The past is a foreign country, more foreign than we know. Its inhabitants seem to speak our language. They seem to go through the same daily round. They also seem to have been much better citizens than we are today–and we kick ourselves for not being as good.

Take the New England town meeting in the 1600s and 1700s, which we think of as a model form of democracy, a place where everyone gathered, elected local officials, and debated the issues of the day. In fact, few gathered–less than half the white male property owners who were eligible, often much less. When they did gather, consensus was the rule, not debate. Disagreement was rare and contested elections rarer.

We think the founders wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution to protect the press and ensure widespread discussion of public issues. In fact, they wrote it to limit the power of Congress. They had little use for widespread discussion of public issues. In their view, democracy was well served if voters weighed candidates’ characters and sent one of them off to the capital to discuss and decide.

We also think that Illinoisans were doing their civic duty in 1858 when they turned out by the thousands to hear senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate for hours the great issue of the day. In fact, people gathered because politics was the best entertainment around–half theater performance and half block party. Standing outside for hours among friends, cheering your hero on, parading around, and getting drunk afterward were all a welcome change from the drudgery of farming. Those who paid close attention to the debates may not have been greatly enlightened anyhow. According to Harold Holzer’s introduction to The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text, “The majority of time at each encounter was devoted to character attacks and conspiracy charges, replete with personal insults and name-calling, and not to a high-minded exploration of issues.”

And we think Americans showed what good citizens they were when in the late 1800s some 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in presidential elections (compared to just over half today). In fact, voting then was a social act, a proclamation of allegiance like rooting for the Cubs or White Sox. You voted by parading to the polls with compatriots, where you made a point of being seen choosing a conspicuous “ticket” preprinted by your party. The process involved little or no discussion of important public issues–unless you count picking fights with opposing groups along the way.

Is American democracy in trouble in 1999–as journalists and reformers frequently tell us–because we no longer have town meetings, mass audiences for three-hour debates, or high voter turnouts? No. These were features of earlier political cultures, and they meant different things to people then. If our democracy is in trouble, it’s not because we’ve fallen away from some golden age of citizenship–there never was one.

We tend to misread the past because we see the town meetings and the Lincoln-Douglas debates in today’s terms–as if our current political culture were the only possible one. We think, how can “the people rule” unless well-informed citizens discuss the issues and vote according to their individual convictions about public policy? But this is only one form of democracy, one that reformers invented about a century ago.

In his new book, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, sociologist Michael Schudson aims to show just how foreign the past really is. He asks that you imagine yourself on election day in colonial Virginia some 250 years ago–one of the cradles of American democracy, the environment in which Washington, Jefferson, and Madison grew up and learned about politics. “You are, first of all, a white male owning at least a modest amount of property. Your journey to vote may take several hours since there is probably only one polling place in the county. As you approach the courthouse, you see the sheriff supervising the outdoors election. Although elections are uncontested more often than not, in this case two candidates for the House of Burgesses stand before you, both of them members of prominent local families. You watch the most prominent members of the community, the leading landowner and clergyman, cast their votes, and you know whom they have supported because they announce their selections in loud, clear voices. You do the same, and then step over to the candidate you have voted for, and he treats you to a glass of rum punch. Your act of voting, though you did indeed have a choice of candidates, has been an act of restating and reaffirming the social hierarchy of the community in which no one but a local notable would think of standing for office.”

By today’s standards, the American political culture of the 17th and 18th centuries was outrageously deferential. “The founders’ vision of a civil society or a public sphere was very limited,” Schudson writes. “Not only were these leaders skeptical of democracy in the sense of opposing the enfranchisement of all but propertied white males; they also disapproved of general public discussion among the propertied white males.” As a result, “Little was expected in the way of political knowledge from voters, at least, little of the sort of knowledge that today’s civic moralists urge upon people.” Citizens of the 1790s didn’t need to know the laws or principles discussed in the legislature. They only had to know the local candidates well enough to pick which one should be entrusted to debate and determine national policy.

Colonial Virginia was a democracy in the sense that political power ultimately resided in some of the people, as it does today. And yet that system is almost unrecognizable, if not abhorrent, to us today–even though we think of ourselves as political heirs of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. “Democracy” refers to a political system, but that political system can be interpreted in many different ways, inhabited by many different political cultures.

