Citizenship & Voting

Voting is an ineluctable part of citizenship in a modern representative democracy. But Jefferson thought that it was very difficult to be a good citizen who casts a responsible vote even if he also thought that every yeoman farmer (who was white) should have the vote. Jefferson proposed universal elementary education so that citizens would be literate enough so that they could evaluate whether the candidates would represent their interests. That would enable a lot of people to vote and at the same time vote sensibly. The history of voting behavior in the United States, however, suggests that there are a great many things that interfere with the voter offering up in his or her vote his or her best judgment about what is good for his or her faction and for the nation as a whole, and so the promise of democracy as a system of government which justifies itself as having been empowered by the people is called into question.

The original set of problems for voting had to do with the fact that the technical procedures for voting themselves stymied the ability of citizens to express their sense of what they thought was good for the nation or their community. Within a generation of the vote becoming generally available, as it was in the United States in the Eighteen Twenties, there were groups of politicians who took it to be their job to manage the vote, especially of the immigrants who had then begun rushing to American shores. Political parties would offer jobs and bushels of groceries and buckets of coal to potential voters, certain that the loyalty shown by such support would be repaid by voting for a boss’ preferred candidate when election time rolled around. This sort of political “corruption”, if that is what it is, in that the jobs and groceries were indeed delivered and what the voters most needed from government, nonetheless made voting less of an exercise in disinterested citizenship, though that is an ideal which it takes a thoroughly middle class society to appreciate. Voting for groceries is to be preferred to voting in response to threats of violence.  

This is the way it was until, in the early parts of the Twentieth Century, voting took on the aura of being a civic responsibility, the hallmark of a democracy, married people travelling long miles to a voting place, so the image had it, so that one partner could vote Democratic and the other could vote Republican. Voting had become a secular religious ritual, a serious enactment of the democratic spirit, a tribute to how people could settle their differences in a peaceable manner.

Paul Lazarsfeld, in his groundbreaking study of the 1940 Presidential election, shattered that image. He did not do so by showing elections to be corrupt. Rather, he showed how cheap was the vote, not even worth a bushel of coal. People voted out of their sense of their interests and identifications and so they would sell their vote cheap, for an emotional charge or for a cliche rather than because of any considered thought about what was good for them.  The wisdom of the citizenry, as the source of the legitimacy of elected officials, was replaced by a sense that whims could be turned into votes, voting as a process no different from deciding to buy one brand of cigarettes rather than another because of the color of the pack, or maybe just no different from any deep-seated emotional choice, a voter preferring a rich candidate because it was an identification with what they hoped to be rather than with what they were, even though that meant voting against one’s own immediate economic interests. People are subtle in the fantasies they cultivate about what they are and what they want to be, not simply actors in a civic drama. Lazarsfeld did not go as far as the Frankfurt School in thinking that the modern electorate had been cheated out of its reason by too many laxative commercials. It was just that voters followed the path of least resistance to the candidate whose position in life they admired and whom they believed served their interests and their identifications. The patrician Roosevelt drove out of working class heads any thought that it might not be a good idea to have a President serve more than two terms. The Lazarsfeld model holds up quite well from FDR through Nixon, all those elections, even the close ones, a matter of party loyalty as that was leavened by the shifting economic interests of Rust-Belters and the social issues of abortion and racial integration. Humphrey nearly pulled out a victory over Nixon, in spite of the disastrous ‘68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, because his coalition of Northern labor and Southern segregationists still held together.

Trump shocked everyone by having reduced the level of provocation for a vote to go his way to such an abysmal level of ignorance and anger. Voters don’t have to know anything or even respect the values that they were brought up to respect. They vote their hate and ignorance and are proud of it. But it should be remembered that Trump was far from the first candidate for President who won the job without satisfactory credentials, even though he may be the first to win it without any credentials but his own bluster and meanness of tongue and character. Barack Obama ran as the candidate of change, never defining what that meant, and triumphed in the primaries and in the general election over far more seasoned candidates because of his charm, his good looks, and because voting for him was a cheap way for a white person to show him or herself to be unprejudiced. But Obama was also well educated, and you could say that showed up in his performance in debates. He was well versed in domestic and foreign affairs, even if his opponents preferred to picture him as naive. He had taught constitutional law at Chicago from a social problems perspective and had majored in international relations while an undergraduate at Columbia. The previous Democratic nominee, Al Gore, was rejected as a candidate partly because he was a stiff, even though he knew a lot about the issues, having served as Clinton’s go-between to Russia and on various domestic projects, and the Democratic nominee before that, Bill Clinton, had won his race also because of personality: a scamp, but such an appealing one, even if his wife was not very charming, Clinton also someone who had a clear command of the issues. And farther back than that, Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer and former Naval officer, had also been elected because he was not a run of the mill politician, the voters having had enough of that with Richard Nixon. It has been a long period during which personality triumphs over other factors, voters continuing to hold their votes cheap to purchase, rather than wanting top value for those votes.

There is really no easy way out of the paradox of democratic voting. You don’t want only voters “properly qualified” by education or wealth to have access to a ballot. James Harrington, in the Seventeenth Century, advocated voting only for the wealthy because those are the people who have a long term stake in the society, though it is hard to say that the pauper doesn’t have even more of a stake in that their survival may depend on government programs, and being rich doesn’t make you disinterested. Moreover, a property or education based system would eliminate as voters just the people you want to co-opt into the system so that an election becomes an alternative to settling political debates with street violence, every election only another set of demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or elsewhere. And, anyway, who is to say what makes a competent voter? The Goldman Sachs partner who got the nation into such financial difficulty a decade ago? Voting has to be an unalienable right, or just about so, if democracy is to have any meaning. But that means pleading with the voters to use their votes wisely, or as wisely as they can, and so perhaps Jefferson was right in thinking that the best voter is the at least minimally educated voter who will use education as armor to protect him from the charlatans who are out for his vote, the presumption being that not too many of those charlatans will get into the final round, when the only thing that stands between them and the Presidency is how dear the voters hold their vote to be.