Universal Suffrage?

One of the very thorny problems the English (and later the Americans) worried about in the nineteenth century was the question of suffrage: who should vote? The question centered around the issue of whether only those who know best should vote or whether everyone should vote. The concern expressed was whether those who are “ignorant” — i.e., uneducated or the “luckless poor” in the words of Thomas Carlyle — should be allowed to make political decisions that affect the entire nation.

George Eliot dealt with the question in her novel Felix Holt: Radical and it seemed clear from that novel (if good novels can be said to make any single position “clear”) that Eliot was in favor of extending the vote to all men regardless of whether or not they owned property. Interestingly, however, Eliot, despite her liberal leanings, did not think women should be given the vote. In fact, she said on this topic:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

Eliot’s point is worth pondering, because it touches on a point I made in an earlier post when I noted that the dawning of the Enlightenment and the increasing emphasis on human rights moved the individual from the periphery of the political arena to dead center. The new thinking, from that time on, was that the state exists for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Whereas the state had been regarded as the necessary ingredient in humanizing citizens, educating them and making clear their duties to other citizens — helping to nurture “civic virtue” — this was no longer the case.

Eliot, like Lord Acton before her, is articulating the contrary position: the state, if not all of civilization, would benefit if women, in this case, remained in the home taking care of the children, providing love, and helping them attain maturity and good character. The needs of the whole take precedence over the interests of the parts — — the assumption being that individuals benefit most when they are other-directed (rather than self-involved). Women, in her view (and the view of many, including many women, in her day), provided the moral fiber that held civilization together. If they were to engage in the hurly-burly of business and politics they would be eliminating that moral fiber and civilization would suffer as a result. While it may sound like heresy in our more advanced day and age, it is worth pondering.

But in the main, the question whether or not all men should vote was itself a knotty problem and one that divided such thinkers as John Stuart Mill, on the one hand, and Thomas Carlyle, on the other. Mill was the liberal’s liberal and was active in trying to convince the English that all citizens should vote, regardless of sex or property ownership. Carlyle, on the other hand, despite his deep empathy for the “luckless poor,” fought mightily against the tide that would usher in universal suffrage. He did not think those without adequate education and a vested interest in the decisions of Parliament should be allowed to vote for membership in that august body. Indeed, he took a deeply paternalistic attitude toward the poor and uneducated and was convinced that they needed wise people to govern them and care for them. As he noted in his essay on Chartism:

“The Working Class cannot any longer go on without government; without being actually guided and governed; England cannot subsist in peace till, by some means or other, some guidance and government for them is found.”

Bear in mind that Carlyle was very much aware of what had happened in France during the “reign of terror” and was also aware that the working poor in England were being totally ignored by Parliament; they felt frustrated and were leaning increasingly toward violence. But still, this strikes the modern reader as reactionary nonsense, even though it is also well worth pondering.

In some sense the issue today is, as they say, academic. Universal suffrage has arrived with all its problems — as Americans recently discovered in the election of 2016. But the question worth considering is whether those who are ignorant of politics and have no interest in anything outside of themselves should be allowed to vote — or, indeed, whether they should be allowed to govern!

So the central issue remains: the question of the priority of the individual over the state, rights over responsibilities: whether or not this is a good thing. The radical change in our thinking on this subject has had deep effects on the political landscape and indeed on civilization itself; we have become convinced that the individual is foremost and the state is a mere handmaid that exists to serve the needs and wants of the individual. The ancients, as I have noted in prior posts, would disagree heartily, as would Thomas Carlyle. But the question is whether they are wrong or whether they might have been correct.


23 thoughts on “Universal Suffrage?

  1. We, as in “We the People…”, have become such a greedy lot…wanting it all and for what? Mostly for…nothing. For free. We the people need to get a grip…too much entitlement thinking.

    My comment answers no question, a question that wasn’t even asked. Just an observation.

  2. Hugh, I’ll address my comment to this quoted central question, “So the central issue remains: the question of the priority of the individual over the state, rights over responsibilities: whether or not this is a good thing.”

    I think the issue of individual Vs the State is preposterous! I’m reminded of Aristotle’s wisdom of the Golden Mean – the central position between excess and defect. In other words, I believe the best approach is BALANCE.

    For the first time in history, we have the ability and the wealth to provide universal education in order to support Universal Suffrage and a healthy Democratic System. We choose not to do this. Why? The wealthy, controlling 1% of the population fear an informed electorate that has been trained to think independently.

    I almost choked as I read the claptrap about women’s place in society. Sure, let’s legislate women out of the workplace and mandate their roles as “barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.” Which families will be able to afford their own homes? How many of those children will be able to afford the fees of higher education? Precious few!

    I believe in the great power of women to provide the nurturing love so necessary in the successful upbringing of children. In my experience, not EVERY woman is capable of training children to adopt good values, etc. Back in those ‘good old days’ when most women stayed home to raise the kids, there was plenty of crime due to improperly raised children.

    In this day of increasing automation and all of the social stresses that go with it, we need to achieve a balance in our emphasis on the rights of the individual and the responsibilities of the individual to the larger society. Sacrificing the interests of one for the sake of the other is self-defeating. Universal education (not job preparation) is the answer. Forcing the female gender into prescribed roles while guaranteeing freedom of choice for the male gender will sentence humanity to another dark age of limited ‘progress’.

