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(This is a reposting of a post and following exchange on my Facebook page. The post was in response to one by conservative blogger Kelly Maher. The exchange, with a self-proclaimed Tea Partier whose last name, Dorman, is what I’m using here, omits other people’s comments on the thread, and includes some edits and additions in my own comments. The discussion illustrates the theme explored in Inclusivity & Exclusivity, of the right-wing emphasis on out-group exclusion and perpetuation of in-goup privilege.)
  

Conservative blogger Kelly Maher posted an indignant indictment of Wisconsin Lt. Gubernatorial candidate Mahlon Mitchel for suggesting that voter registration laws can ever be used as a tool for voter suppression. Here’s my response to her:

Nice spin. If registration required you to, say, pass a literacy test, administered somewhat selectively, as was done in the Jim Crow south specifically to exclude the black vote, would THAT be voter suppression under the guise of voter registration?

Okay, now that we’ve established that your premise is bullshit, that registration CAN indeed be suppression, the real question is: Is it or isn’t it in the present context?

Empirically (you know, facts rather than just making shit up), we know two things: 1) There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in America (http://www.truthaboutfraud.org/), and 2) the more obstacles you create to voting, the more effectively you weed out minority and poorer citizens who are legally entitled to vote (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/v/voter_registration_and_requirements/index.html). That, indeed, was the whole purpose of poll taxes and literacy tests.

It doesn’t seem so absurd to suggest that the same tactic, used by the party that is viewed as most antagonistic to the poor and to minorities and suffers at the polls in proportion to their voter turn-out, might be in play here given that there is no actual problem with voter fraud to address, but that the manner of addressing it (the requirement to produce a photo ID to vote; the removal of people from rolls of registered voters when they don’t vote in the previous election, etc.) does in reality suppress the vote of the poor and minorities, precisely those whom you want to be more free to continue to screw?

After all, that IS what “liberty” means in your lexicon, isn’t it? Up until the Civil War and emancipation, your “states’ rights,” anti-federal government argument was used predominately in defense of slavery and in opposition to the abolitionist movement. Antebellum southern statesman John C. Calhoun wrote “Union and Liberty,” about the need to protect southern slave owners’ “liberty” to own slaves.

After the Civil War, for the next 100 years, the same ideology was used predominately to oppose civil rights and to defend Jim Crow. Southern governors showed their commitment to “liberty” by defying the federal government in their (the southerners’)
commitment to remain free to continue to discriminate against African Americans.

More recently, this same concept is used by folks such as you in much the same way, though a bit more sublimated. Just as those from the Civil War to Civil Rights period were not advocating for slavery, but rather discrimination, you are not advocating for discrimination, but rather suppression, both of the vote that threatens your power, and of our attempts to address the legacies of history that threaten your privileges. Your ideology, like its predecessors, is steeped in a historically and economically nonsensical mythology that wealth and opportunity are distributed primarily according to merit in the United States, and that those who don’t have it don’t deserve it, the exact same mythology that has been used to rationalize all of the historical forms of class privilege. (See The Presence of the Past)

You can (and undoubtedly will) keep telling yourselves that your current incarnation of that same historically infamous ideology isn’t really just another incarnation of that historically infamous ideology, but is “liberty” as the “founding fathers” meant it. Any suggestion that we should be concerned with economic inequality, with social justice, is just “socialist nonsense,” and an insult to our “founding fathers” and all that they stood for.

For instance, can you imagine that there are actually people so anti-American, so against what the “founding fathers” intended for us, that they would suggest that we should draft “Declarations of Rights” discouraging large holdings of property or concentrations of wealth as “a danger to the happiness of mankind”?! Oops, sorry. That was Benjamin Franklin, in 1776. (Walter Isaacson, page 315.)

Or can you imagine that there are people so un-American in our country today that they don’t believe that the federal government taking money away from those who earned it, and spending it for the benefit of others, including those who didn’t earn it, is a form of “creeping socialism”? Oops. My mistake again. That’s Art. I, Section 8, Clause i of the United States Constitution, which grants Congress unlimited and unqualified authority to tax and spend in the general welfare.

Maybe Ben Franklin was a good American patriot, after all. Maybe our Constitution means what it says. Maybe your conceptualization of “liberty,” the same one John C. Calhoun used to so thoroughly butcher what it means to decent human beings, isn’t the right one for America after all. And maybe we should care more about democracy, more about empowering people to vote, more about continuing to realize the ideal of equality of opportunity, than in your preservation of power at the expense of those inclined to deprive you of it: The majority of minorities in America. Because they’re the ones who have long known what you REALLY mean when you say “liberty.”  

Dorman:

Steve…would it be a good thing or not if all voters had to demonstrate some basic understanding of our gov’t and/or issues? Is it a celebration of democracy if the uninformed have the same voting power as the citizen who makes effort to understand the issues?
Harvey
Who gets to decide who is more or less informed? As a lawyer, economist, teacher, professional researcher and policy analyst, I think you and your fellow ideologues fail to clear the requisite threshold, and, if I were inclined to think as you appear to be thinking, would consider it a service to humanity and to the formation of sound policies to exclude you from our democratic processes. I do not, however, think that.

