting badly or selfishly”; dissociated games, such as Monopoly, which decouple our interests into a purely competitive forum; and in-between games, such as Cards Against Humanity, which engage us somewhere in the balance of self and other in the goal of having fun (8:46-10:39).  Even more importantly, those who have become isolated simply fail to play, remaining disengaged.  In this idea, Hacker connects us in a symbolic way to Tocqueville’s discussion of “civic virtue”.

Among Tocqueville’s numerous observations in Democracy in America, he focuses on the experiences that pull us out from our individual concerns to that of the larger whole, also known as civic virtue.  Through simple examples, he reveals the opportunities that allow citizens to consider something beyond their own interests:

It is difficult to draw a man out of his own circle to interest him in the destiny of the State, because he does not clearly understand what influence the destiny of the State can have upon his own lot. But if it be proposed to make a road cross the end of his estate, he will see at a glance that there is a connection between this small public affair and his greatest private affairs; and he will discover, without its being shown to him, the close tie which unites private to general interest. Thus, far more may be done by intrusting to the citizens the administration of minor affairs than by surrendering to them the control of important ones, towards interesting them in the public welfare, and convincing them that they constantly stand in need one of the other in order to provide for it (Book 2, Section 2, Chapter IV, para 6).

Citizenship, in a general sense, allows people to have a share in their future by providing them the opportunity to participate in it.  In fact, though often pushed out in favor of attention to higher levels of government, local affairs are most accessible and relevant to us.  Not only does our individual influence extend further in a smaller sphere, with opportunities to serve on township or other local level citizen committees, but the local level of government attends to important issues that affect our daily lives (police protection, roads, education, etc.).

Repeated opportunities for people to see their own interests tied up in the good of the larger whole allows this focus to become a habit:

They every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty, as well as the interest of men, to make themselves useful to their fellow-creatures; and as he sees no particular ground of animosity to them, since he is never either their master or their slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness. [Individuals] attend to the interests of the public, first by necessity, afterwards by choice: what was intentional becomes an instinct; and by dint of working for the good of one’s fellow citizens, the habit and the taste for serving them is at length acquired. (Book 2, Section 2, Chapter IV, para 10).

What we do repeatedly shapes our future actions and ourselves. However, the disconnection that Hacker and other researchers have identified brings us to the important issue of with whom we connect: our tendency to cluster with those who think like us (6:25).  Clearly, it is easier to see the larger good of our family or a group of individuals who share similar ideas, but the larger challenge is how to facilitate opportunities that bring us together with those who have different beliefs and life experiences than we do.

Of course, the current crisis is complicated on the many fronts by which it impacts our lives; tending to one area (health) may be perceived as at odds with another (economy).  But each of these elements is complex in itself.  Even the toilet paper shortage may not be as simple as selfish stockpiling; rather supply-issues also exist, resulting from the challenge to ramp up production and even alter it from more commercial-sized packaging.  In short, the complexity means that large-scale solutions are neither simple to identify nor feasible to put quickly into place.

Our current times call us to read our contexts more closely, to be willing to be as reflective on our own actions and words as we are of others, recognizing that others are also part of our society.  To be sure, a society focused on collective ends still has much to discuss and debate.  Finding ways to effectively engage with others, especially those who have different life experiences, allows us a better opportunity to see their value as human beings and co-members of society, as well as to benefit from their perspectives in problem-solving. Organizations such as The People’s Supper, which brings together people from varied backgrounds, can create such “brave spaces”.  However, refocusing our frame can also start in seemingly small ways within more comfortable settings.  Thinking about the games that are stored on your shelves, as well as how they allow you to interact with others, can give you practice at building collaborative skills.  (Need some suggestions?  Check out this helpful review site.)

magnifying glass


“Dewey beats Truman!”

This headline, from the 1948 election, has become a historical lesson on the potential dangers of polls.  In this case, due to the lack of a representative sample and the ability to determine whose vote was decided and would be cast, the results did not accurately reflect the intentions of the larger voting public.  Flash forward to the 2016 presidential election, when some polls leading up to Election Day did not quite square with the results of who won in some states.  Just as with any other means of gathering data to further knowledge, knowing what to look for when reading polling results can help you determine how much stock to put into the findings.  But what is a poll, and in what ways does it differ from a survey?

