Monday, March 23, 2015

Democracy, Our Republic & Obama

President Obama, whose party was trounced in last year’s midterm election due in part to poor turnout among Democrats, endorsed the idea of mandatory voting Wednesday.

“It would be transformative if everybody voted,” Mr. Obama said during a town-hall event in Cleveland. “That would counteract [campaign] money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.”

. . . [W]e’ve got to have a better debate about how we make our democracy better and encourage more participation.”

Washington Times, Obama Calls For Mandatory Voting In The U.S., 18 March 2015

Okay, I'll bite. Let's talk about "democracy" and suffrage. But to understand those concepts within the context of our Republic, you need to go back to the time that the Founders drafted our Constitution.

The American Revolution, defined by the Declaration of Independence and culminating in our Constitution, marked the pinnacle of the Age of Enlightenment. What our Founders built with the Constitution was not a democracy, it was a Republic underpinned by a carefully limited democracy. One could be excused for thinking that our unreserved reverence for democracy today extends back in time all the way to the Founding Fathers, but that is decidedly not the case.

The Founders certainly believed in democracy as the basis of self-rule. While writing the Constitution, the Founders ignored the issue of suffrage -- i.e., who would be entitled to vote in that democracy. Their concern was with the role democracy itself was to play in our form of government.

Their view of democracy was that it was a double-edged sword that needed to be carefully limited in two respects. One, the purer the democracy, the more likely to lead to "mob rule," something to be shunned every bit as much as an aristocracy. As Thomas Jefferson opined, "democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” John Adams was even harsher in his criticism:

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.

Their second criticism of democracy, expressed in countless forums by our Founders, was that the average person, what we would call the "low information voter" today, was not paying intimately close attention to the issues of the day and could be led astray by charismatic politicians who were not fit to lead. Thus, while the Founders thought that democracy worked at the local level -- the town meetings of Massachusetts fame, for example -- they were deeply distrustful of democracy beyond that.

That is why, when they crafted our Constitution, the Founders allowed for direct democratic election of only 1/6th of our federal government, the members of the House of Representatives. Senators were to be appointed by elected Governors. The President was not to be directly elected, but rather a convention was to be held among people either locally elected or, at the State's choosing, appointed by the State to act as representatives at the convention. There, the representatives were to examine the candidates and make an informed decision before casting a ballot in an Electoral College. Once chosen, it was the President who would appoint Judges to the third co-equal branch of our government, but only with the consent of the Senate. At each level, our Founders tried to filter out the worst aspects of democracy, while still maintaining democracy as the foundation upon which our Republic is built.

We've certainly moved away from their vision and in the direction of greater democracy since the Constitution was drafted. We have had direct elections of Senators for the past century. Consequently, we've had a vast expansion of the federal government at the expense of state's rights, the Senators no longer being answerable to the Governors. And the electoral college is antiquated, effecting the selection of President, but with representatives pre-selected for candidates, it is now virtually a purely direct, democratic vote. Thus, the low information voter so feared by our Founders now plays an already outsized role in the formation of our government.

We've also had a vast expansion in suffrage. At the time of the Constitution was written, suffrage was extended only to white male property owners or those who paid sufficient taxes to give them a stake in the rate of taxes and the disposition of the public funds. It was both inevitable and necessary that, in a nation defined by it's aspirational statement that "all men are created equal," with God given rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," that suffrage would be extended to all irrespective of race, gender, and the like. It was not inevitable that the property or tax requirements would be removed, thus severing the link between those who funded the government and the control over taxes and the disposition of government funds, but in light of the misuse of these requirements to limit suffrage based on race, they too had to go. That said, one could make a strong argument today that, if strictly neutral application of the standards could be enforced, those standards should be returned.

Enter Obama, who would like to see all people required to vote, apparently believing that the left has a much greater edge among low information voters and those voters not paying into the tax base. Allowing his plan would be the final nail in the coffin of the form of government our Founders so carefully crafted. All of the dangers of democracy that they tried to filter out would become our modern reality.

And of course it is not just that which makes Obama's call for mandatory voting objectionable. There's also the little matter that forced voting would also be a violation of our First Amendment, which has been interpreted to protect against enforced "political speech." But it is not like Obama has shown the least amount of concern for our Constitution in other contexts.


Jeff said...

The Washington Times (a conservative paper, naturally) intentionally left out the part where Obama said it would take a constitutional amendment to enact such a scheme. They did that for a reason. They count on lazy people such as yourself to not look up what was between those ellipses.

He also mentioned that mandatory voting would solve the problem of politicians (read: republicans) doing everything they could to keep poor minorities from voting and that's why they would never go for such an idea. I can see why the right is so up in arms about Obama's thought experiment.

GW said...

Jeff, the purpose of this post was to discuss the roles of democracy and suffrage in our form of government. The issues of suffrage are well known; the views of the Founders concerning democracy are not. Indeed, I've been researching for a project for the past two years and was myself unaware of the Founders attitudes towards democracy until relatively recently. I was quite surprised. And as I sit here, I honestly do not know what the proper balance should be regarding the degree of democracy or the extent of suffrage. I do know Obama's expressed desire would effect the existing balance.

Your charge that the right wants to prevent minorities from voting is just more ridiculous crap. The question here as to democracy itself is how far do we extend the concept of democracy into the form of government itself. Do we need to open it up more, or should we be looking to bring things back to what the Founders intended? Legitimate arguments can be made for either, but what can't be argued is that mandatory voting would be a step away from what the Founders envisioned.

That said, put aside your knee jerk progressivism for a moment and ask yourself whether our government would be more prudent if suffrage were limited to those who pay taxes. I'll stipulate that it is simply a thought exercise at the moment, because doing so would indeed disenfranchise too many minorities in the reality of our society today. But, we're soon going to be looking at a national debt of $20 trillion. Something needs to change, and I would argue that it needs to change structurally to make government more fiscally responsible. Again, arguments either side . . . etc.

As to your comment, "lazy people such as yourself" . . . really Jeff. Please knock that kind of crap off. If you want to actually hold a debate on this stuff, comport yourself with a bit more class. I am not sure whether Obama's comment is in the article or not. If I missed it, then it's one on me.

That said, it would not change the post. Obama said years ago that he didn't have the Constitutional authority to take those acts he has authorized within the past months as regards immigration.

Jeff said...

ask yourself whether our government would be more prudent if suffrage were limited to those who pay taxes

If your yardstick is the national debt, then I would much rather have a democrat as president. Republicans talk a good game, but always blow the bank when they get in charge.

The debt exploded under Reagan and Bush 43. Clinton brought it down and the only reason it's high now is because Obama a) inherited the spending used to fix the economic mess Bush got us into and b) moved the Iraq and Afghanistan boondoggles from supplemental spending and actually put them in the budget.

So would we better better off if only people who paid taxes could vote? No. They'd just vote for more republicans. And the undeniable fact is that republicans, not democrats, are the big spenders.