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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The voice of the people is the voice of a dog

There’s always been a powerful current of anti-intellectualism in American politics, just as there is in American life. It’s the dark side of democracy: The pressure to accept what the majority, or the most vocal minority, thinks is true as truth – even when the evidence is entirely on the other side. When Henry Ford said history was bunk, he wasn’t taking about the past but about the present, and his ire wasn’t directed at historians per se but at the revisionist historians of the Progressive Era, who were telling him and his fellow know nothings inconvenient facts they didn’t want to hear. Pump Henry full of Hillbilly Heroin and put him on the radio, and you’ve got Rush Limbaugh, still making the same point.

Billmon is always worth reading; I can’t recommend his poliblog highly enough. But the above passage touched a particular chord in me, and made me want to expand a bit on the point I think he’s making in it.

Billmon uses the phrase ‘the dark side of democracy’. It reminds me of one of Robert A. Heinlein’s most frequent political musings, which goes something like this – “Monarchy is the idea that one person knows better than a million people. Democracy is the idea that a million people know better than one person. Huh?”

Where I think Heinlein (who was, as far as any of us can tell post-mortem, pretty much a libertarian anarchist who disliked nearly every conceivable form of government) is simply stating that no government makes rational sense when looked at objectively, Billmon is pointing out that the downside of ‘one person, one vote’ is that it gives ignorance as much potential power as education – more, in fact, since it’s easier (and often more fun) to be ignorant, so there are many more ignorant people out there voting than there are enlightened folk.

Now, it isn’t everyone voting; we do limit the franchise in America to 18 year olds and up who have a pulse and who are willing to put up with the minor inconvenience of registering and then going to a polling place and then, in the case of a small majority of us, having our votes disregarded by chicanery anyway. However, none of this in any way screens mindless idiots and/or hateful bigots from sober, reasonable, responsible citizens. Even a mindless idiot can get registered to vote, and then pull the lever on Election Day, especially if they have a helpful gay-hating pastor to fill out the paperwork for their signature and then drive them to the polling place when necessary.

This is why I’ve always felt at least a few more limitations should be imposed on the franchise. It’s one of those opinions that other liberals hate me for; as I’m given to understand it, democracy isn’t democracy unless everyone can vote, regardless of race, creed, or national origin.

But, as I’ve noted above, we do limit our franchise already, which seems to me to already fly in the face of true democracy. We do not, for example, allow resident non-citizens to vote in America, and we also disenfranchise American citizens 17 years of age and below. There are good reasons, at least, for the latter policy; if young children could vote, they would most likely vote the way their parents told them, which would give an inordinate amount of electoral power to the Catholics, to say the very least. And if we let adolescents/teenagers vote, well… they’re a very large percentage of the population and politicians would certainly have to court them, and I hate to think what kind of hot button issues would sway the heavily hormone driven vote. (Although if I could get a free X-Box 360 my damn self, I might be tempted to vote Republican, too.)

Yet if there are good reasons to keep our younger citizenry from voting (essentially, intellectual and emotional immaturity) and we all accept that, why, then, does it outrage the masses to suggest that those same standards (intellectual and emotional maturity) continue to be applied, regardless of the physical age of the potential voter?

I once saw an episode of L.A. Law in which their mentally retarded office guy, Bennie, was being told he couldn’t vote. Naturally, the extremely liberal lawyers on the show swung immediately into action; by the end of the program, Bennie was duly registered and had, in fact, proudly entered the voting booth, pulled the curtains closed behind him, and toggled the levers for the candidates of his choice… presumably, those he felt would be most likely to provide him with free hot dogs and ice cream on at least a semi regular basis.

I mean, look, Bennie was a nice guy, absolutely. But it strikes me as madness to allow the mentally retarded to vote in a modern American election. I understand that most politicians try to dumb down the issues to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but I also understand that this is one of the problems in our process, and the direct result has been, well, the nightmare we’ve been experiencing here on Planet America for the past six years… or the past sixty years, if you want to look at it another way.

I believe every American citizen should have an absolute right to demonstrate their competency to vote. But I don’t believe we should simply allow anyone tall enough to pull a voting lever, and who is physically capable of doing so, to do so.

Unfortunately, I can’t come up with some kind of objective standard we could apply to measure for the highly subjective quality we desperately need to measure for in electors, or, for that matter, in the elected – wisdom.

