Democracy and the Anti-Democratic

Democracy and the Anti-Democratic

My argument against additional qualifications for citizens to vote boils down to these two core beliefs: (1) Democracy is the only legitimate basis for governing authority and therefore (2) all those governed should have a say in their government – most basically, a vote,

Jacob has suggested that the outcomes – what people decide to vote for – should take priority over issues of suffrage. He proposes that eliminating “ignorant voters,” those without “a very basic education” on government, would be a positive step in achieving his desired ends.

My problem with this proposal is principled, procedural, and practical.

On principle, I reject the idea that engineering our preferred outcome is worth sacrificing the voting rights of citizens. A system which only allows voters to participate if voting achieves the desired ends is not a real democracy.

On procedural grounds, I believe that there is no neutral test for determining whether a citizen is sufficiently informed to qualify them to vote. Any such test would necessarily favor one set of political ideas over others.

In practical terms, if we allow the government to decide which citizens get a vote, the government will manipulate that process to serve its own interests. In the South, for a hundred years after the Civil War, that meant excluding black citizens from voting in order to serve the interests of a government based in and dedicated to white supremacy.* In the contemporary era, this has come in the form of Republican-controlled states passing voter ID laws designed in such a way that they disqualify traditional Democratic voters. Libertarians should join liberals in rejecting such abuses of power by the government.


Anti-Democratic Elements of Government

This is not to say that our political system lacks anti-democratic or undemocratic elements. Quite the opposite. The bicameral legislature, malapportionment of the U.S. Senate, appointed judges, a presidency separate from Congress, and the power if individual states are all anti-democratic in the sense that they prevent power from being concentrated in the hands of a single majority. The Constitution itself, with its limits on congressional and presidential power and complex, super-majority amendment process, is anti-democratic in the sense that a current majority is limited in its scope of action.

Such elements may, in fact, be essential for any democracy to function over the long-term. Only with such obstacles to majority tyranny would those in the minority on any given issue be willing to lend their tacit support to a structure that resulted in what was for them the ‘wrong’ outcome. Anti-majoritarian elements allow for guarantees that could not be reliably offered in a simple majority structure.

Imagine, for instance, if the First Amendment could be waived by a majority vote in the House of Representatives. A secular majority could then not only pass laws that religious individuals found morally objectionable, it could literally make the practice of religion a crime punishable by disfranchisement. By doing so it would simultaneously criminalize thought and guarantee its continued hold on power. Under such conditions, religiously inclined voters would be justified in abandoning the system at the first sign of a secular majority. Instead, the protections of the First Amendment guarantee them the opportunity to engage in – and perhaps win – the next policy battle even after losing the first. The long-term survival of our democracy owes a great deal to such anti-democratic safeguards.

Here is where I would say that the libertarianism espoused by Jacob goes wrong. The problem is not that voters are insufficiently educated about politics. It is that libertarians have not succeeded in winning the battles that would enshrine their priorities within the anti-democratic elements of our system of government. But the battle over those elements is, at heart, always a democratic battle. That is what makes the anti-democratic elements acceptable: they ultimately draw their legitimacy from the process of voting. None of them is fully insulated from the voice of the people. Each of them survives because the voters allow them to survive.

The government is thus at the mercy of the citizens, not the other way around.



* For more on this historical example, you might start with this excellent piece at the African American Intellectual History Society blog by Patrick Rael. Simply start at the page break about half-way down for the historical material from this period (and the opening evidence on the contemporary changes is pretty good too).


Featured image adapted from “I Voted!” by Vox Efx. (license info)

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a reform-minded historian, center-left Democrat, and religious believer.

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