The deferential citizen of the 1600s and 1700s became what we would now consider outrageously raucous in the 1800s. Campaigning became an exercise in mass mobilization. Political partisans would race to erect the tallest “liberty pole”–a kind of exaggerated flagpole that originated as an anti-British protest around the time of the American Revolution–then defend it against nighttime raids by the other side. They would compete to put on the largest parade or the most elaborate musical performance. In the presidential campaign of 1896, for instance, Republicans and Democrats in Sullivan County, Indiana, each organized glee clubs. “The Sullivan Republican Glee Club traveled to rallies in a huge wagon with roof, curtains, flags, a small organ behind the driver, chairs and benches for forty singers, and a string of full dinner pails to remind onlookers of McKinley’s slogan,” writes Schudson. “That glee club was driven by a team of merely six horses; others were pulled by as many as twenty mules.”

Behind this pageantry was serious business–patronage. Parties stood for jobs more than ideas. If your team won and you’d helped, you stood a chance of getting one. “The Pennsylvania Republican organization, with some 20,000 regular workers earning wages from the party, represented more ’employees’ than most of the large railroads in the state.” Nineteenth-century literary luminaries Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman all earned a living as patronage workers at one time or another.

Reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw this system as a gross corruption of democracy. Like the country’s founders, they didn’t care for political parties; unlike the founders, they sought to redefine politics “as an activity of individuals choosing leaders who adhere to principle rather than groups allegiant to traditional party organizations”–that is, as an individual duty rather than a team sport. In the early 1800s the “deferential citizen” culture had faded away and was replaced by the “partisan citizen”; as the 1800s ran out, the partisan citizen began to be replaced by the reformers’ ideal of the “informed citizen,” who informed himself (and later herself) about the issues and voted accordingly, regardless of what political parties might say. “There were still political parades in 1900 and 1904 but they were dying fast,” writes Schudson. “Glee clubs and singing fell away. So did torchlight processions. Banner-raisings and pole-raisings fell off. The parties stopped hiring the brass bands that had once accompanied rallies.” Today few informed people boast of voting a straight ticket. Unless you live in Mike Madigan’s district or Richard Mell’s ward, the party is at most a default option if you happen to confront a list of unknown names in the voting booth.

Yet even these modern-sounding reformers of a century ago are surprisingly different from us. They advocated having a state-printed secret ballot, civil service laws, and elevated public discussions–as most of us still do–but they also sought to “purify” the franchise by requiring would-be voters to pass literacy tests and prove their citizenship. “The same reform groups that supported regulating public utilities and passing pure food laws,” writes Schudson, “also favored disenfranchising blacks and took this to be a Progressive reform.” Their efforts worked to narrow the electoral base, making it whiter, more middle-class, and more native born.

And of course the reformers’ cerebral, individualistic version of politics was less fun. Today’s solemn broadcast debates reflect their attitude when audiences are cautioned against applauding, let alone making comments from the floor. (Catcalls and comments were routine when Lincoln and Douglas sparred.) No wonder political involvement and voter turnout began to drop. And while the political culture has grown sedate, if not puritanical, in style, it now must compete for people’s attention with decidedly unpuritanical forms of entertainment, from the Empress Casino to Internet porn.

The informed citizen remains the ideal of today’s dominant political culture. Of course this doesn’t mean that everybody’s well-informed (or could be without superhuman effort). It just means that we’re embarrassed if we aren’t. It’s the model of civic behavior most of us measure ourselves against. In the 18th century not everyone deferred to the local gentry, and in the 19th century not everyone joined in torchlight parades–but presumably people felt bad when they didn’t.

But the informed citizen may not be the end of the story. Schudson sees in certain current preoccupations the seedling of a fourth American political culture, in which civic life will revolve around not deference, not belonging, not individual pondering of the issues, but rights. One indicator is the increasing prominence of courts and their increasing concern with rights. “Between 1850 and 1935 the Supreme Court heard a total of sixteen cases concerning discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex, and in only nine of these cases did the person claiming to have been discriminated against prevail,” writes Schudson. “From 1936 to 1945 the Court heard seventeen more cases, and the party alleging discrimination won twelve times. From 1946 to 1964 the Court passed on 106 discrimination cases, favoring those alleging discrimination ninety times.” Is the continuing expansion of rights good because it expands the franchise, making democracy more democratic? Or is it bad because it encourages self-assertion at the expense of the community? Schudson thinks it’s probably good, but his main point is that it’s different.