The great irony of your ideology is that you are anit-elitist elitists, who somehow have managed to declare yourselves omniscient and infallible while simultaneously studiously ignoring the disciplined application of reason to reliable evidence.

Dorman:
oh for heavens sake Steve…..balderdash and poppycock. A very simple objective test might be: Name the 3 branches of gov’t, who are your US Senators and Representative, and who is your Governor. I submit that a prospective voter who cannot answer these questions is unqualified…..however ‘elitist’ you may think that is. I note that you did not answer the question if it is a good thing or not.
Harvey:
No, it is not a good thing, for the same reason that it is not a good thing to have a “benevolent dictator”: You can never be too sure of his or her benevolence, and you can never be too sure that those who pass your test will look out for the interests of those who don’t. That’s the whole reason we have a democratic process in the first place, to bind the agent (government) more to the principle’s (people’s) interests. 

When you deny a class or classes of people the right to vote, you are denying them representation in the political process, and you are denying them the ability to ensure that their interests are included and their voices heard. The result, as a general rule, is that their interests are most overlooked, and, frequently, they are marginalized, exploited, and/or oppressed as a result. 

But I do appreciate it when self-identified Tea Partiers are so visibly committed to the same kinds of bigotries that have plagued this nation throughout its history; it makes it that much easier for reasonable people of goodwill to shine a light on what you REALLY stand for.

Here’s the thing: There are degrees of inclusion and exclusion, from an absolute dictatorship of a single individual over all others, to a perfect distribution of power and privilege to all equally. Neither of these poles exists in reality, the former because no one individual can hold such power over a multitude without giving some privilege away to those who are willing to help him to hold it, and the latter because Nature is not so kind and human artifice not so infallible that it (human artifice) can ever remedy all of Nature’s injustices.

But, on the continuum defined by these poles, the evolution of human consciousness and human social institutions has moved rather consistently from forms approaching the former toward forms approaching the latter. We (the English and Americans, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 through the American Revolution) have famously flipped sovereignty on its head, turning subjects into sovereigns and sovereigns into our employees.

You, typically, advocate a regression, a withdrawal from that progress, claiming that some among the popular sovereign must be denied their sovereignty for failing to pass your litmus test. Your test, with unabashed egoism, excludes those you deem less well informed than you, but would not dream of admitting that those better informed than you might reasonably draw the line to the other side of you, or that each one’s reckoning of who is and isn’t well enough informed might be subject to their own self-serving prejudices.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You are an adherent to an ages old movement that might best be called “Organized Ignorance,” ignorant of history and its lessons, ignorant of economics, law, the social sciences, social systemic thought in general, and reason applied to evidence in some disciplined way more generally still, and yet are assertively committed to the false certainties that thrive like thorny weeds in the untended, undisciplined and often delusional garden of your consciousness.

There is an old admonition: Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Analogously, one might implore folks like you to either engage in the disciplines of the mind that lead to subtler and broader understandings, defer to those who do, or (to avoid the tempting colloquialism) stop proselytizing the politics of inhumanity.

Something worth considering.

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  • sblecher:

    Interesting discussion. At present the courts are challenging Florida’s exclusionary purging of its voter roles. Let’s see what happens. Their decisions will probably affect other states. I have to agree that I’m frustrated by the ignorance of so many voters. A reporter asked all the Miss USA contestants, “who’s the current Vice President?” and a lot of them didn’t know, but what the heck. A Good figure beats a high IQ every time. Personally I wish all the voters would be well informed, and I wish they knew all the basics of government. If you are well informed about the federal government, do you know how state and local government functions? For example, do you know what precinct you’re in and who is your city councilman, or what State House district you’re in and who’s your state representative or state Senator and state senatorial district? The fact is the Constitution doesn’t specify requirements for voting other than being a US citizen age 18 or over.

  • One of the problems with political literacy tests (by noi means the only one) is the question of who draws the line. As I indicated in my first response to Dorman, I’d be inclined to draw it at a high threshold, if I were inclined to draw it at all, insisting on an advanced degree level of economic, historical and social scientific literacy, thus bestowing on us an oligarchy of “philosopher kings.”

    The purpose of democracy is less to mobilize human genius than to protect disparate interests, and denying people the vote means denying them the ability to protect their interests.

    BUT, I am highly sensitive to the need to mobilize our collective genius, as well as protect our various interests, and so do believe that we have to be careful (more careful than we now are) to allow for the mobilization of specific knowledge and expertise in governmental decision making. I wouldn’t want my child’s open-heart surgery to be guided by plebiscite, and don’t want the even more systemically complicated and information-intensive challenge of devising sound public policies to be determined by plebiscite. We need to all be free to vote for whomever we believe best represents our interests, and then we need to give them some leeway to do so effectively.

  • sblecher:

    As I said, political literacy tests would be unconstitutional anyway. Also, this is a republic, and that gives elected officials the ability to call upon specialized expertise. Plebiscites often turn out very badly. The legislature doesn’t always show wisdom, but there’s always the opportunity to correct the situation at the next election.
    Here’s an interesting paradox: conservatives are fond of saying “This is a republic,not a democracy”, but ultimately they don’t trust the legislature, and insist that every major issue like gay rights or taxes be put to vote of the people or written into the State Constitution.
    The League of Women Voters is an organization that helps promote political literacy. More power to them.

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