The Virgin Vote
How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal,
and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century
Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2016
Hardcover. 256 p. ISBN 978-1469627342. $28
Reviewed by John S. Jackson
Paul Simon Public Policy Institute
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
This book is timely and prescient. It was clearly written before the Age of Trump enveloped American politics, but it certainly could have been written in anticipation of that age. The Age of Trump is a time when show business and entertainment techniques and values have taken over the political discourse and now threaten to take over the entire government. He has not been called the first presidential candidate from “reality” television for nothing.
The lines between the two worlds have been becoming increasingly blurred ever since television became ubiquitous in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Now in this current presidential campaign, they have been virtually erased. During the 1950’s and 1960’s television became the major source for American entertainment and then for news. Our political culture became imbued with the techniques and the values of mass entertainment, notably television and the movies. It became a spectator sport rather than a participatory democracy however. Then came cable networks and entire networks devoted to only one subject or one particular ideology.
Now we have the internet and blogs and twitter and snapchat and other ways for people, especially young people to interact and express themselves. The internet has created various forms of electronic communities of like-minded people who are united by their disdain, if now downright hatred for various groups of “others” and for the opposing political ideology and party. While the internet and all its progeny have spawned interaction, it is all antiseptic and not personal. Voting among the young in presidential elections has increased in recent elections, and in the 2016 presidential contest there is some excitement among some young people especially about supporting Donald Trump. However none of the new electronic town hall meetings is likely to create the kinds of personal politics that Grinspan calls for in this provocative book and the modern emphasis on first-time voters is still lacking.
The subtitle of the book succinctly conveys its major theme: “How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century”. That pretty much tells the story of how campaigns and politics were conducted in the era between 1840 and 1900. In the author’s recounting, this was the halcyon period for young people’s involvement in politics. The political culture of that day accepted and expected that youth from as early as ten and with growing intensity in their teens would take part in the fun and spectacle of politics. Mass rallies, torchlight parades, marathon speech making, massive bar-b-ques, were the most exciting things happening in American cities and backwoods hamlets alike. Going to vote was not the sanitized and essentially private events they are today. In those days confrontations at the polling places were loud and sometimes violent and entailed running a gauntlet of hustlers who supported different parties and the vote had to be a public act because the ballots were printed by the parties and the candidates.
More important for the young, they gathered to socialize, to see their peers and especially members of the opposite sex. They did not have television or video games, but they had a mass of people gathered in one place doing exciting things. It was the place to go and see and be seen. Young people played important parts in the drama of politics and it was all personal and great fun to boot.
In the Gilded Age party organizations were strong and the turnout levels were high. Of course, the vote was limited to males and after Jim Crow to whites mostly or only. But Grinspan maintains that the young ladies were often deeply involved also as they attended the public events and were expected to try to influence their brothers, boyfriends, or husbands.
All of this culminated at age 21, or soon after, in the “Virgin Vote” and the author describes it as a very important rite of passage. It was a public declaration of manhood and of individuality. Young men boasted and celebrated the act and often remembered and recounted it until they were old.
All of this is a part of what political scientists call the political socialization literature. This literature provides a systematic analysis of how people, especially the young, are introduced to and taught the prevailing political culture. In the late 1960s through about the early 1980s this was an energetic and growing subfield of political science. The author is familiar with this literature and provides footnotes to some of its most important findings and studies. (For example see footnotes 6 and 15 to the Afterword, page 225).
Grinspan’s book is a useful and provocative contribution to this literature. This is a carefully documented scholarly work. It is a book written, however, from the perspective of an historian and does not pretend to do the kind of empirical research that tends to dominate political science today and that has been the source of most of the political socialization literature. The author uses a wide variety of original sources, letters, diaries, books, and oral histories, to recount the story of young men and women who are archetypes and who make the points he wants to illustrate with very real and human stories.
This makes for lively and interesting reading and some of the characters and their exploits are memorable. They are in effect case studies illustrating larger points and patterns about the political socialization process of that era. Case studies and historical accounts from primary sources are fecund sources of in-depth insights into one person’s or a limited set of people’s experience and hypothesis about how others act and why. They cannot however shed a great deal of light on how widespread the behavior is and how extensive the patterns are much less whether they are nearly universal as cultural norms would imply.
For example, it is difficult to really discern just how widespread the celebration of the central concept, “The Virgin Vote”, really was from a handful of experiences. It was clearly more important than today since it is a phrase that has virtually disappeared now. But, was it so widely recognized and celebrated in that era as to be a central part of the political culture as the book maintains? Hard to say definitively. The same limitations apply to other major concepts and patterns critical to the major thesis of the book. That point being registered, this is primarily pointing out the difference between the way historians do their work and the way political science and other social sciences do their work.
I certainly agree wholeheartedly with the major thesis of the book. We need more young people voting, and more young people to be more involved in politics today. We need them to be socialized into a political culture and a youth culture that support and complement each other rather than being antagonistic toward each other as tends to be the dominant pattern today. There are some positive signs of this happening, e.g. the young people, mostly entertainers, who made commercials for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and the fact that young people’s turnout rates increased markedly especially in 2008. However, it declined drastically in 2010 and 2014.
Also, if you scan the faces in the crowd at the Trump rallies, you see a large contingent of young people there and among the people outside demonstrating, and especially among the demonstrators inside the Trump rallies, some getting punched or beat up in scenes reminiscent of Grinspan’s recounting of the conflict and violence at the polling places in the period before the Australian (or secret) ballot. The rallies for all the major candidates are filled with the young as well as the Social Security generation. So, the author holds out an ideal and provides a compelling historical narrative. It is an ideal worth venerating and one which we may be moving slowly toward realizing in a very different but recognizable way in the second decade of the 21st century.
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