As the election nears — you can smell it a mile away! — I thought it appropriate to repost a piece I wrote two years ago that deals with the question of whether or not everyone should “get out and vote.” The push will soon be on, and there are solid reasons this year, especially, to get folks off their butts and into the voting booths (where, we will hope, all will be Kosher). To be sure, the vote this November may determine whether or not this Republic is capable of being saved! But there remains the question about the qualifications that ought to be demanded of those who determine the folks that are given the reins of power in this country. And that question is worth pondering.
The British fought with the issue of suffrage for much of the nineteenth century. How many people should be allowed to vote? It seems such a simple question, but it has numerous ramifications, twists, and convolutions. At the outset, when this nation was first founded, we followed the British example: men with property can vote, but no one else. The idea was that men with property had a vested interest in what their government did or didn’t do. It seemed to make sense. But like the English, we also fought with the issue of extending the suffrage.
One of the best sources to read about this issue, oddly enough, is novel by George Eliot: Felix Holt The Radical. It focuses close attention on the issue of extending the vote in Great Britain to many who were disenfranchised at the time. But the key issue, which the hero brings into sharp focus, is why the vote should be extended to the illiterate and unpropertied (the question of extending the vote to women was shelved until later!). Leaving aside the issue of ownership of property, the question is central to any meaningful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. After all, why should those who cannot read and write, who cannot possibly become well informed about the issues of the day, be placed in a position to vote on those who make laws? In Eliot’s novel, Holt takes the “radical”position that all male citizens would be allowed to vote, since everyone has a vested interest in the laws his government passes, whereas his conservative opponents argue the contrary position: only those with the demonstrated ability to understand the issues should be allowed to vote on those who will decide the fate of the nation. As Eliot has one of her Tory clergymen say in the novel:
“There’s no end to the mischief done by these busy prating men. They make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions, both political and religious, till we shall soon have no institution left that is not on a level with the comprehension of a huckster or a drayman. There can be nothing more retrograde — losing all the results of civilization, all the lessons of Providence — letting the windlass run down after men have been turning at it painfully for generations. If the instructed are not to judge for the uninstructed, why, let us set Dick Stubbs to make the almanacs and have a President of the Royal Society elected by universal suffrage.”
In this country we insist upon testing those from other countries who wish to become citizens, but we allow that any child born in the United States can vote upon coming of age, regardless of any other qualifications. In days long gone by, young people growing up in this country took a civics class as a normal part of their high school curriculum in which they learned about the machinations of the government — or at least how many Senators each state has. But no more. In fact, many high schools have gone away from any requirements whatever and allow the students to select most if not all of the courses they want for the four years they are within their hallowed halls. Civics is no longer taught and as result, the young not only do not know how to read and write, they know nothing whatever about the history of their own country or how the government works — the government that they will help select when coming of age.
The situation is complex, but the issues it raises are worth pondering at a time when the democratic system we are all so fond of is beginning to show signs of breaking down. It becomes more and more apparent each day that large numbers of disaffected people simply don’t want to have anything to do with politics (for good reasons, in many cases) and that by default the wealthy who have hidden agendas are placed in a position to “call the shots.” This hardly amounts to a democratic system; as I have noted in past comments, it is more like an oligarchy, government of the wealthy.
The problem of suffrage, therefore, gives birth to the interesting question whether everyone should vote and if so what qualification they should have, if any. As things now stand, in the interest of –what? — equality, we allow anyone at all to vote as long as they were born in this country and are of age or have passed their citizen’s test. That, in itself, is a problem. But added to it is the thought that despite the fact that it is so easy to vote (too easy?), more and more choose not to do so or vote based on the promises, soon to be broken, of some clown who has no qualifications for office at all.
Seems if voting is restricted, you invite corruption and greed and if voting is for all, you invite ignorance, apathy and gullibility of those less intelligent
It does appear to be a dilemma! The way out is to see that all citizens are well educated :).
George Elliot’s Felix Holt was published in 1866. Bleak House by Charles Dickens, in 1852. Both novels apparently (I haven’t read Felix Holt) deal with the elitist British Crown, “Commons” and Courts and their utter disdain for the poor and disenfranchised. In his intro to Bleak House, Dickens quote a Chancery court judge defending the “uprightness” (he uses the word ‘immaculate’) of court and judges (the book goes on the expose this farcical claim) that the court’s main problem was due to a “parsimonious public”, i.e., if the public wasn’t so stingy the courts could get more tax revenue and therefore function more effectively. At the time of Dickens’ writing some Chancery court cases had dragged on since the previous century! It seems the ‘deplorables’ have been at it for quite some time messing up an otherwise “immaculate” system of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. Perhaps not directly to your topic but an interesting “coincidence”. If voters were so totally ignorant of issues and so easily manipulated, then why would the elitist government, court and banking/business cabal be so intent on preventing people from voting through denial or disenfranchisement? I don’t vote, not because I don’t care but precisely because I do, and I am fully aware of the issues. But if one is opposed to gambling, choosing a casino that gives higher odds to its regulars is not exactly the way to protest against gambling. I’m not a fan of those who don’t vote because they can’t be bothered, in fact I’m well aware that such people do vote, their non-vote going to those who don’t need the popular vote to get “elected” as for example the current creature soiling the oval office.
I find it ironic that in this country at its founding the Electoral College was established to guarantee that the “people” would not directly elect any fools to high office. And yet it is precisely the Electoral College that has elected the present fool to the highest office in the land!