Political activity in this still-developing new age of the “rights-bearing citizen” no longer involves just voting or campaigning, argues Schudson. Citizens now “exercise citizenship in many other locations. They have political ties not only to elected public officials in legislatures but also to attorneys in courtrooms and organized interest groups that represent them to administrative agencies. Moreover, they are citizens in their homes, schools, and places of employment. Women and minorities self-consciously do politics just by turning up, so long as they turn up in positions of authority and responsibility in institutions where women and minorities were once rarely seen. They do politics when they walk into a room, anyone’s moral equals, and expect to be treated accordingly.” In other words, the personal has become political in ways that overshadow declining PTA membership and voter turnouts.

Journalists have an occupational disability when it comes to understanding or appreciating the legitimacy of different political cultures because we’re so much a part of the informed-citizen culture. The current practice of journalism was invented in the late 1800s, not coincidentally at the same time that the reformers’ crusade against the partisan citizen was gathering steam. During most of the 19th century newspapers were torchlight parades on paper, serving as unabashed cheerleaders for the convinced. News columns, not just editorials, were openly partisan vehicles to mobilize the faithful. Democratic Party papers reporting the Lincoln-Douglas debates routinely polished up their stenographers’ records of Douglas’s speeches while leaving Lincoln’s in less coherent verbatim form; Republican papers did Lincoln the same favor.

Today, providing more or less impartial information to more or less uncommitted voters is an essential part of the informed-citizen culture. In theory the journalist serves as a kind of better-informed citizen who helps to inform other citizens. Whether Dan Rather and company actually do so is another question, but it’s what they pretend to be doing–it’s what they’re paid for.

Within today’s political culture, journalists are supposed to be observers, not fans and certainly not cheerleaders. (Of course individuals can change roles, but everyone knows it’s a milestone when a statehouse reporter like Mike Lawrence “changes sides” and becomes a spokesman for Governor Jim Edgar.) The notion that democracy could exist–has existed–without someone playing this role is hard for those who now play it to grasp. Reporters don’t think or write much about history, but like everyone else they rely on a set of semiconscious notions about history picked up from school and TV and movies and random reading. Nineteenth-century politics had campaigns, elections, winners, losers, newspapers, speeches; it’s natural to assume that those people were pretty much like us except that they wore funny clothes and rode the train a lot. So when a woebegone reformer comes along today, lamenting that voter turnout is now way lower than it was in the 1890s, few journalists are prepared to recognize that the comparison is bogus–that voting back then was like attending a Bears game with your fraternity brothers in hopes that Mike McCaskey would give you a job if they won.

Similarly, Dan Rather misread the past when he criticized Clinton and Bush in 1992 for not living up to the Lincoln-Douglas standard of “depth and substance” in debate. Schudson writes dryly, “One strongly suspects Rather was reading an executive summary, not the actual transcripts. The talents of Lincoln and Douglas were squandered on defending themselves, in detail, against baseless or irrelevant charges.” The debates weren’t the exercise in rational public deliberation of issues we idealize today, nor would people back then have made much sense of that ideal. It wasn’t part of the partisan-citizen culture.

Years ago an irreverent colleague proposed that Americans choose candidates according to their hairstyles. Never vote for someone who combs over his bald spot, he advised; it’s a sign of basic dishonesty. I was amused but unable to take him seriously. After all, we had important policy issues to tell our readers about–tax reform, Class X sentencing, the cutback amendment–and here he was cutting up. Not having heard of (or imagined) the founders’ idea of elections as a media-free evaluation of locally known candidates’ character, I couldn’t understand the point of his joke, which seemed to come from outer space. In a way it did.

In much the same way, my four-year-old nephew can’t imagine that his parents had a life before he came along. “Where am I in this picture?” he and I both ask in bewilderment. In a picture that’s ten years old his parents have no four-year-old to look after; in a 19th-century picture nobody’s doing my job of informing people about Important Issues. How can this be?

At least my nephew has an excuse. He will, I trust, grow up to know better. It’s time that journalists–and their siblings, today’s political reformers–did the same. We need to learn to recognize a foreign country when we see one, and stop judging ourselves by the imagined standards of a past that never was.

The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, by Michael Schudson, Free Press, $27.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.