Both formats of questions allow us to gather information from individuals, known as respondents, in order to analyze patterns in the public.  Surveys provide a means for professionals to ask people directly – in a variety of formats – about their opinions, behaviors, experiences and personal characteristics, whereas polls focus on one or a few narrow questions. (Think about a field survey or survey course, which can offer a view of the larger landscape.) Surveys typically take much longer to craft and administer; polls can be run quickly and frequently.  Each, then, serves a different purpose even though their methods may be very similar.  However, in order to benefit from the availability of any results, we need to be aware of several key factors that shape whether we should put credence in them, as well as the inherent limits of this type of data.

Although surveying as a means of gathering data other than opinions can be used more extensively to capture all members of a group –  like the US Census –  our focus here is on the use of smaller subsets of individual, known as samples, in order to draw conclusions about a larger group of people, known as a population. Except for rarer – and expensive – types of data collection from the public, such as the census, almost all poll data comes from subsets of the population. The form and size of the sample help us know how reliable the findings may be.

Both surveys and polls come in many forms, only some of which provide valid information that you can generalize to the larger environment.  In general, Scientific polls provide the most useful results, because the people responding are picked by the use of a random sample, in which each person has an equal likelihood of being chosen.  Such an approach is most likely to result in a sample that is representative of the larger whole. Therefore, to have the most reliable information possible, you want to see that the poll was conducted with this method.

Non-scientific polls, which rely on convenience or other means to capture responses (i.e. clicking from a website), may have some useful information for limited purposes, but cannot be evaluated as representative of a larger whole.  One of the least reliable types of non-scientific polls is a push poll, in which people contact respondents for other purposes and use the opportunity to press (push) ideas upon them using leading language.  (Individual questions in a poll or larger survey can also be misleading, but push polls are designed to sway opinion as a whole, rather than measure it. For that reason, research often considers them faux polls.)  However, the means of selecting the people to respond to the questions is just one element to consider; the number of individuals responding also matters to the reliability of results.

Sample size also helps us understand how seriously to take results.  In essence, the larger the sample, the more reliable the results.  In fact, it generally takes about 1,500 responses in a random sample to get helpful results.  More is better, of course, but gathering more takes more time and money.  Thus, researchers and other pollsters are always trying to balance accuracy with cost. However, they provide information that allows you to assess how accurate the results may be based on the number of respondents.

Poll results for specific questions should include a margin of error that indicates the range of confidence in the results.  The smaller the margin of error, the more reliable the results.  The closer the results – for example between two candidates – the greater chance that an outcome, such as an election win, could be unpredictable.  If you have a 2-3% point difference between candidates and a 3% margin of error, then the leading candidate could be ahead further or could actually be behind the other candidate; that shifting is why some races are considered “too close to call”.  The same could be said for differences of opinion on issues or events, all of which presume that we have well-formed questions.

Even with a reliable sample form and size, survey/ polling results can still be impacted by the wording of the questions asked.  Individuals who use polls for research purposes spend a good deal of time refining the wording of a question, both to ensure that everyday respondents can understand it and to ensure that the question itself does not push a respondent towards a particular response (a leading question).  A brief discussion of the factors that researchers take into consideration when drafting questions may be found here. In addition, other question-wording issues should be noted as well.  Some research on surveys has even looked at the order of options presented in question and responses, finding that it can impact on the ways that people answer questions.

Ultimate, as with any data collection for any topic, we are best served by looking at the collective results of multiple polls or studies that use reliable methods to gather and process the data.  For this reason, we often see some sources report moving averages of results across multiple polls collecting the same data over the same period of time.  In addition, looking at results of larger-scale research projects, not simply those focused on electoral horserace or other sensational items, will yield more helpful information.  For example, the American National Election Study and the General Social Survey are have been collected on a regular basis for decades – though the researchers gathering these data sets do not focus on prediction measures like news outlets do, their findings do allow users to make deeper meaning of results and their likely causes.

We can become more critical evaluators of data, using more than our own existing opinions to evaluate it by becoming better informed about these elements.  Herbert Asher’s Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know provides a concise overview of the key elements discussed in this post and more.  In addition, the American Association for Public Opinion Researchers (AAPOR) provides ethical guidelines, including disclosure expectations, and best practices for professionals who conduct polling; published results should always include these basic pieces of information.  In addition, this recent episode of WITF’s Smart Talk (an NPR affiliate) offers some great insights on polling from Berwood Yost, currently the Director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin and Marshall College, and a former colleague of mine when I taught at Millersville.

