October 17, 2012
Fighting for the Franchise
Scott L. Stabler, PhD
Every adult American has the civic duty to vote in each election. And yet a plurality of Americans does not carry out this right despite it being achieved at a great cost of human life and hardships. Although the voter turnout rises to over 60 percent during presidential elections and hovers around 40 percent for midterm elections, it falls significantly lower for all other elections. Perhaps more telling than these poor turnouts is the fact that for this year’s election, about 30 percent of eligible Americans have not even bothered registering to vote. The right of suffrage must be exercised.
I will start my reasoning with the one retort to my premise that everyone should vote—the uninformed voter. I wish to extend my previous statement to all citizens of the United States, including those that have been deemed “the uninformed voter.” Many will protest that an informed voting electorate remains essential for a strong democracy, and I agree with that supposition. However, what does the “informed” look like? Perspicacity proves hard to gauge. How does the government go about testing “informed?” Does the Huffington Post, Rush Limbaugh, Super PAC ads, or candidate blurbs inform voters?
Do these sources encapsulate enough information to make one “informed?” This argument falls flat when one considers that in the Jim Crow South this argument of the “informed” voter did keep African Americans from voting for decades. Literacy tests confirmed little about one’s “informed-ness.” The tests served to keep this large demographic out of the franchise. In a similar vein, many politicians today seem to be aping Jim Crow politicians by limiting the franchise of those without a picture identification card. When voter fraud in the United States remains negligible, we must ask why one would want to limit a right that so many fought, protested and died to exert? The effort seems a political furtherance of the bifurcation of the United States that keeps the economically un-empowered from exercising their one empowerment.
Well-beyond literacy tests, African Americans agitated for the right to vote. Though the African American protests themselves were mostly nonviolent, there was much bloodshed before blacks in the South were allowed to vote. An example, which serves as a poignant reminder of the fight for equal rights in the voting booth, is John Lewis. Leading 600 fellow marchers, Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a cold March day in 1965 on his way to the Alabama capitol to advocate for the franchise, only to have a state trooper fracture his skull with a nightstick. This day, known as “Bloody Sunday,” stunned audiences around the country as they watched the events on nightly news. TV cameras filmed the violence brought down upon those doing nothing more than fighting for a right that today many Americans don’t even care enough about to exercise. Ironically, and to militate my point, John Lewis now sits as a United States Congressman from Georgia running for his 13th term in 2012.
Think about the progress in voter participation when contemplating the importance of the vote. At our nation’s founding, only white male property holders over 20 years of age could cast ballots. Why is this? Our founders, who were rich white males, believed that the “others” were too callow, uneducated, and uninformed to cast a ballot. In just over 200 years, that has changed dramatically along with the landscape of our population and government. In 2012, Americans can now choose between an African American and a Mormon for president. The likelihood of this happening even 50 years ago remains remote, but 150 years ago these two men would have faced lynching if they spoke out to the wrong crowd. Voting has changed the face of the United States and, really, the world.
Power vested in the people, through the ballot, defines a democracy. The American Revolution formed a point when the world’s first democracy came to fruition and voters chose their leaders. Since 1783, 123 countries out of approximately 194 in the world have gained the label ‘democracy.’ That’s a huge growth rate in a little over 200 years. Only four countries in the world claim NOT to be a democracy. Even North Korea claims democracy for its form of government. How can one explain the growth in democracy without noting the country where it started with people empowered by the ballot?
Americans have perished in war to support democracy and the vote. People throughout the world have fought and died trying to obtain the franchise. The Arab Spring shows the ingress of democracy in a part of the world many thought impossible just a few years ago. Libyans, Egyptians and Tunisians now have a government elected by the people. Today, Syrians will die for that same right that so many Americans take for granted. The one thing for which people aspire throughout the world is self-determination. That serves as the one thing almost 40 percent of Americans will ignore next month when they fail to go to the polls. The question really is—why? Exercise your right. Vote.
