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The Ultimate Wedge Issue in a Democracy

Here is an honest and easy-to-understand statement of a Republican belief that lies behind their efforts to place burdensome and bureaucratic barriers between citizens and the ballot box:

Few citizens have the formidable intellectual and moral capacities (let alone the time) required for the role that [popular democracy] assigns to the citizenry, although defenders of the concept believe that participation in democratic political activity strengthens these capacities, enabling a virtuous cycle.

That quote is from Judge Richard Posner, of the Seventh U.S. Court of Appeals. It’s in his book, "Law, Pragmatism and Democracy."  Posner wrote the appeals court opinion approving Indiana’s restrictive voter identification requirements. The restrictions on voting, he said in that opinion, would harm many citizens. But we shouldn’t care.

Let the quote sink in.

Because so many of us lack the intellectual and moral capacity to participate in our governance, restrictions on voting are no big deal to Posner and his ilk.

In Texas this week, debate opens on a proposal that places extraordinary identification requirements on citizens who wish to vote. The proposed law’s ambiguous language appears to grant part-time, amateur polling place officials the absolute power to accept or reject a would-be voter based solely on that citizen’s appearance or other subjective judgments. For the first time since women and blacks were granted the vote, appearance alone may disqualify a would-be voter. We’ll return to this in a moment.

Posner is an open opponent of popular democracy.  Most anti-democrats simply lie, not wishing to fuel what is the ultimate "wedge" issue in a democracy:  should all citizens share equally in the decision-making of their communities and country? Some Republican backers of restrictions on voting may not share Posner’s belief in the inferiority of many citizens. They simply want to use the law to reduce the number of people inclined to vote against them.

Judging by the global climate crisis, the worldwide economic meltdown, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, endemic poverty and hunger, and centuries-old warfare based upon obscure religious doctrines, it would appear that it’s the elites – not the people – who lack in the necessary intellectual and moral capacity to lead. I constantly wonder how your typical self-congratulatory elite could look at the state of the world and still want to claim membership in the decision-making class.

It would seem only prudent, finally, to give authentic popular democracy a chance. And by popular democracy I simply mean a system that eliminates all possible hurdles and maximizes citizen participation so that true public preferences are easily translated into policy. Political scientists term it, "strong democracy." This doesn’t require "direct democracy" (rule by initiative and referendum) or, necessarily, new deliberative bodies. But maybe the state should register every eligible voter, offer election-day registration and create mandatory election-day holidays.

Republicans would have us believe that all they are suggesting with their new voter burdens is that citizens be required to prove who they are before being allowed to vote. After all, they say, you have to show a picture I.D. to get on an airplane. But that begs the question: do we really want our polling places to become like airport security screening areas? Come to think of it, the GOP’s notorious "no fly" lists do resemble the dubious "felon" lists (containing healthy shares of non-felons) they employ to erase millions from voter registration rolls. Voting, by the way, is a Constitutional right. Flying is a commercial transaction, an option.

This is one of those crazy issues where the truth is obscured by a spin war in which the arbiter – the press – helps hide the truth beneath a blanket of faux fairness. Every journalist, every lawmaker, every close observer, every expert knows that new restrictions will reduce the number of qualified citizens who vote. But if the Republicans deny it, their denial is granted equal weight. Once again, it would appear that the some elites who filter and describe such debates for the public are the ones lacking necessary moral and intellectual capacities.

The Republicans risk a backlash from an important sector of their historical alliance among racists and anti-government, libertarian-leaning individualists. Bigots will applaud restrictions that keep the objects of their hatred away from the polls. But libertarians might recognize the dark shadow of authoritarianism that’s cast by attacks on the right to vote.

This ultimate wedge issue has been with us since our nation was born, of course. Even a cursory glance at the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, or the letters exchanged by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson reveals it. We’re still writing the Federalist. The history of America is no more or less than the record of this struggle.

The side one takes is absolutely defining. One either believes in popular democracy, or one doesn’t, whether the reason to oppose it is power-madness, material selfishness, or intellectual, class or racial prejudice.

Returning to the upcoming debate in Texas, we need to look at the context. Republicans control every statewide office. Democrats are at the gates. They’ve nearly reached parity in the state House. And, in 2006 and 2008, they’ve swept or almost swept local offices in major urban areas. Redistricting approaches. Rust belt areas will lose congressional seats. Texas will gain four or five. So that might be a turnaround of 10 seats. Consider the possibility of ten additional Republican seats in the 2012, post-redistricting election. Subtract ten Democratic seats. Now we see what’s behind the Republican game.

It’s democracy that threatens Republican power. Curbing democracy is their strategy.

In Texas, the bill appears to give unprecedented power to local, part-time, volunteer election officials. Even Republicans should worry about what happens under such a proposal. What are they going to do when, in the course of a hotly contested Republican primary, partisanship overwhelms these officials and voters begin getting rejected because they look younger than they say they are? See, Republicans don’t want to appear like they’re attacking the elderly, so they’re talking about exempting the elderly from burdensome I.D. requirements. But won’t it take an I.D. to prove one qualifies for the exemption? This is how stupid their proposal is.

Then again, glancing at their sorry history of voter suppression, they probably don’t care. So long as they get a restriction in the law, they can use direct mail, phone calls and neighborhood posters to scare people into thinking they may not have the documents necessary to get through the screening process. That alone will diminish political participation, and that’s really all the Republicans want.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith