If we learned one thing about democracy in elementary school, it’s that the majority rules. Of course, school itself isn’t democratic, though there may be elections for student leaders. We all understand that’s because we’re children, and adults make the decisions.
Or maybe not. Zachary Roth’s “The Great Suppression” is a good summary of the various right-wing efforts to limit the right to vote in this country. Even if you’re a little aware this, it’s an unsettling read.
Current efforts to keep certain people in this country — the poor, people of color and urban populations in general — from having their interests fully represented date back to the 1970s. But some people were denied the right to vote from the very beginning. They weren’t just women, African-Americans, Native Americans and other people of color, but anyone who didn’t have a certain amount of property. Then as now, “respectable” citizens considered themselves the adults in the room — the people able to transcend narrow self-interest and make decisions based on the common good. Of course, the “common good” coincided with their own interests, which are often to preserve their property, to be able to exploit labor at low wages and to use public resources for private profits.
As Roth points out, the struggle to expand the right to vote is woven through our history. It’s never been a sure thing. The earliest struggle was to give the franchise to (White) men without property; later, it was extended to women and people of color. The Constitution has never affirmed a basic right for all citizens to vote. Today’s conservatives argue that certain people should be discouraged from voting, just as the founders intended. While it’s cast in terms of reducing the ability of selfish, irresponsible and uneducated people to have a voice, the targets are the people who least benefit from the way our society is organized and are therefore most likely to use their votes to demand change. In conservatives’ view, these people are just demanding “stuff” (as Mitt Romney famously put it in 2012).
The techniques by which conservatives try to limit the influence of such people are various — from making it harder to register (many states now have restrictive voter ID laws) to drawing congressional and legislative boundaries to give Republicans an advantage. Roth points out that a majority of Americans cast their votes for the Democratic Party in Congress in the last election but, because of gerrymandering, the House is controlled by Republicans. To keep it that way, the Citizens United case allowed unlimited amounts of money to be contributed to political campaigns. As Roth puts it, the “argument was ingenious, because it offered a lofty-sounding way to defend the idea that it was okay for the rich to have more political influence than other people.”
But there are more ambitious plans in the offing. One involves amending the Constitution to return to election of the Senate by state legislatures; another to allocate electoral votes for President by who wins each congressional district (in the last presidential election, that could have gotten Romney elected), and on the most grandiose level, calling a constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution to limit the power of the federal government. As of this writing, 28 of the 32 states necessary have voted for such a convention. All of these, if implemented, would increase the probability that conservative and pro-business politicians will control the federal government, even if they can’t get the support of the majority of the population.
While Roth’s description is well-written and quite unsettling, there are a couple of questions he doesn’t answer. One is whether more democracy is a worthy goal. Of course, many Real Change readers might say “yes.” But Roth doesn’t discuss why democracy is the best measure of the “common good,” a question that has even been articulated by some liberals facing the possibility of a Trump presidency. A little ammunition on this topic would be helpful.
The other is that Roth, an MSNBC reporter, gives the Democratic Party a pass on these issues. He does point out that the Democrats’ support for voting rights is fueled by the recognition that it’s the only way they can win as a party. But the Democrats have a long history of machine politics and of suppressing third parties on their left flank, as well as weighting the primary process to favor establishment candidates. Similarly, while Roth talks about the role of the filibuster in gridlocking the Senate, he doesn’t mention that the Democrats probably have the power to end that particular Senate rule; presumably they haven’t tried because it has been useful when the Republicans controlled the Senate.
As Roth puts it, efforts to skew elections toward the Republican Party are a desperate way to combat the waning conservative influence on the emerging urban, non-White majority. So maybe all their efforts are doomed to failure. But, as we can see in places like Wisconsin and other “red states”, there could be a lot of damage done before that happens.