A challenging comment from a thought-provoking contributor to this blog, Herb Van Fleet (who also writes op-eds for the Joplin Globe), has prompted me to post the following.
Among other things, in his response to my piece on the Republican voter suppression scandal, Herb offered this:
Being the malcontented, cynical, outlier that I am, it seems to me that just because a person is a U.S. citizen of the right age, who is ambulatory enough to get to the local polling booth, that is not a justification for a “right” to vote.
Should we allow those who are illiterate to vote when they can’t even read the ballot. Should we allow those with very little education to vote if they can’t understand the issues? Should we allow those who are ignorant of our political system — who can name the Three Stooges but not the three branches of government — to vote?
Of course I have to challenge your suggestion that a U.S. citizen “of the right age, who is ambulatory enough to get to the local polling booth, that is not a justification for a ‘right’ to vote.”
Oh, yes it is. You know why? Because the alternative is unthinkable in a democracy. Just who would get to decide if “those with very little education” can “understand the issues”? Or who would measure the level of ignorance “of our political system” and by what standards would they measure it? Would you apply your Three Stooges test or some other test?
We all agree that it is generally a good idea for folks to be informed and to make use of their rational faculties before doing anything, including casting their votes. But that tells us nothing, when you think about it, about how people might vote or whether they would cast what you or I might consider to be the right vote.
Let’s say we could devise a test that served the purpose you suggested. Then let’s suppose we gave our test to someone like Rush Limbaugh. He would likely pass such a test. Yet, he would certainly disappoint me and around half the country on his choice of candidates. Rush Limbaugh would vote for the dumbest, most clownish Republican on the planet if the alternative was a Democrat. I can guarantee you that, after two decades of listening to him. So, I would ask you: what would be accomplished by such a test? And how significant, in terms of one’s desired electoral outcome, is any testable notion of being “informed”? Therefore, why bother with such a test?
Maybe we could devise a test to sort out people whose minds have been poisoned by fundamentalist religion. We could call it the Ted Cruz or Michele Bachmann test. But what kind of democracy would we have if we arbitrarily decided that this person or that person shouldn’t vote? As much damage as I think the Ted Cruzes and Michele Bachmanns of the world are doing to our politics, in a democracy they both get to vote. And they should. The informed and the misinformed, the knowledgeable and the ignorant, the Christians and the pagans, all get to vote—if they want to. Who knows? Perhaps there is safety in numbers.
That leads me to this stunning argument you made:
It seems to me that an important predicate for a fully functional representative democracy is an informed electorate. On that point, I would argue that that is exactly what the founders gave us.
I had to read that a couple of times before I could react appropriately. The founders did not give us “an informed electorate,” since no one could guarantee that anyone casting a vote was informed (and, again, if being an “informed” voter is essential to good governance, why doesn’t it lead people to vote and think the same way? Why were there Federalists and Democratic-Republicans in our system as early as 1792?)
But even if the Founders could have given us such an informed electorate, please explain to me how limiting the vote to literate property owners—no blacks, women, or native Americans need apply—constituted a “fully functional representative democracy”? What it amounted to was essentially a fully functional oligarchy. Now, if you personally prefer oligarchies, just say so!
Which leads me to your point about what you call “the tyranny of the minority,” regarding the relatively small number of eligible people who actually vote and decide issues. Now, that is a strange kind of tyranny, don’t you think? I mean what you are describing is essentially a tyranny that people who don’t bother to vote foist on themselves, year after year, election after election. You can call that a lot of things, but it isn’t a tyranny of the minority, unless the minority (as Republicans are now doing) is actively and successfully engaged in voter suppression.
Finally, while I largely agree with you that in many ways, “Public policy is set by special interest groups, lobbyists, and the top one percent,” I think you go too far when you say,
…we have long since slipped from being a liberal representative democracy into a plutocracy.
Well, yes, there are plenty of plutocrats among us. Yes, those plutocrats have outsize influence over our politics. Yes, we are slouching toward something one might call a plutocracy. But as both Roosevelts demonstrated, the plutocrats don’t always have to win. They don’t “rule” in the sense that they control it all. They can always be defeated in a democracy. If we don’t think they can, if we have lost all public confidence in our electoral process (and Citizens United went a long way in undermining that confidence, I’ll admit), and if we no longer believe the people we elect are ultimately responsive and accountable to voters, then the American experiment is over.
And if you think this great experiment is over, then you will have to admit that “a liberal representative democracy” is simply impossible to maintain. I, for one, am not ready to toss in the towel, and with all due respect, I hope there are more citizens like me than “malcontented, cynical” ones like you.
P.S. I read your recent and mostly admirable op-ed in the Joplin Globe, Herb. I agree with you that “our democracy is broken” and I would be the first to entertain “another form of government,” possibly a parliamentary republic just to name one I am fond of. But I was amazed at two things about your piece. One was that you managed to complain about the brokenness of government without mentioning the real culprit these days: the Republican Party. You tend to do that when you write op-eds for the Globe.
The other thing that amazed me was that you ended with a dubious quote from Abraham Lincoln, who allegedly trembled for the safety of the nation because of the reign of “the money power of the country.” As far as I can tell, Lincoln never said that. I wish to God he had because it would be the greatest prophecy in American history, given what the Republicans on the Supreme Court have lately enabled via Citizens United and other decisions. Next time, rather than leaving them with the impression that both sides are equally guilty for our broken system, maybe you can explain that partisan fact to your readers, as well as the fact that gumming up government has been a deliberate GOP tactic since 2009.