Who Should Vote?

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.

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Discrimination

It wasn’t that long ago that discrimination was a desirable sort of thing. One learned about art, music, and wine in order to acquire a “discriminating” taste. One could, presumably, distinguish good wine, art, and music — separate these from the wanna-bes. But those times have passed.  Much like the word “discipline” which has acquired negative connotations,  “discrimination” has become a nasty word, reflective of a determination to deny folks their inalienable rights. No one should be discriminated against, no matter what.

This is a classic example of a half-truth that has taken on all the feeling of an axiom in this culture. To be sure, there are cases in which discrimination is without grounds and ethically unacceptable — as when a black couple is denied access to an apartment, not because they don’t have references or are unable to pay the rent, but simply because they are black. And we know this happens, to be sure. In fact, it happens more than we like to admit. We don’t want to accept the fact that people would be that narrow-minded, but many are.

On the other hand, there are cases in which discrimination would appear to be the better part of wisdom. Consider the following cases. You are interviewing candidates to broadcast the evening news and a young woman appears with her lower lip pierced and she is unable to pronounce foreign names or read the teleprompter without squinting and considerable hesitation over two-syllable words. Bear in mind that as the person responsible you need to be aware of your audience, and your sponsors are certainly going to make sure you are. Your audience wants to see a pleasant face, someone who seems relaxed, and is able to pronounce the names of a great many folks who make the news each night — not one whose appearance is off-putting and who cannot seem to do her job. This would appear to be a legitimate instance of warranted discrimination, as opposed to unethical discrimination. You refuse this women the job. You are discriminating. But you are not discriminating against this person because she is a woman, but because she will not be able to do the job required of her — much like a 98 pound man who is refused a position in a heavy construction company because he cannot lift, as required, 200 pound bags of concrete eight or nine times each day on the job.

In a word, there are cases in which discrimination seems not only proper, but warranted. It is not always the case that it raises ethical red flags. Those flags are raised when the determination not to hire, let us say, is based on arbitrary criteria, such as gender, race, or creed — things that do not affect the person’s ability to perform the job at hand.  And that seems to be the key. Can this person do the job he or she is applying for? It would be wrong to assume that a woman, let us say, should not be hired for a job in heavy construction just because she is a woman. But if the job requires her to do things she is physically incapable of doing — not because she is a woman, but because she is simply not strong enough — then one would seem to be justified in turning her down for the job, assuming that the woman is given the chance to show she could do the work and is not being dismissed on the grounds of prejudice. The determination is not to be made a priori.

To return to our original point:  discrimination is a key to a good education. One learns about good art and good music and literature. But one also learns what criteria are applicable when it comes to the determination of whether a person is fit for a job — or political office. A well educated person is able to separate the relevant from the irrelevant; sound reasons and solid evidence from the bloat and rhetoric which issues forth from the mouths of so many political candidates. One learns how to discriminate against those who are incapable of doing the job they are asked to do, namely, lead the country in times of great need. Discrimination is not always wrong: it is sometimes the sign of a person who is well informed and able to make sound judgments. The key is to know when discrimination is ethically wrong and when it is central to a well-reasoned argument — when the criteria applied are arbitrary or when they are pertinent.