Once again Missouri Republicans are out to limit the franchise so that only the “right” types of people cast their votes. Of course, that’s not what GOPers are saying. To hear them tell it, they’re pushing SB511 and its companion, SJR31, the latest iterations of the annual GOP voter suppression bills, to ward off the threat of massive voter fraud that exists only in the overheated imaginations of the more gullible souls on the right. If you doubt me, you can check out the nature of the complaints sent to the Secretary of State concerning voting irregularities in Missouri. The actual consequence of the ID laws, according to Secretary of State Jason Kander, is that 220,00 Missourians could be disenfranchised if these measures are enacted:
Among the hundreds of thousands of eligible Missouri voters that could be kept from voting by SJR31 & SB511 are students with current school-issued photo ID’s, senior citizens who no longer drive, Missourians who rely on public transportation, and women who have changed their last names due to marriage or divorce.
“This is not just a simple identification requirement,” Kander said. “This is essentially ‘REAL ID’ all over again, as the legislature wants everyone in our state to be required to have a certain kind of identification. …
This is not the only sin against democratic government that Missouri Republicans have committed in the recent past: Remember Prop. B, the popularly approved puppy-mill initiative that the legislature decided to dismantle just because they could? And Prop. B was just the latest winning ballot initiative to be treated in a cavalier fashion by a predominantly Republican legislature. Nor is this discomfort with the consequences of democracy limited to Missouri Republicans. State and federal GOPers are united in their in opposition to numerous positions supported by a majority of Americans such as minimum wage increases, extending unemployment benefits, ending workplace discrimination against LGBT people. Heck, most Americans want Republicans to stop the repeal Obamacare charade they’ve been playing at and get down to the brass tacks of making the law better – or, at the very least, doing something constructive with their time.
If all of this evidence leads you to conclude that the “we the people” contingent has a very narrow conception of just who comprises the “we” in that formulation, you wouldn’t be alone. The disdain for the popular will shown by the folks who precipitated the last government shutdown, for instance, led former Citigroup Chairman Richard Parsons to declare:
… there’s a “new breed of politician. A lot of the highly conservative element that’s come in … are actually anti-democratic. The will of the people, … which is a founding principle of this country, is no longer relevant,” …
This conservative anti-democratic bias isn’t new. It can be traced to a dispute that has deep roots in American political life, one side of which is elaborated in James Madison’s Federalist no. 10, often read as an argument for limiting democracy by moderating the ability of “faction,” i.e., partisan politics, to affect the established interests of the elite. Though this document is treated as ultimately authoritative by many conservatives, it was considered aberrant by many of Madison’s contemporaries. That fact hasn’t stopped conservatives though. Although many on the political right argue exclusively from authority, they also frequently exhibit a strong proclivity to pick and choose among various potential authorities when they attempt to interpret the Constitution’s true meaning.
It’s instructive to do a google search on the phrase “republic vs. democracy.” I warn you that you’ll come upon some examples of incredibly tortured logic, simplistic and often wrong-headed definition, and linguistic confusion. One writer actually suggests that the difference resides in the fact that in a republic, after a vote is taken, the members of the minority may go along with the majority result or not based on the individual’s personal preference. Others, such as the dominionist Christian Wallbuilders, define a republic as rule by law which should not be based on the “rapidly fluctuating feelings and emotions of the people,” as in a democracy, but rather on Christian biblical principles to which elected or appointed representatives must defer. In general, though Federalist no. 10 is the usual starting point, the tenor is similar to that of medieval academics reverently distilling received authority into arcane arguments – with the distinction that most of the medieval thinkers were much less tendentious and had a head for nuance, something that seems to muddle modern conservatives.
Somewhat saner writers begin with Madison’s conception of a classical democracy where citizens vote directly for every issue – although citizenship itself may be restricted. They argue that our Constitution envisions instead a representative Republic, where an elected political elite makes the decisions. Of course, the ideas have merged over the years and most of us would agree that the United States is a representative democracy, with a bill of rights to protect minorities. This merger has been incorporated into the Constitution and informs most Americans’ conception of our government; as Peter Levine observes:
… the 15th, 17th, 19th, and 24th amendments to the Constitution, the state constitutions, two centuries of legislation, and Lincoln’s interpretation of the Civil War as a struggle for government “by the people” have made us a representative government on the basis of one person/one vote, which is a reasonable definition of a democracy.
For all practical purposes, the distinction between the two terms has become meaningless for reasonable people. For those, however, who have an axe to grind with the direction democracy is taking in the U.S., it provides a shield to deflect criticism when they seek to obstruct the common will. Conservative interpreters of Federalist no. 10 still view the Constitution as a document that limits the power of majorities, and they deny the validity of changes that have moderated aspects of 18th century elitism in the document – changes which they often seek to eradicate. Most of us have seen the lists of Constitutional Amendments that Tea Partiers would like to do away with, most recently the 17th amendment that provides for direct election of senators.
Within this context, suppressing and limiting the franchise, drawing voting districts to ensure political hegemony (gerrymandering), and enabling monied interests to essentially buy elections, are acceptable because they are meant to ensure the election of elite representatives who will moderate the enthusiasms of the democratic “mob.” The distinction between “republic” and “democracy” supports a system, embraced by the Republican party, that works fine for folks like the Koch brothers and Missouri’s Rex Sinquefield, and when it’s threatened, it’s not surprising that you hear the squealing of little piggies like billionaire Tom Perkins, who last week warned his fellows that progressives were even now preparing the tumbrils to cart the 1% off to the guillotine.