Sunday, November 1, 2009

As America grows more democratic, it grows more Democratic.

There's an excellent post over at today that looks at how the 2008 election might have turned out in several different alternate histories. Specifically, they slice up the real 2008 results to see how much of the vote Obama would have gotten if you rolled back each layer of voting rights expansion over the last 200 years.

The chart below shows four things:
1) Six sequential "eras" of American voting rights,
2) Which group(s) of people could generally vote in each era,
3) What proportion of the 2008 electorate was made up of that group,
4) How much of that group's votes went to Obama.
Colonial Era: Adult white protestant landowning males
12% of the 2008 electorate. 31% voted for Obama (if you use an income cutoff of $50,000 as a substitute for "landowning").

Jeffersonian Era: Adult white landowning males
21% of the 2008 electorate. 40% voted for Obama.

Jacksonian Era: Adult white males
32% of the 2008 electorate. 41% voted for Obama.

Women's Suffrage Era: Adult whites
69% of the 2008 electorate. 43% voted for Obama.

Civil Rights Era: Adults
95% of the 2008 electorate. 52% voted for Obama.

Post-1971 Era: Even more adults (voting age lowered)
100% of the 2008 electorate. 53% voted for Obama.
It makes intuitive sense that Obama only "wins" when you add in the Civil Rights Era expansion of voting rights. But does it strike anyone else as profound that his numbers go up with each expansion of suffrage? The chart shows that the more democratic America gets, the more Democratic America gets. (Note clever use of lower-case d vs. capital D!) In the long run, given that the parties shift over time, it's more accurate to say that as the country grows more democratic, it grows more progressive.

An interesting follow-up to Open Left's article would be to look at specific progressive legislative victories that were accomplished in each era as a result of a previous expansion of suffrage. For instance, would the victories of the late 1800s and early 1900s--like the direct election of Senators and the creation of a progressive income tax--have been possible without the earlier, Jacksonian expansion of voting rights to include non-landowning white males? Would FDR's New Deal programs of the '30s and '40s have been possible without winning women's suffrage in the '20s? It's also worth noting that each expansion of suffrage listed above probably would not have been possible without the one that came before it. It's a kind of progressive/democratic momentum at work. It's slow but powerful.

Next, let's not make the mistake of thinking that history ended yesterday. The progression of democracy shown in the chart above was the product of the strikes, marches, canvassing, community organizing, pamphleteering, soap-boxing, and campaigning by people who were variously called progressives, radicals, liberals, democrats, and populists. At every single step they were opposed by people who were called conservatives. (This, as much as anything else, demonstrates what conservatives throughout history have been trying to "conserve": undue political power and the wealth that goes with it.)

Should we think that this 200-year tug-of-war between ("small d") democrats and conservatives magically ended right before our current era? Of course not. The conservative movement still has a stake in making America less democratic by restricting our voting rights. Let's look at some specifics. (The list below ain't comprehensive.)

Voter registration - Virtually across the board, Republicans seek to make voter registration as hard as possible. As you can imagine, there are millions of little ways to go about this. Meanwhile, Democrats generally want voter registration to be as easy as possible. Some of the recent progressive victories have been the motor voter laws from the '90s and the number of states that allow people to register the same day as the election.

The act of voting - Republicans also want to make the act of voting and the day of the election as inconvenient and time-consuming as possible. If it were up to them, you'd have to show seven forms of identification at your precinct. They say they're just concerned about preventing fraud. Really they know that studies show that ID requirements are more of a burden for poor and minority voters than for richer and whiter voters. There are also a whole number of lies that Republicans drag out every two years at election time. In recent elections, we've heard of advertisements in black neighborhoods that gave the wrong date for voting. We've heard of announcements going out that voters may be arrested at the polls if they have outstanding traffic tickets or child support payments. In each Democratic campaign I've been involved with, most of the "ground game" in the late stages is spent telling people that it's actually much easier to vote than they've been led to believe.

Disenfranchising criminals - Republicans are also big fans of disenfranchising felons. (I've never understood how we ever allowed this; it just seems like our most fundamental right.) So they make a felony conviction take away someone's voting rights, then they make up what qualifies as a felony. Combine this with other structural inequalities and it adds up to 5.3 million Americans and 13% of black men who are unable to vote. That is absolute gold for Republicans. But Democrats and liberals are always working at ways to restore voting rights for felons and even to register voters in prison.

Disenfranchising our nation's capital - More than half a million residents of Washington D.C. still have no vote in the House of Representatives or in the Senate, despite the fact that we pay federal taxes, fight and die in wars, and are Americans. There is currently legislation moving through Congress that would give DC a vote in the House. I'll let you guess which party is for it and which one is against it.

Importing a voteless underclass - Conservative economics--always seeking a more slave-like workforce--brings undocumented workers across our southern boarder. If disenfranchising felons is gold for Republicans, then importing an entire population of workers who have no rights must be platinum. Think of it: cheap labor, the ability to break union organizing drives with the threat of immigrations enforcement, and the knowledge that the workers cannot vote. But true to its historical legacy, the American Left is working to make these workers into citizens, voters, and union members. And the right wing really, really hates that.

This post ended up being longer than I intended. But I think it's plain to see that the 200-year American tug-of-war between democracy and conservatism continues.

1 comment:

delaine said...

Dave, this is an excellent post. I like how you lay out the progress that we have made as a nation. And then you point out the hurdles that are often put in our way. How true it is that democracy's progression is not a spectator sport. Citizens must get involved and be willing to work. It's always shocking to me that the conservatives, while they say they are "conservative" about states' rights or fiscal policy or immigration or any number of other things are also conservative about extending democracy. And their actions speak louder than their words.