On Voting and Democracy

I just read this headline from the Daily Bolshevik, aka The New York Times: “After Record Turnout, Republicans Are Trying to Make It Harder to Vote.” The point of the story, of course — the thrust of mainstream American “news articles” being contained in their headlines, designed as they are for immediate effect on the functionally illiterate and terminally impatient majority of “readers” — is that any political faction which seeks measures that would tend to reduce total votes is by definition anti-freedom and undemocratic. This implied argument is so full of unstated premises that one hardly knows where to begin in analyzing its manipulations.

For example, one unstated premise that leaps out at you, if you take five rational seconds to examine the implications of that headline/editorial, is that freedom and democracy are advanced by sheer higher quantities of votes, regardless of who the voters are and what they are voting for. On this premise, an election in which two hundred million citizens voted to enslave or summarily execute another hundred million citizens would be inherently more democratic than an election in which only one hundred million people voted, though none of them voted to harm any of their fellow citizens.

But rather than worry about identifying all such hidden premises — playing hide-and-seek with Marxist sophists is not a game I consider worthy of my time — allow me to focus on just the one that strikes me as the most philosophically dubious of all. This is the notion that voting is somehow better when it is as easy as possible.

On this premise, the ideal democratic situation would be one in which voting may be engaged in, inconvenience-free, by a complete idiot or reprobate lacking any political awareness, any interest in his community’s long-term well-being, any of the basic information or intellectual skills needed to choose rationally, any concern about the country’s fundamental laws or societal norms, any qualms about selling his vote for material gain, any moral resistance to allowing himself to be cajoled by apparatchiks, or any of the personal responsibility and initiative required to get himself to a physical polling station during the predetermined hours of the legally designated “Election Day” in order to cast his ballot, the way citizens throughout the history of democracy have always been expected to do.

To summarize this issue, the relative terms “harder to vote” and “easier to vote,” taken out of any defining context related to the proper nature and purpose of voting, should have no moral or political significance whatsoever.

There is, however, a broader and ultimately more important question, from a philosophical point of view, than this artificial controversy over various factions supposedly “making it harder (or easier) to vote.” The question is this: Why vote?

The only democratic political processes that may be regarded as just or rational are those which are strictly limited and determined, with respect to electoral goals, by pre-democratic foundations laid according to principles of freedom and civilized coexistence that no election held within that jurisdiction may ever override or circumvent. In other words, a constitutional republic of some sort is a necessary condition that gives democratic processes any value in the promotion of liberty. A “pure democracy,” i.e., majority rule without any clearly established and universally accepted parameters of governance, amounts to nothing in theory, and will soon enough become nothing in practice, but tyranny by swarming.

I said that a constitutional republic is a necessary condition for maintaining properly liberal democratic processes. The problem, as modern history more than amply demonstrates, is that such a republican foundation is by no means a sufficient condition for the maintenance of liberal democratic processes. For there is absolutely nothing to sustain the ultimate authority of a constitutional foundation except the citizens’ deep awareness of the principles and purposes of that foundation, and their mutual goodwill in upholding those principles for the sake of their own and one another’s liberty. This intrinsic and inescapable soft spot is the core meaning of the American Founders’ admonitions to the effect that the republic they had created was only suitable to, and utterly dependent on, a moral people. Mature, reasonable, and responsible men, well-reared in the thoughts and feelings that make liberty desirable and possible, are the only practical bulwark against even the best-founded democracy’s gradual disintegration into authoritarianism by mob rule. (Note to libertarians: Your case — which was always as much a teenage fantasy as it was a political argument — dies right there.)

As a republic with democratic elections devolves into a democracy with republican “traditions,” it descends through various levels of degradation which may be roughly identified by observing the kind of people who successfully run for elected office. By that I mean that if a democracy is to be anything more than a tyranny of the majority, most of its electorate must be citizens who would be absolutely unwilling to vote for anyone who did not share the basic principles that ground a true liberal democracy, whether those principles are still entrenched in actual founding laws or not. This is not a matter of policy preferences, but of assessing political candidates on the simple standard of whether or not they seem to have any sincere intention of defending the rule of law and the premises of limited government. When, however, an electorate has shown itself, not merely in one lapse of judgment, but consistently and repeatedly over a long series of elections, to be unwilling to hold political candidates to any such standard, but rather to be endlessly willing to give their overt consent (their vote) to representation by men and women they know to be liars, grifters, profiteering careerists who will at best pay lip service to sound principles of government for the sake of winning the votes of the terminally gullible, like the famous Lucy Van Pelt and Charlie Brown football routine, then any last wisps of even the spirit of republican self-government — the unnegotiable demand that the state adhere to strict limits on its power — has vanished. Pure democracy, meaning brute force masquerading as choice, reigns.

As for the self-defenses such compromised voters typically offer themselves — “What else was there to vote for?” or “I really thought this man seemed like a true fighter for freedom” — there comes a time when a person who cares about liberty at all must look into his heart and ask himself, “If I have been duped or disappointed every single time for the past five, ten, fifteen elections, then at what point do I have to ask myself whether I am principled and educated enough to make sensible voting decisions?”

For not voting is also a voting decision. Not voting for fraud. Not voting for corporate cronyism. Not voting for uninformed imbeciles or palm-greasing schmoozers or flattering Iagos or money-grubbing conmen who not only will do nothing to reverse the long, slowly rising tide of oppression by majority thuggery, but will merely enable it, all the while using their public platform to lie to their duped supporters again and again about how if you just vote for them one more time, they will really start to unravel all this lawlessness — most of them knowing full well that they could do no such thing even if they did have any intention of doing so (which they do not).

Democratic elections do not a free country make. On the contrary, more often than not — much more often — democracy has been nothing but a smiling mask for populist demagoguery, socialist subversion, and the general obliteration of idea-driven political discussion and sober societal self-restraint. Democracy without a clear, well-learned, deeply believed foundation in inviolable principles of limited government is merely a euphemism for immoderation and coercive collectivism expressed through the rampant emotionalism and rashness of crowds. 

Why voluntarily contribute to such a process? Why routinely cast a vote for obviously inferior and brazenly dishonest dealers who are merely using the wheels of power to get rich, feed their vanity, expand state authority at the expense of individual self-determination, and/or ensconce themselves as members of a permanent ruling class answerable to no one? Why knowingly participate in the downward spiral of disorder and dissembling that is democracy unmoored from the letter and spirit of a limited republic or from any reflection of the rational consent of genuinely self-governing citizens?

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