Altschuler and Blumin, “Rude Republic”

In Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century, Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin reject the common trope of political history that describes the nineteenth century as the “golden age” of American politics, in which a greater proportion of Americans than any time before or since were engaged in the political process.  Rather, the authors contend that in the nineteenth century a tiny minority of political actors attempted to curry favor with a largely disinterested and uninformed public.  Looking beyond statistical evaluations of voter turnout, which show an unusually high degree of participation by modern standards, Altschuler and Blumin argue that politics did not have a significant impact, and did not command a particularly important place in the lives of ordinary Americans. Altschuler and Blumin argue that this disinterest and lack of political engagement stemmed from a dominant middle-class view of politics as contrary to their aspirations to respectability, and the strain of religious thought that viewed as improper the placing of so much emphasis on non-religious institutions.  For the authors, though they argue that voting represents a very low bar for political participation, the high rates of voter turnout during this period were superficial, and did not represent a deep level of political engagement.  The authors argue that it was in the interests of the party elite, a small minority, to represent their cause or candidate as having widespread, democratic support, a tendency that has obscured the lack of meaningful political engagement to modern historians.