Spinning their wheels? Photographer: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

The Progressive Roots of Republican Vote Suppression

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Let's talk a little about elections, voting, the franchise, and democracy. Rick Hasen makes the case that conservatives and liberals have come to a fundamental split on democracy and elections:

"[C]onservative critics of early voting runs don't just mistrust early voters; they mistrust voters in general. [T]here is a fundamental divide between liberals and conservatives about what voting is for: Conservatives see voting as about choosing the "best" candidate or "best" policies (meaning limits on who can vote, when, and how might make the most sense), and liberals see it as about the allocation of power among political equals. Cutting back on early voting fits with the conservative idea of choosing the "best" candidate by restraining voters from making supposed rash decisions, rather than relying on them to make choices consistent with their interests."

Is Hasen correct? It's hard to know. Another plausible explanation is that the Republican efforts are devoted to restricting the franchise for purely partisan reasons, while conservative writers flail around looking for a more high-minded motivation. The mostly-Anglo Republican Party has a purely partisan self-interest in making voting more difficult for Democrats, which will have the effect of depressing voting among blacks and other historically disenfranchised groups who happen to be heavily Democratic. So it's not surprising (and in some ways not a bad thing) that conservatives might want to find a more compelling public reason for what they're doing.

On the other hand, it's also possible that conservatives first sought out acceptable-sounding reasons for an essentially partisan gambit, then came to believe their own sound bites. That's hardly unusual for any group of politicians. And don't forget that Republicans are not unanimous in attempting to make voting harder; some very conservative or libertarian Republicans have joined Democrats in pushing to restore voting rights for ex-felons.

It's worth noting that the elitist version of democracy that Hasen describes has a long, rich, history in the U.S. It's quite similar to the justifications Progressive-era thinkers used for their own restrictions of the franchise, and more broadly for the kind of elections they favored. Progressive-era reforms generally made voting much harder for individual citizens. Non-partisan elections removed the ready prompt of party; ballot measures asked voters to carefully consider arguments for and against something, rather than just vote with one's party. The idea was that the best voters would take the time to individually consider each election choice separately, based on "the issues," while those who just voted with their ethnic bloc or local ward were bad voters. Democracy, Progressives concluded, would work better if such voters were discouraged from participating. Meanwhile, voter registration would add an extra hoop for voters to jump through (which would not deter the "best" voters).

Of course, at the same time blacks were being ruthlessly blocked from the franchise in the South, often by politicians who cooperated with Progressives to restrict democracy to the "best" voters. Even outside the South, the effort often was a thinly transparent attempt to discourage or prevent recent immigrants or other undesirables from voting.

The elite theory of democracy is potentially internally coherent. The idea is that individuals, reasoning alone, with as much command of the facts and the issues as possible, will make the best choices for the nation. Yes, in practice, it can easily boil down to a "democracy" in which the wealthy and privileged dominate, and one could argue that it will necessarily be that. If so, it's just elitism, not democracy at all. In my view it's a wrong-headed version of democracy even if that's not the case; that is, I just don't think that democratic citizens should (necessarily) seek a high-minded "best" instead of asserting self-interest. But that's my view; others may disagree.

Democracy of the "best" ideas produced by the "best" voters, however, is not really compatible at all with current Republican positions on campaign finance. The Progressives were fiercely against both parties and "special" interests. That core belief is extremely hard to separate from other portions of the elite theory of democracy.

In practice, of course, there's no reason for a party to need to be internally consistent in its ideology. But believing in a democracy of the "best' voters, working as individuals, but at the same time fighting for the rights of interest groups to influence those voters without restriction? That's much harder to justify as any type of democracy at all.

I struggle with my own thoughts about Republican efforts to make voting harder. On the one hand, I favor strong parties, and one of the things that strong parties do is attempt to tilt the playing field in their direction. So I support, for example, rules that allow partisan gerrymandering. I tend not to worry too much about partisan election administration. But on the other hand, democracy requires meaningful participation from everyone, and restrictions on the franchise, or even just making voting harder, violates that condition. Overall, I tend to think that's one of the lines to draw; within a democracy, the ground rules must take the vote itself off the table of partisan competition. But I'm not entirely certain I can justify that.

At any rate, since I strongly oppose all of the various elements of the elite theory of democracy, I hope that Republicans move on from that to simply accepting their self-interested motivations for making voting harder. Even if I don't think they should do that, either.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net