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.


In Denial

The ongoing story of Allen West who refuses to admit defeat in Florida gives us pause. As the Yahoo News story begins:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Firebrand Republican Rep. Allen West was defeated by Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy, according to the state’s vote count Saturday, but the incumbent won’t concede.

Denial is a sad business, as Karl Rove will attest. After all, he gambled $300 million that he could buy a President — and lost. The saddest part in the Allen West case is that the “firebrand Republican” is apparently so invested in his role as representative he cannot let go. Well, it is a good gig: you make tons of money and you don’t have to do a damned thing! In addition, of course, one can imagine that the near certainty of victory tends to lead to a mindset that would be difficult for any of us to shake loose from. The Republican brain trust thought they had this one sewed up. There are a lot of angry folks out there in the red states on the map. West is still determined that he won in spite of the evidence to the contrary and in the face of a law that gives him no option but to step down — or pay through the nose for a typically fruitless recount. I am reminded of Bobcat Goldthwait’s comic bit in which he says that he hasn’t lost his job: he knows where it is, but when he goes there someone else is doing it! Allen West is likely to find out first-hand how unfunny this might be.

But this is an extreme case. Those who lose — whether it be an election or a sporting event — are disappointed and even distraught (depending on how high the stakes were). But it’s part of life, the part we withhold from our kids in order to protect them. We don’t want them to experience failure and disappointment so we shield them from it. The results are spoiled kids who drift directionless while their parents wonder what went wrong coupled with grade inflation in the schools where the teachers are unwilling or unable to fly in the face of a culture of entitlement. God forbid that we should ask the kids to do something they may not want to do! No one fails. At least not until their team loses or the votes are counted and the fact stares them in the face.

But some people can’t stand the truth and they hide behind a cloak of denial pretending that the world is what they want it to be and not what it is in fact. You can see them over there in the corner standing with the Congressmen who still deny global warming, waiting for the men in white coats to show up and take them to the Happy Home For The Bewildered. Their numbers are remarkably high.