When I wrote a recent column describing the GOP's new voting laws as a "war on democracy," I expected a sharp response from the Right. What I thought I'd hear were variations on the following: "No, Republicans aren't at war with democracy. We're just trying to fight voter fraud and make sure elections are held fairly and uniformly within states. And that's a goal that enhances democracy."
Not only is this how the issue is usually discussed by Republican politicians; it's also the way nearly every political dispute in the United States over the past century has been framed — as a clash between different camps over which one can claim the mantle of "democracy" for itself. People will routinely assert that some other group, party, or position is anti-democratic in its aims and ideals. But no group, party, or position comes right out and explicitly denounces democracy in its own name.
At least until recently.
Allow me to quote a representative email written in response to my column: "I just read your piece on the GOP changes to voting laws. It's complete garbage! Americans who have no skin in the game should not be voting! The way things have evolved in the last 200 years is nothing short of disgusting! People who don't offer anything tangible to the country are given as much say as people who pay 400k in taxes per year? Ridiculous! How did we regress so far?"
An anti-democratic outlier? Five years ago, I would have thought so. But now I'm not so sure.
This was the week, of course, when the Supreme Court's five-member conservative majority knocked down limits on aggregate contributions to federal political campaigns, opening the door for the rich to exercise even more influence on the political system than they already do. It was also the week when Rep. Paul Ryan unveiled his latest budget proposal, which would gut food stamps and other aid to the poor. And as I wrote about the other day, this is a political season that has seen the Republican Party working to make it harder for poor people and members of minority groups to vote.
Then there was venture capitalist Tom Perkins suggesting a couple of months ago that only taxpayers should be permitted to vote — and that those who pay more in taxes should be given more votes to cast in elections. And that came less than two years after Mitt Romney was caught kissing up to wealthy GOP donors by denigrating the "moochers" who make up 47 percent of the country's population.
Ladies and gentlemen, that many data points make a pattern. We seem to be living in an era in which the Republican Party is turning against democracy in an increasingly explicit and undeniable way.
Within the context of the nation's recent political history, this is a shocking prospect. We're used to a constant evolution in the direction of ever-more democracy. At the time of the country's founding, the franchise was limited to white male property owners. Then the property qualification was eliminated. Then the vote was extended (de jure) to black men. Then to women. Then to all blacks (de facto), with most of the remaining obstacles to the exercise of voting rights by minorities and the poor removed by the mid-1960s.
What growing numbers of Republicans appear to want is a reversal of this trend — a reform of the political system to exclude large numbers of Americans from having a say in politics while augmenting and enhancing the electoral power of the rich.
This might be unprecedented in American history, but it's certainly not unthinkable. Despite our fondness for describing ourselves as a democracy, the American system is already far from being wholly democratic. A pure democracy would pick leaders by lot, indiscriminately assigning citizens to political office for fixed terms according to chance. This year your Aunt Bess might be president. Next year it could be a 19-year-old mechanic from Omaha. And so on, haphazardly hopscotching through the population at random.
The institution of elections introduces an element of hierarchy into the system, since it presumes that some people are more capable than others of exercising political rule and that voters can recognize this quality when they see it.
What the GOP appears to be inching toward is a rejection of the democratic presumption that all American citizens should have a say in making that determination. Interestingly, the anti-democratic argument doesn't seem to be arising directly or primarily from a concern about the quality of the people's political choices — a perennial and nontrivial objection to democratic forms of government going all the way back to Plato.
Instead, Republicans and their wealthy donor base appear, above all else, to be up in arms about the lack of deference shown to the rich, with the implication being that those at the top of the economic pyramid deserve greater public honors (and power) than they currently enjoy. (That certainly seems to be the subtext of this rather self-pitying Wall Street Journal op-ed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch.)
Aristotle would have recognized this line of argument instantly. It is the classic case for political rule of the few. Aristotle would also have been unsurprised to learn that those making this claim use their wealth as evidence of personal virtue or excellence that entitles them to honor and deference.
What the ancient philosopher could not have anticipated is the role that free-market ideology would play in convincing nonwealthy members of the Republican Party that the self-enriching activity of entrepreneurs ("job creators") self-evidently demonstrates their public-spiritedness and worthiness to wield political power without challenge.
Politicians of both parties are fond of saying that whatever election looms before us is the most important in recent memory. But if Republicans continue to stand against democracy itself, the hype, for once, will be true — and for a long time to come.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- How to trim $500 from your monthly spending
- Comic-Con 2014: Everything we learned about Avengers 2, Batman v. Superman, and more
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Are there too many good shows on television?
- The big, gaping hole in the liberal policy arsenal
- The forgotten victims of the war in Ukraine
- Blame Obama and U.S. evangelicals for the persecution of Iraqi Christians
Subscribe to the Week