We also need to keep in mind that there are limits to survey data and the conclusions that we can draw from it.  Unless data is captured over time – usually referred to as a panel – the results are simply a snapshot, even though we need to consider the context in which these responses are gathered.   In addition, unless data is gathered on other opinions, behaviors and respondent characteristics, we cannot draw larger conclusions as to the cause and effect of a specific opinion.

Polling and survey data, like other methods of gathering information, are not perfect.  However, they do provide a much more reliable source of evidence than our own impressions based on people around us, who might not represent the larger whole, or on assumptions that our opinions reflect those of a larger portion of the public (known as false consensus). Ultimately, we should push ourselves to ask for data beyond electoral horseraces and simplistic issue stances.  By harnessing effective data drawn from reputable sources, we can not only better understand the public mood, but we can better craft solutions to societal issues.



Elise Robinson

Elise Robinson

New to From the Field? Read the welcome post for the series!

Spanning from 1860- 1896, the 3rd Party System initiated the still-enduring reign of the two-party system consisting of the Democratic and Republican parties. Although the platforms of these parties have substantially shifted since this time frame, the longevity of the parties themselves is a sign of successful shifts to represent the evolving concerns of the public. While the 3rd Party System encompassed the Civil War Era, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the initial years of the Progressive Era, the dominant parties were initially defined by the single cleavage of abolition. Maintaining this sole division allowed the parties to endure the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras, however, once the expansion of slavery ceased to be the most prominent issue amongst voters during the 2nd Industrial Revolution, the parties had to adapt to reflect the public’s shifting economic and social concerns.

The contemporary Republican and Democratic parties have fallen into a similar disconnect from the American public. Parties serve as vehicles for the public interest to be represented in government. Therefore, as the parties responded to the voters’ shift away from the polarizing issue of slavery in the 3rd Party System, contemporary parties must similarly realign to match the sentiments of the growing centrist and moderate voters.

Civil War pressures established the initial platforms of the two major parties, with the Republicans advocating and the Democrats opposing abolition. Therefore, as Richard McCormick notes in The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era, individuals who supported the abolition movement, largely Northerners and western farmers, joined the voting coalition of the Republican Party whereas those opposed to abolition, mostly white Southerners, joined the Democratic Party. However, the 2nd Industrial Revolution sparked massive shifts toward industrialization and urbanization disturbing this regional divide and creating entirely new social groups for the parties to consider, namely the large industry owners and the urban immigrant working class. The Republican Party shifted to cater to business goliaths like the railway industry, and the Democratic Party, since it already held the support of immigrants who opposed the xenophobic (anti-foreigner) sentiment within the Republican platform, evolved to adopt the support of the urban working class.

The Republican Party faced internal fractures during this time period. McCormick points out that, with the addition of the monopoly owners to the Republican voting coalition, the economic desires of the northern and western farming communities that had supported the abolitionist platform during the Civil War were being overpowered by the big business’ interests. In 1873, Congress enacted legislation to shift from a silver-backed currency to a gold-backed currency on the justification that gold-backed money was “sound money” and better for international trade. The public was strongly divided over this issue, creating a new cleavage that pitted big business owners against the farming community. Business owners favored the transition to gold because of the promising international trade prospects; however, the farmers felt that this shift would be quite detrimental to their livelihoods since gold-backed currency would make it more costly to pay off the mortgages the farmers, specifically the newly established farmers in the West, had accumulated. The conflicting responses to this movement revealed that the starkly different economic needs between the small farmers and the big businesses could not be sustained by the same party.

As big business owners pressed for the gold-backed currency in pursuit of international trade, the Republican Party responded to this desire and adopted a clearly pro-gold stance. McCormick shares that, in establishing such a position, the Republican Party lost the support of small farming communities. However, as the Democratic Party remained divided over the bimetallism debate, the farmers were left without a party to voice their concerns. Lacking a party, the displeased farming community began to form advocacy groups like the Farmers’ Alliance to promote policies that would benefit the agrarian population, culminating in the formation of an influential third party, the Populists. Drawing support away from both the Democratic and Republican voter bases, the Populists and their “Free Silver Movement” substantially disrupted the 3rd Party System, previewing the impending realignment. [Consequentially, the Democratic Party attempted to utilize the Populist Party in 1896 by making the strategic maneuver to nominate Populist William Jennings Bryan as its presidential nominee.]

