The Corner


Fewer Voters, Continued

(Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Responses to my piece on voter qualifications have come in a number of predictable varieties.

  1. Kevin Kruse-ism, as practiced in this case by Professor Kruse himself. That goes roughly: “Here is an article that you didn’t write and don’t agree with, that was written the better part of a century ago and published many years before you were born, but for which you, through the mystical operations of my personal sensibilities, must be somehow morally culpable.” (My summary.) It’s dumb and it’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s apparently what passes for argument at Princeton.
  2. What About Trump?” I got a lot of, “See, these Trump people really hate democracy!” etc. That is a funny line of criticism to make against the guy who literally wrote The Case against Trump and who couldn’t have opposed the man any more energetically without running over him with a steamroller. A variation on that: “Sheesh, Republicans!” I’m not one of those, either. Another variation: “This is an obvious ploy to aggrandize the power of your own vote!” As regular readers of my work will know, I haven’t voted in a long time. This kind of thing is a way of not responding to the arguments that actually have been made. Also dumb, but not the kind of thing that gets you tenure at Princeton.
  3. Making My Point for Me. I don’t normally cite random idiots on Twitter to make a point, but, since my subject is the American voter and the random idiot on Twitter is a pretty good stand-in for the random idiot in the voting booth, indulge me. Jabroni No. 1 (@hoosieraaron) responds: “Voting is good. Full stop.” This is precisely the unsupported, unargued, simply asserted claim that my column is about. The British “full stop” is, I suppose, more emphatic than “period,” but it doesn’t actually make an argument. And even if it did, it would not address the further argument in the piece, that even if more widespread voting were in and of itself a good thing, it would not be the only good thing and would involve tradeoffs with other goods, such as verifying eligibility and preventing fraud, which, contrary to the claims of our progressive friends, does happen pretty often. Jabroni No. 2 (@J_Hurstman) makes the same argument in almost the same words (though not, I think, in response to me), writing: “If ‘easier voting is good,’ then any law that makes voting harder – which the GA law does, in multiple ways—is bad. Full stop.” (Again with the “full stop.”) That isn’t an argument against what they’re doing in Georgia — it’s a law against, among other things, voter registration and eligibility requirements. Again, you might think that more voting is good, but that doesn’t make it the only good.
  4. You’re a Racist.” That’s the most predictable sentence in our political conversation, used promiscuously and dishonestly and hardly worth responding to. Also dumb and dishonest, but it’s nice work if you can get it.
  5. Elitist!” That’s the right-wing version of, “You’re a racist,” and of similar merit.

The emotional incontinence of the responses and the accompanying lack of anything that might be considered a genuine argument is further confirmation that what we are dealing with here is not a political idea at all but instead that very American form of idolatry: democracy as a religion — the supernatural belief that “voting is sacred,” as Deb Haaland and many others have put it. But we should not allow that kind of figurative hyperbole to lead us astray: Voting is not sacred — it is, at best, useful, a way of organizing government that is, for all of its many faults, more convenient than bonking one another on the head.

But there are lots of very democratic political situations that produce terrible outcomes (India for much of its modern history) and situations in which the strict limitation of democracy creates superior outcomes (the Bill of Rights). Unlimited, unqualified democracy has been such a dangerous mess in so many contexts for so many centuries that our Founding Fathers despised the very word — and blessed their countrymen with a form of government in which majorities do not get their way when it comes to many very important things.

Contrary to our national political faith, voting is not a precondition of legitimacy. The People’s Republic of China is an awful and evil state in many ways, but it is not an illegitimate one in the estimate of the people who consent to be governed by it. We don’t have to like that to understand it, and we’d be better off understanding it. The European Union is a non-democratic superstate that is legitimate in spite of what some of its leaders concede is a “democracy deficit.”  The U.S. Senate was not an illegitimate body when its members were not elected by the people; the Supreme Court is not made illegitimate by the fact that its members are not elected; nobody walking this earth voted for the Bill of Rights — an antidemocratic measure that puts certain things beyond the reach of mere elected majorities — but it is not for that reason illegitimate. Sixteen-year-olds are not oppressed by the fact that don’t have the vote, even though some of them pay taxes. The District of Columbia is not oppressed by its constitutional status. Etc.

If I read a good response, I’ll let you know.


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