On the other hand, I do believe that we can filter out ignorance, and if we do that, we will most likely take large steps towards correcting many of the problems we are currently seeing with our form of government.

My modest proposal is this – we require that people pass a Voter’s Qualification Exam before we allow them to exercise the franchise.

Now, in the past, as I have argued for this step in various highly liberal environments, I have been met with horror. Such tests, I have been told, were but one weapon in the nefarious arsenal of tactics used to disenfranchise the newly freed colored folk during Reconstruction, and onward. Because this tactic has been used at one time, or even at various times, in human history, for onerous and reprehensible ends, apparently we are to accept that from those points until the end of time, it will always be regarded as completely unacceptable, intolerable, and just plain evil to attempt to impose any sort of tests or qualifications on potential voters.

This is, in my mind, a pretty stupid objection. You don’t outlaw paint simply because someone uses a bucket of Dutch Boy to deface your house. Paint has positive uses as well.

My Voters Qualification Exam would be a relatively simple artifact – a few hundred entirely objective questions regarding politics – local, State, Federal, global. Multiple choice questions (so it can be graded by computer, natch) along the lines of “The senior Senator of New York State is currently (a) Phil Eton (b) Charles Schumer (c) Hilary Clinton (d) Daniel Moynihan”. Or “The branch of the Federal government charged with interpreting the law is (a) the legislative branch (b) the executive branch (c) the judicial branch (d) the abrogative branch”.

Maybe 300 questions like that. Would you have to learn a lot of arcane political trivia to pass the test? Sure. Would a great many people not want to even bother trying? I have no doubt. Would I feel better, knowing that everyone who gets to vote for elected officials in this country actually knows who their current elected officials are? Absolutely.

This is not the equivalent of the kind of poll tests imposed in the past, in which most freed slaves were automatically kept from voting simply because they couldn’t read. Yes, taking and passing the test would require a certain level of literacy, but nowadays we tend to expect that sort of thing in grown up Americans anyway, after eight generations or so of public education. Nor is it a poll tax, assuming that taking the test is free to all, and I’d certainly want it to be. One can, I suppose, argue that it might be difficult for some prospective voters to go to a particular place at a particular time and take the test, but it’s not as if we let people stay home and phone in their votes now.

The only additional difficulty this test puts on potential voters is that, well, everyone but the fanatical political geeks are going to have to study their asses off to pass this test… and frankly, that doesn’t bother me. America’s consistently lousy electoral turn outs are a global embarrassment, and one of the reasons so few Americans even bother to vote is that we take the franchise so completely for granted that many of us hold it in contempt. To my mind, if we as a people has to make a concerted effort to vote, if we had to earn that vote, we’d be far more likely to use it once we got it.

Pragmatically, I would never expect such a step to actually be enacted. For one thing, there is nothing more likely to anger people than trying to take something away from them that they’ve always had, and feel entitled to, even if most of them never use it. For another, putting voters to this kind of test would completely revolutionize our elective bodies, making it much much harder for many, probably most, of our current incumbents to stay in office. The tried and true methods for swaying the rabble would go out the window if we insisted on only allowing those who actually know something about our political system to vote. It wouldn’t by any means weed all the scoundrels out, but it would certainly make it much more difficult for those who rely on straight demagoguery to get into office. Someone like Tom DeLay is going to have a hard time getting elected if everyone who listens to Rush Limbaugh and who buys Ann Coulter’s books has to actually study to pass a test before they can vote for him. In fact, any candidate who relies on dumbing their hot button issues down to the lowest common denominator is suddenly going to find themselves in dire straits. By definition, anyone willing to make the effort necessary to pass such a test will not be in the lowest common denominator; anyone that disciplined is going to be more likely to vote based on reason and rationality, instead of anger and provincial bias.

Given all that, there’s simply no way anything like this will fly – and if it did, well, I don’t know as I’d be one of those folks who would bother studying and taking a test just so I could go pull a lever in November, anyway. Maybe I’d be too damn busy.

But, at the very least, if that turned out to be true, I’d have to forego the wonderful pleasure of bitching about a system I couldn’t be bothered to exercise a voice in.


At 7:57 AM , Anonymous The Aberrant Eye said...

