The Radicalism of Suffrage: Why Voting Matters in America

From Harper's Weekly: An example of racially-based intimidation of voters during the Reconstruction period. The caption reads, "Of Course he Wants to Vote the Democratic Ticket." As the party of southern white supremacy following the Civil War, Democrats feared the power of enfranchised, Republican-voting African-Americans. This is because voting symbolizes power and agency.

From Harper’s Weekly: An example of racially based intimidation of voters during the Reconstruction period. The caption reads, “Of Course he Wants to Vote the Democratic Ticket.” As the party of southern white supremacy following the Civil War, Democrats feared the power of enfranchised, Republican-voting African-Americans. This is because voting symbolizes power and agency.

Voting is a radical act. That’s right, you heard me. If you’re one of the roughly fifty, to sixty percent of Americans who actually vote in presidential elections, then you’re a committed radical. If you’re one of the even fewer who vote in off-year midterm elections that decide boring stuff like congressional representation (you know, the stuff that actually matters), then you’re downright revolutionary.

Of course, the idea that voting is radical might seem ridiculous. After all, a good many Americans have, for a long time now, been convinced that their vote simply doesn’t count. They look at a political system that is infested with the wriggling worms of corporate lobbyists and “dark money” special interest peddling, and, understandably conclude that the vote of any individual Joe or Jane Six-Pack won’t make a dent in the system’s corruption-infused force-field.

You can’t entirely blame them: it takes some serious fortitude to look askance at the American political landscape, in which everything from state legislatures to the Supreme Court are corporate-owned, and not throw in the suffrage towel out of sheer despair. But even if you think that voting doesn’t matter, some of the most powerful interests in the country disagree with you — and that’s why they’re working so hard to curtail voting. As Norm Ornstein recently noted in the Atlantic, the U.S. is in dire need of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. The June 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder overturned decades of voter protections going back to the Civil Rights movement. This decision by a conservative Supreme Court once again opened the floodgates of voter suppression, allowing Republican-controlled state legislatures to enact of series of voter ID laws and other similar impediments to suffrage explicitly designed to deny the vote to minority groups and the poor, who tend to vote for the Democratic Party.

Why is the contemporary Republican Party, the de-facto political arm of corporate America and the defender of the privileged classes, so concerned about limiting the vote to filter out non-conservative voting constituencies? Because voting, as an act, symbolizes agency and power. Voting is the fundamental characteristic of republicanism and the fuel of democracy. Modern-day Americans might not think of democracy as a particularly radical concept. But when measured against the vast scope of human history, in which every form of tyranny — from theocracy, to monarchism, to oligarchy, to military juntas — has been the norm, democracy, with its emphasis on the broader population’s right to elect its own leaders, is indeed radical.

The idea of equality underpins democracy, and equality is the most revolutionary of all ideas. As psychologists Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto observe, human organization throughout history can be examined via Social Dominance Theory. This theory argues that “intergroup oppression, discrimination, and prejudice are the means by which human societies organize themselves as group-based hierarchies.” Within these hierarchies, “members of dominant groups secure a disproportionate share of the good things in life, [such as political power], and members of subordinate groups receive a disproportionate share of the bad things in life.”* Group-based hierarchy seems to be a universal human system; its footprint is observable is all of the above-mentioned forms of tyranny. The idea of democracy, via the concept of equality, was an ideological product of the Enlightenment, and it emerged to challenge human systems that bended towards tyranny.

Consider this passage from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic 2 volume work Democracy in America, wherein the French historian explains exactly why democracy, via its system of mass suffrage, is so darn radical:

It is possible to imagine an extreme point at which freedom and equality would meet and blend. Let us suppose that all the people take a part in the government, and that each one of them has an equal right to take a part in it. As no one is different from his fellows, none can exercise a tyrannical power; men will be perfectly free because they are entirely equal; and they will all be perfectly equal because they are entirely free. To this ideal state democratic nations tend. This is the only complete form that equality can assume upon earth.*

The key line in de Tocqueville’s passage is his observation that equality is a preventative measure against those who wish to “exercise a tyrannical power.” In light of how Social Dominance Theory reveals the underlying tyranny that has shaped human organizations throughout history, the notion of equality has been — and continues to be — anathema to various ruling powers who do not wish to lose their grip on power and the “disproportionate share of the good things in life” that such power grants.

Alexis de Tocqueville understood that voting was a radical, and necessary, act.

Alexis de Tocqueville understood that voting was a radical — and necessary — act.

It is precisely because democracy is such a radical historical concept that, despite the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “All Men are Created Equal,” the concept of equality has been challenged throughout American history by those fearing that equality would invert “traditional” power relationships. In his massive book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, historian Alexander Keyssar notes that “it is by no means self-evident, as one looks at modern history, that individuals who possess political power will (or can be expected to) share that power with others, millions of others.”* With this in mind, Keyssar observes, “the history of suffrage in the United States is a history of both expansion and contradiction, of inclusion and exclusion.”*

Keyssar’s observation helps explain why American history is replete with periods in which non-property holding white males, women, African-Americans, Native-Americans, industrial workers, Chinese-Americans, and other groups have been denied the right to vote. In different historical eras, ruling groups feared that expanding suffrage to minority groups would threaten traditional power structures.

