May 16, Progressive Party with Sen. Schumer Get tickets

Remembering an Unheralded Champion of American Democracy

Curtis Gans, right, speaks during a press conference on May 20, 1968, as the national political operations director for Sen. Eugene McCarthy's (D-MN) presidential campaign.

This column contains a correction.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the legacy and contributions that political scientist Curtis Gans labored to imprint upon our national life. Gans died of lung cancer on Sunday. He was 77 years old.

Gans was an unheralded player in the most important aspect of Americans’ civic obligation to each other—voting. For nearly half a century, he championed the cause of every citizen to be an active and engaged participant in our democracy.

Unlike many of the politicians that he studied—the honorable and ignoble, the winners and losers—Gans is a relative unknown in the universe of American politics. That’s a shame. The success or failure of those we know best in political life rests on the little-known people like Gans, who work in relative obscurity to encourage and ensure the franchise for every eligible voter in the nation.

It’s an odd wrinkle of fate that Gans died on the day Newsweek declared “the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s finest moment as president.” On March 15, 1965, eight days after the bloody scene on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, President Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress and declared that “the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy” are linked in our shared responsibilities as citizens. Voting is inextricably linked to civil rights, the president observed.

Gans would have agreed with President Johnson on the voting rights issue, but he strongly disagreed with him over the Vietnam War. Thus, the irony of President Johnson’s speech and Gans’ death falling exactly 50 years apart becomes one of those curious coincidences that historians and amateur political junkies like me enjoy pointing out.

Indeed, Gans rose to national attention among a relatively tiny circle of political activists and scholars because of his efforts to drive President Johnson out of the White House. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Gans was introduced to national politics in 1967 when he, along with fellow rabble-rouser Allard K. Lowenstein, organized the Coalition for a Democratic Alternative, which was opposed to the war in Vietnam and morphed into former Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s (D-MN) presidential campaign.

President Johnson announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election; Sen. McCarthy sought the Democratic nomination in the 1968 election but lost to the eventual nominee Hubert Humphrey, who was defeated by Republican Richard Nixon.* However, Gans, then 30 years old and the head of political operations for the McCarthy campaign, recognized the political potential for social change when citizens—especially disaffected, young, and minority citizens—became engaged as voters.

Prior to his national political activities, Gans was a student activist while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he also served as the editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. His earliest activism included participating in protests against racial segregation at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and representing students at the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

Among a relatively small circle of political operatives and social scientists, Gans is best known for his passionate drive to get every American to vote. He co-founded and directed the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which became the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington, D.C.

As a political reporter in Washington some 20 years ago, I learned to lean on Gans and his organization as a first-stop source of data, analysis, and history on American voting patterns. Gans never let me down; he offered perceptive insights that helped me make sense of the U.S. political process.

More recently, in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Gans was still astutely analyzing the political process. Writing for The Huffington Post, he lamented that for all of his and others’ efforts, not nearly enough Americans had embraced the message that voting is fundamental to saving our democracy:

American politics has become so polarized, now due largely to the Tea Party element and its enablers within the Republican Party, that the public has lost confidence in governance. The ever-greater level of income inequality and the lack of attention by either major party have made the poor feel increasingly left out of the political system and without hope that they might someday share in the American dream. Modern communications technology has atomized and fragmented the citizenry. The potential demise of the print-on-paper newspaper, along with the weakening of both unions and the political parties, has deprived the citizenry of three of the four institutions that formerly provided a commons of shared information and values. Communitarian values have been overwhelmed by libertarian and consumerist values. Cynicism, some deserved, some not, sadly pervades the media.

A durable restoration of democratic health and lasting citizen involvement will not be accomplished by procedural quick fixes. The problems that democracy faces are large and about their remedy, we should not think small.

This remains true even today as the fight for equal opportunity and equality in voting continues. According to a recent study by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the United States saw decades of progress in expanding the franchise following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But as the report noted, “the overall story is very much one of both progress and ongoing disparities, and the nation’s political leadership is still overwhelmingly white.”

The reason for the continued racial disparity lies in the fact that voting access is under attack by reactionary forces that seek political gain by limiting—not expanding—voting rights, as Wendy R. Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice wrote recently on Truthout. “Since 2011, every state but one has considered legislation that would make it harder for many eligible citizens to vote, and half the states passed new voting restrictions,” she wrote. “By the 2014 election, after lawsuits and repeal efforts, voters in 21 states faced tougher voting rules than they did in 2010.”

Moreover, this was the theme of President Barack Obama’s 50th anniversary commemoration speech of “Bloody Sunday,” the landmark day of the civil rights movement when Alabama state troopers beat black voting rights marchers. Calling for Congress to restore parts of federal law to guarantee voting rights in some states, President Obama lamented what’s happened over the past half-century. “Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote,” the president said. “As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed.”

Gans was appalled by laws aimed at preventing people from voting. He worked valiantly to spread an understanding of the power of voting—encouraging scholars, journalists, and ordinary citizens to appreciate how much stronger our nation is when all participate.

Now stilled by death, Gans’ clear-eyed view of the imperative to count every citizen’s vote will be missed at this moment of its greatest need. It remains for those of us who remember him and value his work to continue the struggle for equitable voting rights for all.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

* Correction, March 18, 2015: This column has been corrected to accurately reflect Sen. McCarthy’s role in the 1968 presidential election.