For most of the history of direct and representative democracy, only a limited few were allowed to participate as voters in making decisions or electing representatives, typically free males with property. Ancient Athens, the late medieval and early Renaissance Italian city states and England for most of its democratic history come immediately to mind. In John Locke’s description of an ideal democracy, only free male property owners vote. That’s what our founding fathers thought, too, adding “white” as an additional qualifier.
It was only after many struggles throughout the 19th and 20th century that all Americans aged 18 or older, white or black, male or female, got the unimpeded right to vote.
Now Republicans want to turn back the clock and limit voting rights.
Because the poor, minorities and those under 30 did not vote in the last election in great numbers, the Republicans now have control of a majority of state governments. And everywhere they have introduced legislation that restricts voting or makes it harder to vote. I imagine that the Republican ideal is that voting be limited to white males and females plus anyone in the top 20-30% when it comes to income and wealth.
Georgia Democratic Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis wrote an impassioned article on this Republican attempt to disenfranchise millions of Americans in this past Saturday’s New York Times. Lewis speaks with a certain authority, having suffered more physical blows than any other person in the decades-long fight for voting and other civil rights. And I mean punches, beatings, whippings, hosings, birchings and canings. I urge everyone to read the article, which is full of many examples of new laws in 12 states that make it harder to vote (and proposed laws making their way through the legislatures of another 23 states).
As Lewis so effectively demonstrates, all of these new and proposed laws tend to make it harder for traditional Democratic voters to cast a ballot. One example will suffice: the new Texas law requiring an ID to vote allows people to use state hunting licenses but not IDs from state colleges.
Unless an Obama landslide carries Democrats back into power, the rightwingers will have another 2-4 years to pass more restrictive voting laws. In the end, the Republicans could achieve a permanent electorate majority even while establishing itself as a minority party among the total adult population.
Whether our future electorate represents the broad spectrum of Americans or skewers towards whites and the propertied, it is growing ever more conservative on non-economic issues such as abortion, gun rights, belief in global warming, belief in evolution and capital punishment.
But on the economic front, we are still quite liberal. We want to tax the wealthy more, cut military spending, extend unemployment benefits, regulate industries for safety and environmental emission, invest in improving our infrastructure, continue Social Security and Medicare in its current forms and create a more equitable society.
The one economic issue on which Americans are becoming more conservative is unions. After years of seeing and hearing business and the mass media assault unions, many Americans now envy the good wages and benefits of union workers instead of trying to emulate them. Perhaps envy is an emotion more in keeping with the politics of selfishness that has dominated American thinking for the past 30 years. Besides spreading poison in the media about unions, the rightwing has spent those 30 years weakening unions. We are now seeing the “final solution” in the battering of public unions by Republican legislatures, once again aided and abetted by the right-wing and the mainstream media.
With the union base of the Democratic Party in near ruins, the Republicans have their sights set on Democratic voters. And if the Democratic Party doesn’t put tons of money into bringing the voters out in 2011 and 2012, Republicans are going to pull the trigger and take down the important achievements of the voting rights movement.