A great deal has been written both in the blogosphere and in the mainstream press about the GOP’s recent adventures in restricting American citizens from exercising their fundamental right to vote. Of course, the GOP has for years raised phantom charges of “voter fraud” to justify things like requiring voters to present photo IDs before voting . . . despite the fact no evidence of any significant (or even insignificant) voter fraud has ever been presented. As Bill Maher once pointed out, “We’re America, we don’t vote. What’s next, you’re gonna pass a law to prevent people from wrongfully showing up for jury duty?”
But with the Republican tsunami of 2010 – especially in state races – and as very nicely summarized in this diary by The Troubadour, they’ve since cranked their efforts to restrict voting rights up to Eleven. And all of these efforts, of course, work to the Republicans’ electoral advantage because all of these measures tend to have the most restrictive impact on minorities, the poor, and college students – you know, groups most likely to vote for a Democrat.
But I’m fairly convinced that this isn’t the only reason the GOP has embraced these vote restriction measures as fervently as they have. Oh sure, obtaining an electoral advantage by denying your opponent’s supporters the right to vote is nice, but it’s especially nice for the GOP because the Conservative mindset doesn’t believe in democracy. Instead, the Conservative mindset holds that only the “right sort of people” should be allowed to vote and – coincidentally enough – if you are someone who doesn’t feel like voting for the Conservatives then you, my friend, are not the “right sort of people.”
Of course, this is an old, old story. No less a luminary than Thomas Jefferson recognized that societies always have been divided between those who – like today’s Liberals -- identify themselves with the people, and those who – like Conservatives – instinctively fear the people and who would much rather concentrate power in the hands of an elite aristocracy, themselves the aristocrats:
Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them therefore liberals and serviles, . . . Whigs and Tories, . . . aristocrats and democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.
--Thomas Jefferson to H. Lee, 1824 (emphasis added)
I remember when I first stumbled across that quote, how perfectly it summed up what I had seen for myself over years of paying attention. Despite all their pious mouthings about America’s “wonderful democracy” and serving “the will of the people,” no matter how much they railed against “the elites” and assured their Red State voters that those voters were “the Real Americans” . . . I had noticed time and time again that Conservative politicians never enacted legislation that did a damn thing for the common people, for the great majority of American citizens. Not in my lifetime.
Instead, each and every policy prescription they stood for always turned out to involve granting greater and greater freedom and largesse to those already perched at the top rung of our economic ladder. Whether it is freedom from regulation designed to protect the less powerful, or freedom from paying those taxes necessary to keep American society functioning, or outright gifts in the form of tax loopholes, corporate giveaways and special dispensations, the economic aristocracy in our country is the only constituency that Conservatives ever seem to do anything for.
And it is truly an aristocracy that Conservatives are intent on creating, perfecting and protecting. The Estate Tax, championed by Republican icon (and all-around badass) Teddy Roosevelt was intended in part to prevent any such aristocracy from developing. As Teddy himself put it:
The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and . . . a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against the evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
Yet, today, eliminating the Estate Tax has become one of the Conservatives’ fondest goals.
Moreover, can anyone doubt that the American public is being indoctrinated to believe that the wealthy are inherently superior to the rest of us, simply because they are wealthy? How commonplace is it these days to hear Conservatives argue that we dare not tax the wealthy, because they are the “job creators”?
Here is a video from back in April of Ian Murphy, the Green Party candidate in the NY-26 special election that was recently held. Murphy was denied entry to a Tea Party endorsement meeting (they went on to endorse Repubican Jane Corwin, who famously lost to Kathy Hochul after Corwin announced her support for the Republican Plan to Destroy Medicare), so Murphy hung around outside passing out literature. You can see in the video one of the Tea Party members talking to Murphy and expressing his concern that if taxes were raised on the rich then the rich would all move away, thereby wrecking the local economy:
As mistermix over at Balloon Juice said about this video, “this is the rawest example of pure serfdom I’ve seen in a long time.”
But, of course, fostering that “raw serfdom” is what the Conservative movement is all about. Far from being concerned with the American people, it is clear that today’s Conservatives “fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.”
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And this is why Conservatives are so terrified of actual democracy: because they know that with all of the wealth and power of the nation’s economic elite behind them the only force that might possibly prevent them from achieving their goal is the power the American people get to exercise at the ballot box.
I am firmly convinced that if you need to know what someone truly believes, then it is always more informative to watch what that person does than it is to listen to what he says. Perhaps the best way to illustrate what Conservatives truly believe about the idea of democracy is to ignore their bromides and platitudes and simply point out that – about one week before Barack Obama won his presidential election – Rush Limbaugh read the following quote from science-fiction character Lazarus Long on his radio show:
A perfect democracy, a ‘warm body’ democracy in which every adult may vote and all votes count equally has no internal feedback for self correction. It depends solely on the wisdom and self-restraint of citizens . . . which is opposed by the folly and lack of self-restraint of other citizens. What is supposed to happen in a democracy is that each sovereign citizen will always vote in the public interest for the safety and welfare of all. But what does happen is that he votes his own self-interest as he sees it . . . which for the majority translates as ‘Bread and Circuses.’
“Bread and Circuses is the cancer of democracy, the fatal disease for which there is no cure. Democracy often works beautifully at first. But once a state extends the franchise to every warm body, be he producer or parasite, that day marks the beginning of the end of the state. For when the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses without limit and that the production members of the body politic cannot stop them, they will do so, until the state bleeds to death, or in its weakened condition the state succumbs to an invader – the barbarians enter Rome. (emphasis added)
--Robert A. Heinlein
To Sail Beyond the Sunset
Of course, Heinlein’s description of both how representative democracy is intended to work and how it does work is seriously flawed, but those flaws are not really at issue here. What makes Limbaugh’s decision to read this quote relevant here is how neatly it showcases the sheer terror Conservatives evidently experience when they contemplate the idea that -- in a democracy – just anyone can vote. So far as Conservatives are concerned, something should be done about that.
Indeed, if you click on the link to the site from which I took the Heinlein quote you will find one commenter there explaining that a “proper” voting franchise would grant the “privelege [sic] of voting” only to “the productive” or those honorably discharged from the military. Tellingly, the commenter relies on another Heinlein political science text – Starship Troopers – to support that position.
This is what really is ultimately behind Conservative efforts to restrict voting rights – in fact they don’t even try to hide it if they think no one is looking. William O’Brien, the New Hampshire GOP House Speaker, became briefly famous when a video surfaced of him speaking at a Tea Party meeting and justifying a bill to prohibit college students from casting votes in the towns where they attend college by explaining that college students were simply foolish liberals who “just vote their feelings."
So there it is: Conservatives can justify restricting American citizens from exercising the most fundamental right our society and Constitution affords us not merely to gain a fleeting electoral advantage, but because Conservatives believe that if you don’t agree with them already then you shouldn’t be able to vote to begin with.
And that's really what is at stake across the country while states debate how onerous new voting restrictions should be: the same conflict that Jefferson wrote about nearly 200 years before. The aristocracy versus the democrats, the conservatives versus the people.
Thomas Jefferson versus Lazarus Long.