Democracy: The Greatest Threat to Democracy?

Having written about the rhetorical and academic perils of assuming a direct relation between modern political concerns and those of people in past times, such as the Founding Fathers, it might be worth looking at some of the more practical dangers in this line of reasoning. To provide some grounding for my subject, “democracy,” consider the original extent of the electoral franchise in America: generally, only white male property owners could vote, and many positions for which citizens now elect candidates (Senators, the President) were appointed by representatives of the state governments. One could conclude that the Founders were a cabal of racist, sexist oligarchs, but this would be the same anachronistic error: it denounces historical persons for failure to live up to modern standards as if these standards were as relevant and influential then as they are today. The Founders were influenced by the prevailing ideals of their times, in which their “white supremacist patriarchal oligarchy” was one of the freest and most accountable forms of government on Earth.1 Hopefully, this is another area (like gun politics) where we connect with the spirit of the Founders’ ideals, rather than the implementation. When people talk about bringing the country back to the ideals the Founders wanted, surely they mean this in terms of general, abstract principles.

We could hope for that, but in vain. Recently, several public figures have expressed a desire to limit the franchise to property owners, or called into question the wisdom of allowing the poor to vote. Consider this statement by Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips:

The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.

Or from this essay by pundit Matthew Vadum:

…the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians. Welfare recipients are particularly open to demagoguery and bribery.

Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.  It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country — which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.

Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn’t about helping the poor.  It’s about helping the poor to help themselves to others’ money.  It’s about raw so-called social justice.  It’s about moving America ever farther away from the small-government ideals of the Founding Fathers.

We should, of course, be disturbed by such sentiments, but what’s new here isn’t that people think like this, it’s that they’re being so open about it. The “competence question” is a common critique of democracy that argues that allowing everyone to vote is unwise since not all people are equally competent to make political decisions. It’s a neat trick that makes it easy to disenfranchise various groups so long as sufficiently few people understand that the purpose of democracy isn’t good government, but just government. It is unjust to subject people to laws unless they consent to the authority of the lawmakers. Democratic government is accountable government, and reducing the franchise is generally a way to make political decisions about people without their input. There are limits to this principle, of course: children are not allowed to vote on grounds of competency, but children are also not fully accountable to the law, and are not responsible for their own upkeep and legal participation, this being the obligation of parents or guardians. When people start wondering if some group is really competent to vote, or if there ought to be some special requirement, they should be asked if they are comfortable with grown adults being tried as juveniles and provided for as wards of the state.

This specific argument takes the question of competency and adds an explicit economic dimension. The poor are not competent to vote because they don’t have a “vested interest in the community.” While they presumably have a vested interest in the laws to which they are subject, this is itself a threat, since their interest is in voting themselves a share of others’ wealth. Poor voters thus cannot be trusted with the vote, since they will undermine the institution that is truly important to promoters of this opinion: property. The hidden, underlying assumption here is that property is more important than accountable government.

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Fundatores Volunt: Politicized Anachronism in American History

The Unknown Founder

Would be better at a carnival than in an editorial.

There is no more pervasive crime against history in American political discourse than our fascination with “what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.” This is a phrase for a bracelet pastors might hand out in Sunday school, not a serious consideration in judging policy. Perhaps every society needs its pantheon, even a modern, secular, materialist one. A true pantheon of gods or saints allows a society to refer to a rich and meaningful mythology to supply its cultural ethos; unfortunately, secular societies making historical figures into virtual gods have only facts to work with. Since that just won’t do for expedient and on-message legendry, the facts need to massaged, ignored, or invented to suit the pundit’s needs. Thus, real people who took real actions with real meaning become something like carnival cut-out figures, the kind with a face hole allowing a patron to pose for a photograph as a lion tamer or a bear or, in this case, a revered historical figure whose general form lends dignity to the grinning or glowering faces of our modern opinion makers. This process is ongoing, and we sometimes have a chance to watch it unfold before our eyes.

Speculation about the will of our forefathers is usually the hobby of the right. We see it most aggressively in the area of gun policy: George Washington as card-carrying NRA member. The idea is that, by gripping the tenuous theoretical thread of “supporting the right to bear arms,” 18th century statesmen can lend their support to 20th century causes, thus raising the possibility of Ben Franklin with an opinion on machine guns, or perhaps (since this should work in reverse), modern people clamoring for the right to privately own and operate battleships. It’s all pretty nonsensical, and only has power because The Founders loom over our collective political imagination. It doesn’t even have meaning, though, since it doesn’t really matter if the Founding Fathers would have supported shall-issue over may-issue, or opposed the assault weapons ban; these are ideas that can stand or fall on their own merits as consistent with precedent on interpreting the Second Amendment in the modern age. Transporting our modern ideas across more than two centuries on the gossamer strand of an abstract principle is as meaningless as it is anachronistic.

Sometimes, though, it seems to make sense to fight fire with fire. With the unsupported claim that the right has started raising the corpses of the Founders to fight for corporate greed, this essay launches into an argument that in fact, the Founders hated corporations! If this new rhetorical ploy by conservatives is a real thing (I haven’t heard of it), then this response is another example of liberals making the mistake of accepting conservatives’ framing and fighting on their terms. It simplifies and distorts a complex and meaningful history of American resistance to and accommodation with corporations that could have much to tell us, were it not cherry-picked for a hack propaganda piece.

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“As someone who studied history…”

I recently came across (more accurately, found in my inbox) a strange item about Thomas Jefferson, which you can probably find for yourself by googling the phrase “Thomas Jefferson was a very remarkable man.” The essential gist of it is: conservatives are right, because Jefferson says so.

Probably the most interesting part of the whole thing is how it runs down the Founding Father’s resumé of academic accomplishments, repeatedly stressing his knowledge and broad study. What inspired this post is its reference to Jefferson’s study of history. The message is, this man Studied History, so he Knows What’s Up. Actually, that’s almost literally what it says:

Thomas Jefferson knew because he himself studied the previous failed attempts at government. He  understood actual history, the nature of God, his laws and the nature of man. That happens to be way more than what most understand today. Jefferson really knew his stuff.

This chain email is not really all that interesting, in and of itself. It’s just another viral tract floating from inbox to inbox. But its focus on history is something one often sees in political discourse. And phrases like “actual history” fascinate me. Its use gives insight into how history functions in public discourse, and provides a launch-point for explaining my view of how the field should so function.

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