  3. Thankyou for this, it made me think, again! I moved at age 26 from a country in Africa where I was not allowed to vote (despite being born there), to the UK where I was entitled to vote. At the first opportunity I traipsed down to the polling station to cast my vote, and subsequently was mocked by my neighbours for so doing. Years later I moved to Australia where upon taking citizenship I was under a compulsion by law to vote. In the first instance only selected people could vote. In the second with universal suffrage, most couldn’t be bothered. In the third virtually100% of the population must vote! Did these differences make any difference to the quality of governance? I strongly doubt it. Indeed, look at the quality of politicians in those countries today – the method of choosing them seems to have had little effect on the outcome.

  4. Hugh, were you as surprised by Eliot’s position as I was? As for landowner’s being the only one’s eligible to vote, given some of the legacy owners, that may not make one wise. It also tends to make the landowners do things to preserve that heritage – such as convincing poor whites in the South the rebellion was over states rights, not owning slaves. Keith

    • A bit surprised, but there were other famous women who agreed publicly with her — Florence Nightengale, foe example. And we must recall that our perspective is so very different from hers. They regarded the strength of the political body as essential to the humanizing of home sapiens.We do not. We regard the individual as paramount and women are clearly individuals!
      (I may have spelled Florence’s name incorrectly. My spellcheck doesn’t like it.)

  5. Ahhh, my friend … so much food for thought.

    My thoughts, once I stopped growling over Eliot’s position, of course, are that to determine who should vote by class of people, ie., gender, race, landowner, wealth, is foolish, for within every one of those groups are intelligent persons with valuable ideas.

    That said, I would also concur that some people ought not to have the right to make decisions for the whole, simply because they do not care enough to try to understand what it is they are voting for. That’s where genuine education comes into play. So, that leaves us with a huge conundrum: how can that be achieved? Why, with a test, of course! Brilliant idea! But wait … didn’t we try that back in the latter part of the 19th century? Along with poll taxes … and … just look what happened.

    Not everybody is going to vote with intellect, but I cannot see anything but universal suffrage as being the answer. Education, certainly, would create more informed voters, but we are moving in the opposite direction. HOWEVER … IF every person eligible to vote actually does so, and IF there are no anomalies such as interference from outsiders, such as Russia, and IF we institute campaign finance rules to keep elections from being bought by large corporations and lobbyist groups, then I think we would end up with truly the best possible person in most cases.

    And returning, briefly, to Ms. Eliot’s ideas … there are some women who still believe that way … remember Phyllis Schafly? Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr …

    Good, thought-provoking post, by the way … stirs the adrenaline!

    • Yes….IF!!! By the way, in order to read Eliot’s remarks without having cardiac arrest one needs to try to see her perspective. In her day there were still people who thought the polity was more important than the individuals who comprise it. Accordingly, they asked different questions. They didn’t worry whether certain people were being denied access to power through the vote; rather, they asked whether it would be good for the polity to have everyone vote. In addition, Eliot was convinced that women could achieve their highest potential without competing with men in the work force. Remember, in her day it wasn’t yet all about money. Success was defined in entirely different terms than it is today. In any event, after reading her comment I would recommend that you pour yourself a tall glass of that wine you offer me on Mondays. It will help. Guarantee!

      • You are quite right, of course … times were different, ideologies have since morphed and evolved. Have we progressed and improved? Some days I wonder, but I have no desire to go backward, which sometimes it feels as if we are doing.

        I think your suggestion about the wine is an excellent one! 😉

  6. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Ever wonder whether it really makes sense for everyone to have the right to vote, especially given the results of our last disastrous election? Make no mistake, I support universal suffrage fully, completely. However, our friend Hugh raises some salient points that, while they do not change my mind, they do provide food for thought. Please take a few minutes to read his thoughtful and thought-provoking post! Thanks, Hugh!

  7. Being by nature cantankerous and censorious, while making matters worse by adhering to some of the more authoritarian principals of one type Socialist State I can be quite caustic about suffrage.
    Having said that history of the past thousand years suggest that although Democracy is a poor form of government all the alternatives are so much worse. So I have admit it must be the best of a bad bunch!
    Moving on from there we have consider the thorny issue of universal or ‘responsible’ voters. This leads to the question if voting is limited then who decides and on what basis. People being people there is no doubt that would lead a selective voting to suit just one group.
    The answer seems to lie in a constant and consistent message from a variety of consensually minded sources that to vote is a responsibility and a mature one at that. The politicians in turn should spend less time on vitriol and personal attacks and more on the worth of their arguments to support their views.. In short you might not agree with someone but you respect their view point.
    Otherwise you’ll end up with folk like me. People who think Stalin and Cromwell were OK, if they hadn’t taken the whole business too personally!

    • I also believe in universal suffrage. But I would predicate it on universal education — including a hefty dose of history and civics so those who later vote would at least understand the issues and be able (if not unwilling) to make an informed choice. But the quality of candidates is a key. At present it is low and seems to be sinking fast! Thanks for the input. I appreciate it.

  8. Universal Education and some kind of competence test (as unbiased as possible) as prerequisites to voting may work… eliminating the ignorant (or incompetent) but giving fair voice to everyone else, might work?

    But by it nature, voting is also an act of defiance – one against the other – man against man.

    The old political spin is an aged, no, decrepit story of deception, not leadership.

    The problems lie in the laws of social interaction, of communal living, of interconnected relationships.

    We have inside us (all of us), a deep mistrust of giving our life over to the decisions made by others.

    It doesn’t really matter what political party is in power, as soon as they invoke ‘mistrust,’ the system unravels.

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