Opinion

The cynic's case for democracy

Anti-voting conservatives are courting violence

Maybe democracy is actually … bad? As conservatives desperately search for rationalizations to justify Republicans' assault on voting rights in Georgia and several other states, this classic dumb argument is bubbling up once again. The case for disenfranchisement is the same one you've probably heard at a bar or party over the years: There are tons of stupid people in America, and they can't be trusted to make wise decisions.

"Voters — individually and in majorities — are as apt to be wrong about things as right about them," writes Kevin D. Williamson at National Review. They "often vote from low motives such as bigotry and spite, and very often are contentedly ignorant."

On the merits, this is a crock. The average citizen is every bit as trustworthy as the average graduate of Harvard, investment banker, elected official or political pundit, if not more so. Moreover, the whole moral foundation of democracy is political equality — a social contract between the people and their elected representatives.

But there is another more cynical case for universal voting. Democracy, which has come to be based on an ever-greater franchise, provides legitimacy to government and an orderly mechanism for resolving political conflict. Undermine those things, and violence and instability could spill out of control.

When someone is designing a disenfranchisement scheme, there is an inherent conflict of interest. One will always be tempted to shade the categories of "worthy voters" so that the scheme benefits one's own political interests. This is the plainly obvious intention of the recent Georgia election law. Williamson also suggests raising the voting age to 30, and you'll never guess what party young people voted for in 2020.

Republicans have been even more blatant in the past — in a 2016 hearing in North Carolina (a state with a nearly 50-50 partisan balance) about gerrymandering, state Rep. Dave Lewis said: "I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats." Even in the impossible hypothetical case of a disenfranchisement scheme designed by some truly disinterested monks or whatever, the party on the losing side will still perceive it as cheating.

This means that once one sides starts disqualifying voters, political competition will tend to become less about winning more votes and more about rigging the electoral system. If Kevin D. Williamson is cooking up arguments to justify disenfranchising liberal constituencies, I would be equally justified in cooking up arguments to disenfranchise Kevin D. Williamson. (Perhaps we could say that anyone who has written for a publication that supported Jim Crow is not allowed to vote.) This is a possibility conservatives never seem to consider — probably because their party is the one that doesn't have majority support — but one could easily imagine Democrats getting fed up and deciding that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

This in turn destabilizes the political system. Simply in terms of orderly government, the great virtue of democracy is that there is a regular, non-violent, broadly-accepted procedure for resolving political conflict and conducting a transfer of power. In a democracy, when some group thinks the incumbent leaders aren't doing a great job, they don't take up arms and try to overthrow the government by force, they take up signs and attempt to persuade their fellow citizens that they would perform better. Conversely, if the ruling party loses an election, they don't retreat to the countryside and start an insurgency; they re-calibrate their platform and prepare for the next one.

Democracies have not always had universal adult suffrage, of course, and especially not in the U.S. But for the last 250 years the American franchise has been expanded — to freed slaves in the 1870s, to women in 1920, and to the descendants of slaves in the South in 1965, in keeping with the logic of political equality mentioned above. The 1872 election was unfair to women, for instance, but that injustice was eventually corrected. And in no way do those historical limitations justify newly disenfranchising particular demographics to maintain one-party authoritarian rule. That was what happened in the South under Jim Crow from about 1890-1965, which even conservatives like Williamson have to admit was grossly immoral. By the same token, expanding voting by lowering the eligibility age or allowing prisoners and ex-cons to vote would not be cheating, because doing so would only strengthen the system's basic foundation of legitimacy. Nothing guarantees prisoners or youths will support Democrats in perpetuity, or indeed today.

Political violence and resulting instability are the signature weaknesses of authoritarian systems like monarchies or empires. When a king is doing a poor job, opposition forces have few choices but to wait for him to die or launch a rebellion. Henry VI of England, for instance, could not rule effectively (he was famously timid and suffered numerous mental breakdowns), but remained king for decades, and the resulting power vacuum fueled open political violence and eventually civil war.

Even when a king or queen is ruling well, when he or she dies the line of succession might not be clear, easily leading to war over who will rule next. Or if it is clear, some ruthless pretender to the throne might seize the opportunity to make a grab for power anyway. The history of monarchy is rife with brutal conflicts touched off by the death of a king or emperor. One of the big reasons the Western Roman Empire collapsed entirely was that Roman forces were regularly distracted from external threats by succession crises — too busy fighting among themselves for the imperial purple to unite against invading tribes.

Alert readers will notice that the United States already has many of the morbid symptoms of authoritarian dysfunction. Republicans did not, in fact, accept they were beaten in 2020. Instead President Trump whipped his supporters into a frenzy with lies that Democrats had stolen the election, and they tried to overthrow the government by force. As historian Eric Hobsbawm writes in his book Age of Extremes, "Democratic systems do not work unless there is a basic consensus among most citizens about the acceptability of their state and social system, or at least a readiness to bargain for compromise settlements."

Anti-democracy conservatives such as Williamson and Georgia Republicans, just like their fire-eater ideological ancestors, do not realize the danger the arguments and tactics they are pushing pose to themselves. If a large enough fraction of the population comes to believe that democracy is illegitimate, then we are right back to raw force as the ultimate arbiter of political conflict. Why accept that somebody is your "real" representative when the system has been rigged so they cannot possibly lose? And in that case why not march on Washington and throw them out? The reason even a minority party should support fair elections based on a universal franchise is that it's better than civil war — and besides, history shows that today's minority is most often tomorrow's majority.

This country doesn't even have a tradition of monarchy that might theoretically provide a minimal foundation for permanent Republican rule — on the contrary, the entire legitimacy of the American state is based on the consent of "we the people" (which is why conservatives have to come up with such preposterous arguments that "the people" should include fewer people, or convince themselves that Democrats are the ones stealing elections). Republicans would put themselves in basically the same position as King George III in 1776, and we all know how that turned out.

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