As the Populists continued to gain support and pull from the ranks of both the Democratic and Republican parties, McCormick’s research reveals that the public simultaneously developed a growing suspicion and lack of faith in the major parties. The Republican Party was widely suspected of federal corruption and the Democratic Party faced opposition on account of state and local level corruption. To escape an economic depression, the “Panic of 1893,” Republican President Cleveland reached an agreement with the affluent monopoly owners Morgan and Rothschild.  After the government was bailed out by these monopoly owners, infamously regarded as “Robber Barons,” accusations of collusion flew, and the Republican Party became further typified as a “big-business” party that did not care not only about the concerns of the farming community but the concerns of the average citizen as well.

While the Democratic Party did not have the reputation of secretly catering to the wealthy business elites, voters lost faith in the democratic legitimacy (responsiveness to citizens) of the party because of the practices of the local urban party machines. Using tactics such as political patronage and the spoils system, party machines like the infamous Tammany Hall commandeered elections to impose their own agendas rather than catering to the interests of voters. McCormick characterizes the individuals placed in office by these machines as “untrailed men who did the public’s business haphazardly and inefficiently,” acting merely as puppets under the party leader’s authority.

Eventually, the public became exasperated with both major parties’ lack of responsiveness to their needs and reform parties like the “Mugwumps” formed. McCormick states that the principle aim of these independents was to enact civil service reforms to end the corrupt, undemocratic practices of party machines and sever the suspicious bonds between the government and the wealthy. The growing discontent and movement for greater transparency and democracy was a precursor to the impending Progressive movement that would gain tremendous momentum in the following party system. (For further information concerning the Gilded Age, visit https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/gilded-age)

So why does this history matter? Contemporary parties are suffering from a voter disconnect very similar to the estrangement from mainstream Americans that ended the 3rd Party System. According to political scientist Morris Fiorina, “A process of sorting during the past several decades has resulted in a Democratic Party that is clearly liberal and a Republican Party that is clearly conservative.” On the ideological spectrum, ranging from extreme liberalism to extreme conservatism, most Americans fall somewhere toward the middle. However, Fiorina’s work reveals that rather than shifting to represent the increasingly prevalent centrist dispositions of the public, both the Republican and Democratic parties are adopting extreme, polarized positions that cater to the hyper-partisan minorities.

In order to usher in the much-needed realignment and establish truly representative parties, contemporary citizens must follow the example of the Populists’ and Mugwumps’ activism and express their dissatisfaction. Reviving civic engagement across the nation will force the parties to either shift and amend the disconnect, attracting the diverse sentiments and recognizing the nuanced desires of voters, or cease to be a relevant political entity altogether.



Elise is a sophomore Politics major, who also studies English.


Sacre Coeur overlooking Paris

Sacre Coeur overlooking Paris

The smaller town feel of Strasbourg, a view from the Grand Ile, which circles the heart of the historic city

The smaller town feel of Strasbourg, a view from the Grand Ile, which circles the heart of the historic city


(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post for the series!)

In this edition of Tocqueville Capital, we return to the land of Alexis’s roots.  Last May, I traveled with my colleague – and friend – Heather, along with our students on a three-week cross-cultural course to Strasbourg and Paris, France.  Our college offers these courses as part of our general education curriculum, QuEST (Qualities Essential for Student Transformation), as a way of helping students become more effective in building and navigating relationships with those who have cultural values and experiences that differ from their own.  One of the most fundamental differences that students experienced in the course related to social interaction, which can impact the way in which bonds build between people.  Thankfully, Heather had incorporated a fabulous read for the course that helped students prepare; I was also thrilled to see that it connected to Tocqueville.

In The Bonjour Effect: The Secrets of French Conversation Revealed, Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau discuss many facets of conversation in French culture.  Barlow’s and Nadeau’s work is enriched both by their experience living in France for a period of time, as native québécois, as well as support from research and cultural analyses, putting the stories of their experience into a larger context.  Among the many themes covered by their book, they focus on French tendencies in conversation and discussion, which are essential to engage effectively with others.

