The Belittling of Democracy Author: Will in ChicagoDate:2014-09-27 10:45:30
Ever since I could vote, I took my responsibility to do so very seriously. I grew up in a neighborhood with many veterans. The local polling place was my Chicago elementary school. My classes in grade school included learning about the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions. We even took a trip to Springfield to see the state legislature.
With that background, perhaps it is understandable that I get upset at efforts to strip people of their democratic rights or belittle democracy. Strangely, several stories have emerged with this as a central theme during the past week. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, a rather harsh meme began at Fox News with Elisabeth Hasselback urging tests for voters. From Crooks and Liars:
Elisabeth Hasselbeck: Elections a ‘more meaningful measure’ if voters must pass a test x News host Elisabeth Hasselbeck on Monday argued that requiring a “citizenship test” to vote made the outcome of elections “more meaningful.” Two Republican state legislators in Utah last week announced a bill that would require students to pass a citizenship test before they could graduate high school. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, journalist Carl Bernstein, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and actor Joe Mantegna were backing similar measures in Utah and six other states.
On Monday, Utah Civics Education Initiative co-chair Lorena Riffo-Jensen told Hasselbeck that requiring a civics test was a good first step for encouraging students to be involved in the community. Hasselbeck suggested taking the idea “one step further” by requiring a test to vote. “Should you have to answer, I mean, the majority of these questions?” she wondered. “If not by graduation of high school, but by the time you vote?”
Hasselback seems to be oblivious to the fact that such tests were used to keep African-Americans from voting. Of course, this is Elisabeth Hasselback, not one of the leading intellectual heavyweights of the conservative movement. Still, the thought that she would be this ignorant of U.S. history is distressing.
And so it’s strange that Brooks, in the midst of a serviceable column about undue panic, presents an undue panic of his own, replete with his own tin-eared solution. We are in the midst of a “leadership crisis,” Brooks writes, and the answer to it is a “return” to leadership by a self-styled elite class. This leadership crisis is eminently solvable. First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite — during the American revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically. The “masses” will be fascinated to hear that they currently “directly wield” power. Who knew? It still sort of seems like elites run everything and “the masses” just stand by, watch and live by the decisions. Sure, we have charlatans who come around and pretendlike they’re giving power to the masses by ginning up deluded strategies — that Cruz and other members of the Republican Party can shut down the government in order to extract the “peoples’ demands” via ransom. But “the masses” and that elite-consensus leadership still overrule all. The financial crisis came and went and the banking sector continues as it ever was, tailored by a few modest reforms unnoticeable to the naked eye. The president has just begun a years-long bombing campaign in Syria without receiving either direct authorization or a war declaration from Congress. If this is what the elites’ nightmare scenario of democracy giving way to mob rule looks like, then mob rule is pretty lame. Brooks argues that the switch from pretend-covert to overt rule-by-elite can only be accepted if the elite are willing to make a sacrifice — to become the “responsible” elite who, uh, buy less stuff, for P.R. purposes: Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.
Brooks seems to forget that many of our Founding Fathers such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin– who rebelled against Great Britain – were suspicious of aristocracy while others like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton wanted to recreate a British style aristocracy in America. History shows that the people rejected aristocracy, but I suppose David Brooks needs someone to lord over him as he seems incapable of realizing most of us wish to be citizens not subjects.
The Texas GOP supports repealing the 17th Amendment, which in 1913 established the direct election of US senators by the voters, taking that power away from state legislatures, which famously could be bought for pretzels and cheese. In the Gilded Age, in part because of the ease of wholesale bribery at the state level, corporations like Standard Oil and Union Pacific had the US Senate in their pocket (not that it’s much better these days). In their frenzied dreamland, what’s left of the Voting Rights Act would be repealed and more stringent restrictions on who’s allowed to vote would be put in place, further disenfranchising minorities. What’s more, Congress is to “withhold Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases involving abortion, religious freedom and the Bill of Rights” (!) and the Texas state legislature is to “ignore, oppose, refuse, and nullify any federal mandated legislation which infringes upon the states’ 10th Amendment Right.” State nullification of federal law has been consistently forbidden by the Supreme Court since 1809 and, with slavery, was at the core of the losing Confederate cause 150 years ago. Then it was again used unsuccessfully by those opposed to the civil rights movement of the sixties. Still, it refuses to go away, like an antibiotic-resistant strain of strep.
In October 2011, an article appeared in my local paper reporting that, in order to vote in the next election, everyone was going to need a state-issued identity card for the first time. At 85 years old, I didn’t have one, because I’m handicapped and so I never drove a car or needed an ID. The newspaper said that I’d have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and register for a card, and it had a list of the documents that I needed to bring. I hadeverything – except for the legal birth certificate. I’m not sure my parents ever gave that to me. I did have a baptism certificate that was notarized, but that was all. My daughter drove me down to the DMV with my stack of paperwork, and we tried to ask the receptionist if I had everything, but she just handed me a form with a mess of questions on it. I told her I didn’t have a birth certificate, but she didn’t say I couldn’t go further, so we sat down and I filled it out and brought it back to her. She barely looked at it, handed it back to me and sent me to the photo department, so I thought we were all set. But after the photo person took my picture, he sent me to another woman, and I handed her the form and my stack of papers, and she just threw my baptism certificate back at me and said it wasn’t valid and I couldn’t get an ID. She even said, “How do I know you’re not an illegal alien?!” That really hurt. I’d lived in the same house for 85 years, I’d served on the village board for 18 years, and then they told me that I wasn’t going to be allowed to vote. I always voted. I’ve been registered to vote since I was 21 (the voting age wasn’t 18 until later), and I have never missed a presidential election.
Mrs. Frank is going to get a birth certificate at a cost of $200 but is upset that she has to pay to protect a right that she has enjoyed all her adult life.