Aliens in Their Own Land

Aliens in Their Own Land

THE ALIENATED VOTER, by Murray B. Levin. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Political poll-takers have asked the American people many questions in their years of investigation, but seldom have they tried to find out what the American people think about politics in its everyday form. Do they believe that today’s politics is good or bad? Do they believe that it works and that it is useful? Do they believe that politicians are honest or dishonest? These questions are significant just because they are simple, because they reflect the way people think or react to politics and because it is from such fundamental reactions that their specific attitudes emerge. What does it signify to discover the opinion of a citizen on issue X or politician Y if the citizen’s general view of politics is that neither issues nor politicians matter since they are crooked, useless, and … and a lot of other unprintable things.

The truth may be unpalatable, but one political scientist has now taken his IBM cards in hand and shuffled them to ask such questions. Professor Murray Levin’s The Alienated Voter studies the reactions of Boston voters to the mayoralty campaign of 1959 and the results are shocking and even lurid. It turns out that the citizens of Boston—admittedly a discouraged and tired lot—are not only convinced that politicians are crooked but that politics is totally hopeless. The result is alienation on a colossal scale.

Levin’s The Alienated Voter is an important book which transcends the narrow confines of its subject. It demonstrates concretely and soberly that politics for those who live in cities is what is done to them. The “citizen” may not be an immigrant but he is an alien, literally alien, because he is, or thinks he is, divorced from the political life of the city. But it is not just that he has no sense of participation. More important, he is, so to speak, actively alienated because he knows he is alien and is sore about it. Therefore he actively fears and scorns politicians and politics.

These strangers react to politics simply. Their main aim, given their assumption that politics is dirty, is to avoid being gypped. In the 1959 mayoralty campaign Senator John Powers was assumed to be the victor before the election and yet was roundly defeated by a relative unknown, John F. Collins. Why? Simply put, the voters were voting their disgust with politicians. Powers was an important politician; he looked like a politician, he had all the powers that be on his side and he spent a great deal of money. He was, even down to his name, a perfect target. Collins, not as naive as he looked, zeroed in. (His slogan was, “End Power Politics.”) But the analysis of the attitudes of the voters to the election showed that they were not voting for Collins, but against Powers and all that he represented. The vote was a simple expression of the desire of the electorate to get even ...