As regular readers know, I used to be a libertarian. I was even involved with the Libertarian Party and went to various events held by it and by other libertarian groups. So I understand the movement as a whole and to a lesser extent, I understand conservatism. One thing that all libertarians understand is that theirs is not a popular ideology. And it never will be. That’s one of the great sadnesses of being a libertarian: as much as you think the philosophy is perfect, you know that most people will never agree with you.
Make no mistake, libertarianism as well as conservatism are elitist beliefs. Almost all fellow travelers agree that it is best if fewer people vote. The idea that voting should be as easy as possible goes against their interests, but I doubt that most of them think this is the reason they are not fans of democracy. Instead, arguments go something like this: people who aren’t willing to go out of their way to vote don’t pay much attention to politics anyway and thus shouldn’t vote. For these people, voting is privilege, not a right, much less an obligation of citizenship.
As a result of my experiences, I’m not at all surprised that conservatives have taken to voter suppression with such abandon. They think it is not only okay, it is right. They think that democracy is a bad thing that must be stopped as much as possible. Now, there is a lot of racism and sexism buried deep in this. But it is not what voter suppress is all about at its core. I recommend reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. In that book, he shows that what really defines conservatism from Edmund Burke onward is a resistance to the expanded inclusion of people who count as eligible voters. And modern conservatives have never really gotten over the idea that the votes of the poor ought to count as much as the votes of the rich.
This is well on display in the Supreme Court. In an excellent article, The Right to Vote, Norm Ornstein sums up the recent decision gutting the Civil Rights Act:
All it really means is that Roberts and the other conservatives on the court are not keen on democracy and so they found a justification for allowing Republican controlled states to go back to the bad old days when only the “right” kind of people were able to vote.
Ornstein thinks the solution is a constitutional amendment. Although I think that would be a good idea, it isn’t going to happen. And the reason it isn’t going to happen is that conservatives don’t believe in democracy. A lot of people think they can be shamed out of this belief, but I think if we give them enough pressure, they will start proclaiming their distaste for the foundational basis of our republic. As it is, much of the conservative movement now wants to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment that made Senators elected directly by the people. This is not a group that will have a problem publicly dismissing democracy as “mob rule.”
I wish I had a solution to these problems. More and more, our nation seems to be trapped by our outdated Constitution. As it is, far too much power is given to sparsely populated states. These conservative “taker” states will never allow the nation to reform itself itself. Apart from the big states cutting themselves up, I don’t see a normal way forward. I think about this every time I hear some conservative politician claim that the US Constitution is the greatest document ever written. One could only think that if he had never read another country’s constitution. Many improvements have been made. But the very basis of ours keeps from enactment any of the great innovations over the last 226 years. This is how great countries die: when a selfish minority stops the majority from leading it into the future. Of course, I say that because I’m a liberal. I believe in democracy.