Limiting the Franchise To “Responsible People”

At TAP today, Jamelle Bouie nails a point I’ve been kicking around for a while: the connection between the GOP’s voter-supression drive and the very common conservative belief, reified by Mitt Romney in his Boca Moment, that “dependent” people are subverting democracy:

If you want a sense of what motivates the politicans and activists who push for voter identification laws, look no further than this quote from Pennsylvania State Representative Darryl Metcalfe:

“I don’t believe any legitimate voter that actually wants to exercise that right and takes on the according responsibility that goes with that right to secure their photo ID will be disenfranchised. As Mitt Romney said, 47% of the people that are living off the public dole, living off their neighbors’ hard work, and we have a lot of people out there that are too lazy to get up and get out there and get the ID they need. If individuals are too lazy, the state can’t fix that.”

As always, it’s worth noting the extent to which the “47%” meme has penetrated the right-wing consciousness. It’s why Romney immediately doubled-down on the statement; he’s echoing many conservatives when he says that Obama’s supporters are people who won’t “take responsibility for their lives.”

When it comes to Metcalf, he alludes to another view that has taken hold on the Right. Namely, that democracy requires independence from government benefits, and that self-governance is threatened when too many are “dependent” on federal aid. This isn’t a fringe belief; it was echoed by anchors on Bloomberg—who worried that the 47% will somehow subvert democracy by voting their financial preferences—and has its roots in the founding of the country.

Bouie then briefly reviews the common eighteenth- and nineteenth-century view that only white male property owners had the “independence” necessary for self-government, meaning the right to vote. And yes, it was a view generally accepted by the Founders before whom contemporary conservatives have recently been burning incense while demanding a strict and immediate return to their schemes of governance as divinely and permanently ordained:

The Founders were preoccupied with something called “republican virtue.” As they saw it, a democratic society required a citizenship with the ability to act with enlightened self-interest. For them, white male landowners were capable of achieving this state—Africans were subhuman, and women were governed by passions and sentiment.

While today’s conservatives have obviously upgraded their opinions of African-Americans and women, the notion that power in a democracy should vary proportionately to one’s “virtue” as measured by “success” (e.g., privately generated wealth) has survived almost intact. It’s reflected not just in voter suppression efforts and alarums about lucky duckies who don’t pay income taxes, but in all the idolatrous rhetoric about “job creators” that’s gone hand-in-hand with the revived idolatrous cult of the Founders. (I am using “idolatrous” in a theological, not rhetorical, sense, because idolatry is often what it is).

It’s an internally consistent point of view, all right, and a dangerous one.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.