American democracy is not static; it is constantly evolving. From the rhetoric and ideals of founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, to contemporary debates about the war in Iraq, domestic surveillance in the "war on terror," the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, or the economic impact of Wal-Mart, the meanings of democracy in the United States and the dynamics of its exercise have been ever shifting. Undoubtedly, by nearly any measure the degree of freedom that Americans as a whole have achieved and enjoy today—including the ability to participate in politics and government and to choose their leaders—is fabulous. And yet, to say that "rule by the people" in America is the most effective, efficient, or humane form of government to be found anywhere in the world oversimplifies and obscures important historical truths that contribute to a fuller, more complex picture.
The Civil War was obviously a watershed in the evolution of democracy in the U.S. that was as revolutionary as the Revolution itself. The victory of the North, the destruction of slavery, and the preservation of the Union within the framework of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution undermined the structure of one system of democracy and inaugurated another. While the premise of full civil and political equality regardless of race represented progress, the new system of democracy itself was fundamentally flawed by the exclusion of women, and it proved to be easily distorted by violence, nativism, and concentrated wealth. Woman suffrage was the next major watershed in 1920, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally accomplished in the political arena what the 14th and 15thAmendments did not. But a funny thing happened along the way as access to the franchise and real political power expanded over the course of the 20thcentury: Political participation consistently declined, at least on the national level. Historians note that at the turn of the century, politics was a very popular activity and a focal point of community life throughout the country. In the 1896 presidential election, 80% of eligible voters voted. In 2004, only 66% of eligible voters were registered, and only 58% of the eligible population voted in the presidential election. (Interestingly, the percentages for whites and blacks in 2004 are nearly identical; Asian Americans voted in considerably fewer numbers. Among all racial groups, the percentages of people registered and voting increased as a function of income.)1 Many factors help to explain this decline, prominent among them the rising influence of money and mass media. Some historians, myself included, would argue that a new conception of democracy accompanied the expansion of the franchise in the 20th century: The citizen as consumer. All of these post-Civil War developments suggest ways to understand the dynamics of democracy in modern American history, and they are relevant to considering the state and meanings of democracy today.
Content will be erased after question is completed.