Barlow and Nadeau illustrate the importance of conversation when the French interact with one another through such ranging examples as swimming pools and office culture.  Whether engaging in the popular activity of swimming in a crowded pool, where talk cannot occur underwater or being deprived of the opportunity to process a decision made by management, a spirited discussion ensues as people offer their perspectives (see these topics and more in Ch. 7).  Underlying these exchanges is a desire to express thoughts and chat without necessarily diving deeply into a topic. Barlow and Nadeau characterize these interactions as conversation, which “focuses on the relationship between interlocutors.  Discussions are different.  They are about examining a topic” (94).  Opportunities for expression allow people to share their voices on issues that affect their lives and chats allow relationships to develop.

Of course, the French are not above deeper discussions either.  French schools, unlike some others – including America’s – devote a significant portion of their curriculum to the study of philosophy, which allows students to deeply examine ideas with reason. Barlow and Nadeau share the scope of study that trains the French “not to think about things in simple binary terms (good and evil, black and white, good or bad” but with nuance (95). Students in all fields, even the sciences and technology, study between two to eight hours of the subject a week during the last three years of lycée (secondary school); the authors note that it is more than most college students in America get – save for majors or minors in the field, of course (95).  In a way, it makes the French bilingue (bilingual) within their own language.  We see both of these lingual approaches in the French political system.

For a couple of years, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) have made their presence known, visibly and verbally. (We unexpectedly ended up observing a demonstration during our day in Nancy, so we can attest personally to their intensity!)  Expressing their concerns, initially for rising costs of fuel before later expanding into calls for larger economic reforms, the gilets jaunes have kept these issues in the public eye through these sustained demonstrations; unfortunately, some incidents have resulted in violence.

And yet, the French political system – a hybrid neither purely parliamentary nor purely presidential – reflects an intentional element of deliberation akin to their discussion modes.  Rather than selecting their president as the candidate who wins the most votes – most often a plurality when multiple people run – they ensure that the winner has a majority.  If in the first round, no candidate receives 51% of votes, they hold a run-off second round with the top two candidates.  This approach ensures that a sufficient portion of the public supports the winner, enhancing the support for the leaders.  Each of these elements contributes to the French culture.

Tocqueville picked up on these differences in verbal habits during his time in the states.  Barlow and Nadeau capture a key insight from Alexis’s traveling partner, Gustave de Beaumont, “They don’t chat in the United States the way they do in France.  The American always argues.  He has no knowledge of the art of lightly skimming the surface of topics in a large group, where each one puts in a remark, brilliant or dull, heavy or light, where one person finishes a phrase begun by someone else, and where everything is touched on but never in-depth” (93).  Tocqueville himself affirms this though in Volume I of Democracy in America:

To take part in the government of society and to talk about it, that is the greatest business and, so to speak, the only pleasure that an American knows.  This is seen even in the smallest habits of his life: women themselves often go to public meetings and divert themselves from the troubles of housework by listening to political speeches.  For them, the clubs to a certain extent take the place of theatrical entertainments.  An American does not know how to converse, but he debates; he does not talk, he speechifies. (Ch. 5, “Activity That Reigns…”, par. 6)

In short, the dedication to political passion may sometimes shortchange us on our ability to relate to others.

As one who is slightly on the introverted side of the spectrum and quiet in conversation with new people – unless in front of a classroom of students or colleagues – I think we can learn something from this distinction about the art of conversation.  Although not as deep in nature, conversation allows us to build connections with others, some of which may bloom into longer-term relationships that we might not anticipate.  Larry Alton offers some helpful tips on this art; I always find that thinking about the “why” behind suggestions for the “what we should do” can help us apply them more naturally. (See also Minister Faust’s TED Talk on “How to Engage in Better Small Talk”.)

The Bonjour Effect provides a great overview and introduction to French culture for many worthy reasons.  Its accessibility makes its ideas available to a broad audience.  As a scholar, I also particularly value the authors’ use of systematic and reliable research to give context to their personal experiences.  (In this strength, it reminds me of other cherished reads like The Year of Living Danishly  and Radical Sabbatical.)  In addition, it offers a comparative perspective without judging cultural merits that helps the reader relate it to their own experiences. Most importantly, of course, it extends the intellectual capital of Tocqueville!

This week, Heather and I are gearing up to interview students for our May 2021 course – hopefully our world will have cleared the pandemic and emerged in a new normal that allows for travel.  I look forward to this opportunity to introduce students to this beautiful country, especially Strasbourg with its rich cultural identity born from the many shifts in its political control between France and Germany for over a millennium.  The most important piece that students had affirmed for them, was the need to always begin any social interaction in France with a “Bonjour!”