Richard Valelly

Richard Valelly is the Claude C. Smith '14 Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College.

Recent Articles

Who Needs Political Parties?

As the major political parties convene this summer, with all the usual noise, pomp, and expense, Americans can be counted on to let out a collective yawn, or maybe a grimace. But not so for political scientists. Academic experts see a lot to like--or at least a lot to study--in the American two-party system. In their considered view, a competitive party system ensures the legitimacy of opposition to government, promotes public debate about policy options, and gets citizens involved in the public sphere. The two-party system never does these things perfectly, but it does them well enough. Without it our system would collapse overnight, leaving gridlock and hyperpluralism--or so most political scientists think. But if one looks closely at the views of those who are researching, thinking about, and writing about political parties, one finds an interesting division of opinion. One school of thought is that parties are in decline and,...

Voting Rights in Jeopardy

A rumor has been coursing through the Internet and black talk-radio shows: Congress will disenfranchise black Americans when it reconsiders the 1965 Voting Rights Act—which it must do by no later than 2007. The Congressional Black Caucus has fielded hundreds of anxious phone calls over the past two years; the Justice Department now posts a Web site rebuttal. Such rumors illustrate that the "paranoid style" in American politics persists. Yet the Voting Rights Act is indeed under fire. In its inception, the act was structured to make sure black Americans could register and vote. But as techniques of resistance in the white South became more baroque, so did the act, its interpretation, and its remedies. To some critics, this shift signaled regulatory overreach and racial preference. And in the past decade, the use of racially conscious legislative districting to increase black representation has further stimulated political and judicial backlash. Today, political momentum has shifted to...

The Vote Counts

It's a lead-pipe cinch that this year's election reform panels, hearings, briefs, and reports will feature many attempts to summarize neatly the American experience with voting rights. Most of these sketches are likely to be wrong. If you read The Right to Vote , you will know why. The standard history of voting in America goes something like this: The right to vote came early to all white adult males, about 30 years after the founding of the nation. In contrast to Europe, where it took socialist political parties to win the franchise for propertyless wage earners, American workers needed no socialist movements or parties. To be sure, African Americans, women, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans had to fight for suffrage. But they did so under the banner of liberal principles. Eventually they were folded into a roaring electoral democracy that had precociously institutionalized the right to vote. In sum, the system became politically democratic early and...

Unsolved Mysteries: The Tocqueville Files

Couch-Potato Democracy?

R obert Putnam's analysis of the decline of civic engagement suggests that Americans have become a nation of couch-potatoes, turning to television for solitary entertainment, leaving bowling leagues, PTA meetings, and the Rotary Club behind. If true, this shift to homebody-ness entails a vast cost to public spirit. A long line of democratic theory stretching from Thucydides to Tocqueville suggests that a dynamic and diverse polity requires civic engagement, else threats to liberty and prosperity emerge. As compelling as Putnam's argument is, he has left out the organizations that draw people into political participation--parties, groups, and movements. Like some analysts of voter behavior who ask whether citizens are more or less likely to participate depending on such factors as level of education, income, and age, Putnam assumes civic activity depends largely on traits and dispositions outside the polity. In keeping with this view, Putnam "holds constant" the political...

Vanishing Voters

Electoral participation is vital to political democracy. Yet in the past quarter century our rate of voting participation has dropped sharply and shows no signs of rebounding. In 1988 just 50.2 percent of voting-age adults voted for President, down from 62.8 percent in 1960. Voting for lesser offices, chronically lower than presidential voting, has fallen dramatically as well. In 1986 only 33.4 percent of the voting-age population participated in House elections. The last time half the eligible population cast ballots in House elections in a presidential year was 1972. Turnout in 1988 came startlingly close to the depressed levels of 1920 and 1924, the all-time lows for the twentieth century, when a majority of the voting-age population did not vote. If present trends continue, in 1992 a majority of voting-age adults will again sit out the presidential election. Yet unlike the early 1920s, when turnout rates dropped after the Nineteenth Amendment expanded the electorate to include...

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