Roughly speaking we can distinguish five degrees of “government”:
1. Unrestricted freedom
2. Direct democracy
3. Delegate democracy
4. Representative democracy
5. Overt minority dictatorship
The present society oscillates between (4) and (5), i.e. between overt minority rule and covert minority rule camouflaged by a façade of token democracy. A liberated society would eliminate (4) and (5) and would progressively reduce the need for (2) and (3).
In representative democracy people abdicate their power to elected officials. The candidates’ stated policies are limited to a few vague generalities, and once they are elected there is little control over their actual decisions on hundreds of issues — apart from the feeble threat of changing one’s vote, a few years later, to some equally uncontrollable rival politician. Representatives are dependent on the wealthy for bribes and campaign contributions; they are subordinate to the owners of the mass media, who decide which issues get the publicity; and they are almost as ignorant and powerless as the general public regarding many important matters that are determined by unelected bureaucrats and independent secret agencies. Overt dictators may sometimes be overthrown, but the real rulers in “democratic” regimes, the tiny minority who own or control virtually everything, are never voted in and never voted out. Most people don’t even know who they are.
In itself, voting is of no great significance one way or the other (those who make a big deal about refusing to vote are only revealing their own fetishism). The problem is that it tends to lull people into relying on others to act for them, distracting them from more significant possibilities. A few people who take some creative initiative (think of the first civil rights sit-ins) may ultimately have a far greater effect than if they had put their energy into campaigning for lesser-evil politicians. At best, legislators rarely do more than what they have been forced to do by popular movements. A conservative regime under pressure from independent radical movements often concedes more than a liberal regime that knows it can count on radical support. (The Vietnam war, for example, was not ended by electing antiwar politicians, but because there was so much pressure from so many different directions that the prowar president Nixon was forced to withdraw.) If people invariably rally to lesser evils, all the rulers have to do in any situation that threatens their power is to conjure up a threat of some greater evil.
Even in the rare case when a “radical” politician has a realistic chance of winning an election, all the tedious campaign efforts of thousands of people may go down the drain in one day because of some trivial scandal discovered in his (or her) personal life, or because he inadvertently says something intelligent. If he manages to avoid these pitfalls and it looks like he might win, he tends to evade controversial issues for fear of antagonizing swing voters. If he actually gets elected he is almost never in a position to implement the reforms he has promised, except perhaps after years of wheeling and dealing with his new colleagues; which gives him a good excuse to see his first priority as making whatever compromises are necessary to keep himself in office indefinitely. Hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, he develops new interests and new tastes, which he justifies by telling himself that he deserves a few perks after all his years of working for good causes. Worst of all, if he does eventually manage to get a few “progressive” measures passed, this exceptional and usually trivial success is held up as evidence of the value of relying on electoral politics, luring many more people into wasting their energy on similar campaigns to come.
During the last few years we have seen the consequences of relying on political representatives to act for us. If the antiwar movement and other more or less progressive currents had put even a fraction of the immense amount of time and energy they invested in election campaigns into more directly radical agitation, the situation would be very different today. As a side effect, such agitation would actually have resulted in more liberals being elected. But more importantly, it would have shifted the momentum and the terrain of the struggle. The liberal politicians would have been under pressure to actually implement some significant changes (such as ending the wars and inaugurating free universal health care), which would have invigorated their base while putting the reactionary forces increasingly on the defensive. The Occupy movement was an excellent example of what I am talking about. As a genuinely participatory movement, it did indeed “shift the momentum and the terrain of the struggle,” reorienting the public discourse in a more radical direction. From the beginning the Occupy assemblies focused on direct actions rather than electoral politics, constantly stressing the complicity of both major parties with the ruling economic system. Many Occupy participants will undoubtedly vote for the Democrats as lesser evils, just as others will vote for protest candidates or not vote at all. The point is that, whatever their choice, their recent experience has made all of them aware that electoral politics is at most only one facet of social struggle and that direct, creative, experimental action is ultimately much more effective — as well as a lot more fun!
As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, “It’s painful to submit to our bosses; it’s even more stupid to choose them!”