I don't know how closely the civics test administered to foreign nationals seeking U.S. citizenship matches the test you dream of, but maybe we could just use that.

At 9:48 AM , Anonymous The always esteemed Scott said...

I don't know how closely the civics test administered to foreign nationals seeking U.S. citizenship matches the test you dream of, but maybe we could just use that.

I was thinking along the same lines. When I got my Canadian citizenship several years ago, it struck me that the information that I had to know for that exam (which I found fairly simple, but then, I follow politics - American and Canadian - fairly closely) was stuff that your average natural-born citizen of Canada didn't know at all.
You've made a good case Highlander. If I have any reservations about the idea, it's this - who decides what goes on the test? Who marks them? It seems to me that this is the sort of thing that could become just another way of preventing the "wrong" sort of people from voting, without appropriate safeguards. Given that even without this sort of test, thousands of people are already prevented from voting, I would think one would have to be careful about this sort of thing.

At 12:46 PM , Blogger SuperFiancee said...

Heh...there you go, Scott. Diebold could administer tests...um...electronically. Yeah! No messy paper trail and only the voters they wanted to pass, would pass. A hearty handshake, a "Welcome to the voting booth!" and they're off!

Cynical? Jaded? Me????

At 1:25 PM , Anonymous The always esteemed Scott said...

No messy paper trail and only the voters they wanted to pass, would pass.

Exactly, SG. Although, on balance, I'm not sure whether a system that attempts to filter out the idiots - as ripe for misuse as it might be - would be any worse than the current one.

I mean, the current system has already elected *George Bush*.

What's the worst that could happen?

At 5:03 PM , Blogger Highlander said...

I think the idea of using the civics test one has to pass to become a citizen, to validate voter status once one is a citizen, is a fabulous idea. Americans who are born here take their citizenship for granted; I love the idea of making us all actually earn it, the way people not lucky enough to be born here have to do.

My only reservation is I haven't yet seen the test, so I can't comment specifically on its suitability.

Wait, SuperFiance sent me links.

Okay, yeah, that's a good test. Let's use it.

As for corruption of the process, that's a problem any time with any process... as Scott points out, the party in power used the voter registration system to disenfranchise an untold number of non-Republicans in the last Presidential election. The tests should be graded by computer, and the process should be completely transparent, with public records available to anyone.

In fact, something I'd like to see in the next Presidential election is some kind of 'shadow' voting system set up, whereby people can go vote at their polling place, and then, when they're done, they can also go somewhere else and record their vote for posterity, if they want to. No names necessary. Maybe just a bunch of volunteers standing around outside polling places with clipboards... not an exit poll, but an actual attempt to keep track of the vote in real time, as people come out. An independent tally. That way, we'd have actual data to compare against the official tallies.

I'd like to see MoveOn.Org and other organizations get behind this kind of effort. Not just poll watchers, but people actually independently recording the vote.

At 5:06 PM , Blogger Highlander said...

Oh, and Scott...

When you say 'the current system has already elected George Bush. Twice', you need to put 'elected' in quotes. Dubya has never been legitimately elected to his current office.

At 2:06 PM , Anonymous The always esteemed Scott said...

Dubya has never been legitimately elected to his current office.

Well, yes, point taken. I actually thought of that after I'd posted.
However, regardless of that, the fact remains that several millions of eligible voters (even if they weren't an actual majority in any sense of the word) still voted for this man. That's several million too many, in my opinion.

At 2:17 PM , Blogger Highlander said...

There are always going to be people who don't want to think, reason, analyze, or otherwise make the mental effort necessary to see through a well woven semantic smoke screen constructed out of pleasant, punchy, actually meaningless but emotionally pleasing buzz words.

Similarly, there are always going to be people who simply don't want to vote for anyone who tells them anything they don't want to hear.

Both of these traits stem from the deadly sin known as Sloth. The process I suggest isn't a panacea, but it will keep those who don't want to do any actual work or make the slightest unnecessary effort from voting. And that's got to be a good thing, and yes, I have to believe that if everyone who voted for Dubya were forced to pass a civics test before they pulled the lever, most of them would have just stayed home. Now, that's going to cut both ways -- liberals can be just as lazy as conservatives. But I suspect that when it comes down to it, if we make people actually do a little work to earn their vote, we're going to lose more of the right wing than the left.


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