After the Civil War, white southern Democrats feared the expansion of voting rights to newly freed slaves and other African-Americans because these groups voted overwhelmingly for the Republican Party, which had abolished slavery during the war and passed the equal rights amendments during Reconstruction. White supremacists knew that suffrage allowed blacks to express their agency and directly participate in the allocation of political and social power. For white southerners, enfranchised blacks entailed a loss of white power in the domestic and political spheres. The fear of losing power led them to vehemently oppose back suffrage.

Similar fears about losing both domestic and political power drove groups who opposed women’s suffrage at the turn-of-the-century.  In a 1910 pamphlet, for example, the New York-based group The National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage claimed that “in some States more voting women than voting men will place the Government under petticoat rule.” The fear of “petticoat rule” was, in fact, a fear of the inversion of traditional gender roles and the accompanying loss of male dominance that such an inversion portended. Anti-suffragists feared that granting women suffrage would take them out of the home sphere, where they were under the dominance of male authority, and give them political power, which they would use to undermine male authority.

Anti-women’s suffrage advocates also claimed that voting was not an inherent right, and that women therefore had no legitimate claim to it. In May 1912, Oregon-based (female!) anti-suffrage speaker I.T. Martin claimed that “there is no such thing as an inherent right to vote. Voting is a duty, not a privilege, and women have been exempted from this duty, and not deprived of a privilege.” Martin also claimed that:

There is more work to be done in the world today than there are women to do it, and work that can only be done by women unhampered by the ballot. The economically free and independent woman is not needed in politics. She is needed to do woman’s work in the world.

This so-called “woman’s work” not coincidently included child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning — all inside the home. Martin and others wanted to keep women confined to “traditional” roles as subordinates to men in the domestic sphere, and they described voting as an undesirable privilege precisely because enfranchisement threatened to offer women an outlet outside of the home that placed them on equal footing with men. Anti-women’s suffrage advocates’ claims that voting was a privilege, not a right, continue to echo in contemporary debates over whether suffrage is a right entitled to all citizens. These debates, however, are less about constitutional legal theory than they are about preserving existing power structures. As historian Eric Foner told the Atlantic, debates over voting as a right have historically been debates over whether voting is something “that only the right people should do.”

These protestors understand that Voter I.D. laws and other similar measures aim to make sure that the "right" people vote.

These protesters understand that Voter I.D. laws and other similar measures aim to make sure that the “right” people vote.

Like the anti-women’s suffrage advocates of the past, modern-day conservatives who are enacting voter suppression laws are, in fact, opposing the very notion of equality, because equality threatens their hierarchical power. They believe that a certain group of the “right people” (pun intended) should vote and the rest should not. In their less guarded moments, conservatives have been explicit about this position. In 1980, religious conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a gathering of like-minded troglodytes: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Over the last two years, Republican officials have seconded Weyrich’s argument when discussing voter I.D. laws. In 2012, a Pennsylvania GOP official stated that “Voter ID” would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” After the election, another Pennsylvania GOPer claimed that the new voter I.D. laws “helped a bit” since they “cut Obama by five percent” during the 2012 election. Trumping both of those statements in sheer audacity, the always illuminating Phyllis Schlafly stated that “the real reason the left wants to make sure that individuals without voter ID are allowed to vote is because they are expected to vote for Democrats,” and proclaimed that the elimination of early voting would benefit the GOP.

Schlafly and her ilk understand that voting is a radical act because empowering the majority of the populace to participate in the daily workings of their government and society directly challenges the power of dominant ruling groups. Nearly all of the major struggles in human history have in some way revolved around the tensions that inevitably arise when a powerful minority rules over a less powerful majority. Democracy as a system has, since the Enlightenment, served as a way to check the power of tyrannical minorities by offering the broader citizenry the chance to have a say in how their societies are run. Such a challenge has always been opposed by conservative elements that view only a certain portion of the population (themselves) as fit to lead.

Thus, voting is a radical act because it challenges the central organizing principle of human societies, in which less numerical dominant groups control far larger subordinate groups. Of course, democracy has not destroyed hierarchies, nor was it intended to completely do so. Yet, for all of its flaws (and there are many, to be sure) democracy still offers an effective way of tempering human hierarchies, and for that alone, it remains a deeply radical — and deeply necessary — tool. This is why those who have power wish to curtail voting, and why their attempts to do so should always be vigorously combated.

* See Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, “Social Dominance Theory,” pg. 418.

* See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Section 2, Chapter 1, Vol. 2, 1840. Available at Project Gutenberg.

* See Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic: New York, 2000), xxiii.

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