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Sunday, July 29, 2018


Retreat from democracy

by Tom Sullivan

That hand is white and most likely male.

Talking Points Memo with the help of the American Federation of Teachers is posting a 10-part series on the state of democracy in America. Grab a cup of coffee and a bagel and settle in. Parts 1 and 2 are online now at TPM.

We are losing ground. I have long noticed that Republican friends enjoy reminding us the United States is not a democracy. It is a republic, they say with pedantic smile. For some reason, Republicans just like the sound of "a republic" better than "a democracy." But secondly, many simply don't like the entire concept of democracy. For all their public reverence for the U.S. Constitution, many of our fellows break faith with it after choking on the first three words in its preamble.

At the signing of the Treaty of Paris, there were an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 loyalists among just over 3 million people living in the new United States (including a large population of slaves). Democracy American-style was foreign to them, yet only a small percent left the country. Loyalists were acculturated to belief in government by hereditary royalty and landed gentry. It was not just a reflection of political philosophy, but of personality type. Their progeny are still with us.

“In many ways, today’s battles over voter ID, felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering and more are simply a continuation of a struggle that has been going for more than two centuries," Josh Marshall writes, "with a clear line of continuity stretching through the battle for voting rights in the Civil Rights Era South.”

Since the nation's founding, the slow, unsteady expansion of the franchise has always come with consternation from those with power when faced with sharing it.

In part 2 of the Retreat from Democracy series, Gregory Downs, Professor of History at University of California, Davis, reminds readers that the notion of democracy did not come naturally as we may think:

For white men, the United States became a democracy by degrees, not by design, and it showed in the chaotic voting systems. While colonial Americans cast beans, peas, and corn into containers or called their vote aloud, in the 1800s most men either wrote the candidate’s name on a blank sheet of paper or turned in a ballot helpfully printed for them by the local political party or newspaper. Outside of Massachusetts, almost no one registered to vote. Even if someone challenged a man’s age or residency, there often was no way to prove it. Voting ran by routine, not regulation.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, waves of new immigrants challenged the notion of universal suffrage (that was never universal). Then came the Civil War. In its wake, freed African-American men and war veterans registered to vote in droves. "By the fall of 1867, more than 80 percent of eligible African-American men had registered," Downs writes. "During the subsequent elections, at least 75 percent of black men turned out to vote in five Southern states."

Then came the backlash. In Alabama, a series of "reforms" resulted in voter rolls shrinking dramatically. But, Downs writes, Republicans who sought protection for black Southern voters enacted new rules meant to keep immigrants from participation in Northern elections:
When Americans treat voter disfranchisement as a regional, racial exception, they sustain their faith that the true national story is one of progressive expansion of voter rights. But turn-of-the-20th-century disfranchisement was not a regional or a racial story; it was a national one. Even though rebels perfected the art of excluding voters, it was yankees who developed the script. During the 1901 convention, Alabama delegates circulated copies of Massachusetts’ voting laws with the Bay State’s grandfather clause, literacy test, registration requirement, and secret ballots, all intended to make voting more difficult for immigrants. These Massachusetts laws worked, if not quite as well as they did in Alabama; voter turnout fell from 55 to 41 percent.
Today we face another backlash. In response to demographic and cultural changes and to the election of the country's first black president, states have erected voting barriers aimed to stop the young, the poor, and racial minorities.

Downs discusses his installment in the series with Josh Marshall in a TPM podcast.

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For The Win 2018 is ready for download. Request a copy of my county-level election mechanics primer at tom.bluecentury at gmail.