The Age-Old Conservative Argument Against Universal Suffrage

Progressives have always been for expanding the franchise and conservatives have always been for restricting it. It's been a hard and long-fought battle... one that progressives have been winning, but with the Republican Party increasingly turning towards authoritarianism and fascism, the fight continues today, especially in the old Confederacy, which has always violently opposed universal suffrage.

When the U.S. freed itself from British, a project actively supported by around one-third of the population, the Constitution did not delineate who would and wouldn't be allowed to vote leaving that up to the individual states. The states generally agreed the vote should be exclusively reserved for what amounted to 6% of the population:

  • white

  • male

  • adult

  • property owners

Over time, progressives have fought-- including in the Civil War-- to change that narrow vision of "democracy." American conservatives, particularly in the South, have never stopped fighting to turn back that progress. By the middle of the 19th century the property-owner restrictions had been pretty much abolished, though some states made paying taxes a requirement. In 1899, Florida was the first of 11 southern states to establish a poll tax, meant to discourage working class voters, especially former slaves. Poll taxes were finally banned for federal elections by the 24th amendment in 1965 and a year later the Supreme Court banned all poll taxes-- still in use in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia-- from being applied in state and local races.

The Constitution was forced to mandate suffrage in backward, conservative-controlled states, starting in 1870 when the victorious United States said by way of the 15th Amendment that excluding people from voting based on race or color would never again be tolerated. The South never stopped-- to this day-- fighting that 15th Amendment. [It's exactly what Governors Kemp (R-GA) and Abbott (R-TX) are up to right this minute.] 50 years later, the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution, making it illegal for backward conservative states to prevent women from voting. In 1961 The South lost again when the 23rd Amendment gave the right to vote to the (mostly black) residents of the District of Columbia-- an unfinished battle that Congress will try to remedy by granting DC statehood this month. In 1971, the 26th Amendment made it mandatory for all states to allow anyone over the age of 18 to vote.

Many backward, conservative states have tried to use the pretext of literacy to deny the franchise to poor peopled, especially to black poor people in the South. Ironically, the first literacy tests were used to prevent Irish immigrants from voting in Connecticut (1855) and, 2 years later, Massachusetts. In 1890, Mississippi figured out literacy tests could be used in an arbitrary fashion to deny blacks the right to vote. They were outlawed by the United States government-- much to the chagrin of the old Confederate states-- in 1915.

Tuesday, the National Review published an argument by one of its in-house neo-fascist authors, Kevin Williamson, defending voter suppression attempts in Georgia and Texas by advocating for fewer but "better quality" voters. He begins by arguing for the categorical disenfranchisement of felons... and then lauds the idea of raising the voting age to 30.

His point is that "There would be more voters if we made it easier to vote, and there would be more doctors if we didn’t require a license to practice medicine. The fact that we believe unqualified doctors to be a public menace but act as though unqualified voters were just stars in the splendid constellation of democracy indicates how little real esteem we actually have for the vote, in spite of our public pieties. There are tradeoffs in voting, as there are in all things. Democrats prefer to minimize attention paid to voting fraud and eligibility enforcement, but even a little bit of fraud or improper voting is something that should be discouraged and, if possible, prevented. It is-- spare me your sob stories-- something that should be prosecuted in most cases. It is a fact that many of the things that would be useful in discouraging and preventing voting fraud would also tend to make voting somewhat more difficult for at least some part of the population. Republicans generally think that tradeoff is worth it, and Democrats generally don’t. Is there motivated reasoning at work there? Of course. But the mere presence of political self-interest does not tell us whether a policy is a good one or a bad one."

Ironically, almost every case of voter fraud in the last 2 decades-- and there haven't been very many-- has involved conservative Republicans who have felt they are entitled to cheat.

Williamson is that kind of an elitist and, simply put, he hates Americans who aren't part of the elite groups he identifies with. Williamson is what cancel culture is all about; he wants to cancel non-elites. "One argument for encouraging bigger turnout is that if more eligible voters go to the polls then the outcome will more closely reflect what the average American voter wants," he wrote. "That sounds like a wonderful thing . . . if you haven’t met the average American voter. Voters-- individually and in majorities-- are as apt to be wrong about things as right about them, often vote from low motives such as bigotry and spite, and very often are contentedly ignorant. That is one of the reasons why the original constitutional architecture of this country gave voters a narrowly limited say in most things and took some things-- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.-- off the voters’ table entirely."

I don't think that that's why the Founders took "freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc" off the table. The historical context of what they were doing had to do with elites encroaching on those freedoms, not on the masses abrogating them. Williamson is a deceptive conservative, twisting the historical facts to make his weak points seem plausible. He claims-- again erroneously-- that "If we’d had a fair and open national plebiscite about slavery on December 6, 1865, slavery would have won in a landslide... Conservatives ought to at the very least be mindful of the fact that if policy truly represented the preferences of the average American, then we would have fewer economic liberties and diminished Second Amendment rights." He then makes up an argument that progressives should fear democracy because the masses are anti-Choice-- a lie-- and because tax hikes would not fly-- another lie. Most Americans feel the rich aren't taxed nearly enough and that they should be-- and that includes Republicans, just not elitists like Williamson.

And then he gets to the age-old conservative argument against democracy:

The real case-- generally unstated-- for encouraging more people to vote is a metaphysical one: that wider turnout in elections makes the government somehow more legitimate in a vague moral sense. But legitimacy is not popularity and popularity is not consent. The entire notion of representative government assumes that the actual business of governing requires fewer decision-makers rather than more.
Representatives are people who act in other people’s interests, which is distinct from carrying out a group’s stated demands as certified by majority vote. Legitimacy involves, among other interests, the government’s responsibility to people who are not voters, such as children, mentally incapacitated people, incarcerated felons, and non-citizen permanent residents. Their interests matter, too, but we do not extend the vote to them. So we require a more sophisticated conception of legitimacy than one-man, one-vote, majority rule. To vote is only to register one’s individual, personal preference, but democratic citizenship imposes broader duties and obligations. When we fail to meet that broader responsibility, the result is dysfunction: It is no accident that we are heaping debt upon our children, who cannot vote, in order to pay for benefits dear to the most active and reliable voters. That’s what you get from having lots of voting but relatively little responsible citizenship.
Voting is, among other things, an analgesic. It soothes people with the illusion that they have more control over their lives and their public affairs than they actually do. Beyond naked political self-interest, it probably is the sedative effect of voting that makes expanding participation attractive to a certain kind of politician. The sedative effect is why the Philadelphia city council has not been drowned in the Schuylkill River and why the powers that be in California have not been exiled to North Waziristan. When people vote, they feel like they’ve had their say, and they are, for some inexplicable reason, satisfied with that.
...Progressives and populists like to blame lobbyists, special interests, “the Swamp,” insiders, “the Establishment,” vested interests, shadowy corporate titans, and sundry boogeymen for our current straits, but the fact is that voters got us into this mess. Maybe the answer isn’t more voters.

The battle against conservatism will never be over-- until there are no more conservatives-- in other words, never, since there will always be elites advocating against change and against equality... and against democracy.