Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Around the Fourth of July the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, one of the respected polling outfits, conducted a brief inquiry into the American public’s knowledge of their national origins. The inquisition was not particularly probing. The pollsters asked the following question: “From what country did the United States declare its independence?” A quarter of the people randomly polled did not know the answer to that question. Among this group most declared they had no clue; but others suggested Russia, Afghanistan, Mexico, China, and Japan.
Many Americans seem to sense that there is a crisis in our democracy, though most of us don’t seem to know what it is or what to do about it. One person who claims to know is President Trump. He thinks the problem is “voter fraud,” which is why in May he established a “Commission on Election Integrity” to look into voting irregularities.
There were roughly a hundred and thirty-seven million votes cast in the recent presidential election. Roughly sixty-six million went to Ms. Clinton and sixty-three million to Mr. Trump, though the geographical distribution of the votes was such that Mr. Trump won handily among the constitutionally mandated electors. About a hundred and eight million eligible voters—approaching half the national total—cast no vote. According to Mr. Trump, about three million of Ms. Clinton’s votes—by no coincidence whatsoever her margin of plurality in the popular vote--were fraudulent, cast by people ineligible to vote or who voted more than once or both. While there is no official position on this question taken by the Democratic Party, there is an obvious consensus among Democratic politicians that the “voting crisis” is of a very different sort. The real scandal is one of “voter suppression”. The claim is that Republicans, especially at the level of state and local government where the actual mechanics of the election process are established, have systematically sought to limit electoral participation by likely Democratic voters, especially members of racial minorities.
The half-baked Commission on Election Integrity is a waste of time and money, and it is quite predictably foundering in a legal quagmire. The absurd premise upon which it was founded—massive fraudulent voting in the millions—was bound to foster further absurdities along the way. Transparent partisanship is a Washington norm, but even so….At the same time I am unable to embrace without cavil the theory of a conspiracy of voter suppression touted by many of my liberal brethren. Voting is indeed a general right of citizens, but that does not mean it is free of all responsibility. Is it really a “burden” to register to vote? More so, say, than purchasing something through Amazon on the Internet? Would the requirement that a voter be able to verify identity be no better than a poll tax? I cannot check out a book at the library or use my senior discount on New Jersey Transit—never mind get on an airplane—without official identification. Recently I was asked for two forms of identification to get into a doctor’s office. The “Motor-Voter” laws (to which I do not object) are based on the assumption that we can make democracy more vibrant and participatory by linking it legally and thematically with something of real social importance: owning or driving a car.
To return to the true crisis of American democracy is to return to the Marist Poll. Intellectual snobbery is not the least noxious form of snobbery, and it is all too easy for comparative enlightenment to mock flamboyant ignorance; but I am not comfortable entrusting the fate of the land to people who think the battle of Gettysburg was fought in Viet Nam. There are other polls. At the height of the second Iraq war, half of Americans of voting age could not find Iraq on a map. If you think the Fourth of July celebrates our independence from Spain, you are unlikely to have studied the Declaration or the Constitution very deeply and may be unaware of how warily the Founders viewed the direct democracy of the crowd. The whole national enterprise was based on the assumption of a reasonably literate electorate and representative government constrained by explicit divisions of power and limitations in its exercise.
The elderly hover between an optimism born of hope and a pessimism tutored by experience. Benjamin Franklin was exactly my age—and here the parallel ends--when he gave his final address to the Constitutional Convention. He was far from believing that the document he had helped hammer out was a “miracle in Philadelphia.” It was more along the lines of “the best we can do under the circumstances”. What circumstances? “When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom,” he said, “you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” That’s a pretty good description of the “democratic” process, though democracy was not a word much in use in Franklin’s day. The speech I cited above is pretty well attested. There is a related and possibly apocryphal anecdote. One of a group of citizens, curious about what was going on in the Convention, is supposed to have asked Franklin what sort of government the conclave was going to propose. “A republic,” was his supposed reply, “if you can keep it.” It is most unlikely that in offering this somber reply Franklin was worrying about the British army—and quite certain that he was not worrying about the armies of Afghanistan, Mexico, or Viet Nam. He was thinking of an electorate moved by prejudice, passion, errors, faction, and selfishness. And that was way back then.