I’d like to start this post with a short history of voting rights. The 19th century and early 20th century was rife with revolution. The last remnants of medievelism were being crushed and replaced with, occassionally, democracies and, more often, chaotic democratic disasters that quickly descended into strongman dictatorships.
The democracies that survived were the United States, the Dutch and, to a much lesser extent, a few of the South American countries. The democracies that turned into living hells were France, Haiti, Liberia and Russia. Mexico remained a democracy in name, but was, make no mistake, a living hell for most of the 19th century.
I believe I’ve found a common thread in the successes and failures and that is simply the question of who held power. In France and Haiti, it was the poor, the oppressed and the humble who led the way. In the US, on the other hand, voting restrictions very carefully excluded the poor and enslaved. Bolivar and his South American buddies hewed closer to the French example when they were failing and closer to the North American example when they were building institutions that could last.
From a moral standpoint, this seems perverse. After all, the point of a democracy is to give everyone a say. Freedom, equality and fraternity – the whole 9 yards. And yet, I’d much rather live in 1801 Boston than 1805 Paris and I’d rather live almost anywhere than 1850 Mexico City. So, in other words, democracy only seems to have caught on in the places where the common people couldn’t ruin it.
This got me thinking about the nature of minority groups and the nature of mainstream groups. What makes you a minority? What makes you a member of the mainstream?
I recently read an article from The Root (a publication for black people) which celebrated Jackie Robinson’s “militant” membership in the Republican Party. Mr. Robinson fought hard against the rise of Barry Goldwater and supported Nixon in multiple elections. However, The Root explains, he was always militant, always fighting against the oppression of the main stream. “I am a black man first, an American second, and then I will support a political party – third,” Robinson said. Similarly, Fox News (a publication for white people), announcing the results of the election, advanced the view that the election of Donald Trump represented a new awakening of working class white solidarity against the insidious forces of the mainstream media. I also read a story concerning a recent Ted Cruz press conference where the former presidential candidate explained that “I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican fourth.” Black Lives Matter, in their list of demands, explains that black people are so different from the rest of America that they need their own separate legal systems, educational systems and police forces.
Contrast The Root with the words and policies of Theodore Roosevelt. Olusola Akinyemi explains:
“… For all his varied interests, national greatness was the dominant concern of his life.
Roosevelt’s patriotism professed a faith in America’s pioneer ethos, the virtues that had won the West and inspired Americans to believe in ourselves as the New Jerusalem, bound by sacred duty to suffer hardship and risk danger to protect the values of our civilisation and impart them to humanity…
…He abhorred the multiculturalist’s adulation of diversity as more important than national unity. He insisted that every American owed primary allegiance to American political ideals and to the symbols, habits, and consciousness of American citizenship. He believed such patriotism didn’t disparage the distinctions of experience in American history, but encompassed and transcended those experiences in a shared and noble endeavor of building a civilisation for the ages, in which all people may share in the rights and responsibilities of freedom.
He spoke out against “the spirit of provincial patriotism” that aggrandized the sentimental attachments people feel for their towns and states into something greater than their national pride. He warned that “the overexaltation of the little community at the expense of the great nation” had ruined many nations and had prevented the countries of South America from uniting in to one great republic.”
Compare Ted Cruz’s Christianity with the words of Barack Obama.
And that’s when it dawned on me, the mechanism, the rationale, the reason voting restrictions existed. The mainstream is the stream by far most interested in the continuing survival of the political body as a whole. Ted Cruz and The Root, it seems, would rather see the whole thing burn down than let harm come to Christians or the black community.
Democracies in the modern world are really, really inclusive. They are also the most stable, most prosperous things human history has ever seen. It’s clearly good when everyone gets a voice. There is no better way to prevent the abuse of a homeless 63 year old than to give him equal opportunity to choose his congressman as Warren Buffet or LeBron James.
It legitimizes the rule of the elites who triumph and deligitimizes the dynastic ambitions of lazy nobility. It unites the people in shared interests and shared choices. When a powerful women like Angela Merkel commands a young German man to die in Afghanistan, her words carry the approval of her entire polity. When Bill Clinton announces a treaty with Mexico, he does so on the authority of 330 million people. This is no divine right of kings, where power rests on an invisible connection to heaven. This is no strongman dictatorship with a secret police grabbing people at night. Inclusive democracy is the child of a million mothers and, at its best, a democracy enjoys the kind of protection you’d expect in a family that big.
There have always been excluded minorities in the US – people like Jackie Robinson – but they have always been the exception. My own family became white when my olive skinned, black haired grandfather changed his name from Manuel to George and married a German girl. Polish used to mean something, Italian used to be a distinction, Jew used to be bad, Asians used to be the Yellow Menace but the redeeming power of intermarriage – the glorious institution of boinking people different from oneself – erased these distinctions in the space of only a few generations.
I’m very worried that process has broken. Early warning signs were the rise of white pride politicians in the Netherlands, Greece and France. It’s true that Europe has always been worse at integrating minorities than the US, and I thought that would save us, but I was wrong because French fascist Marine Le Pen and Dutch racial-nationalist Geert Wilder led to Brexit. Brexit led to Trump. Why? I believe it’s because the white working class no longer considers itself part of the mainstream.
I recently read a series of studies about how working class people began to see themselves as a minority and, frankly, it terrifies me. African Americans are only 13% of the population and yet their outsider, minority status has been the source of myriad disturbance and disunity. Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement were attempts to include blacks in the mainstream. Jim Crow, white flight, the current police vs. blacks thing have been attempts to exclude (or extricate, in the case of BLM) blacks from the mainstream. That tiny minority, 13%, and yet so much disunity and destruction came from it. Imagine how much nastier things get when the minority in question makes up 40% of the electorate, like working class whites do.
There is a common misperception that Julius Caesar was a tyrrant who overthrew the virtuous Roman Republic. The truth, at least in my opinion, is that Caesar saved the Roman people from a republic no better than the Hatian, French and Mexican disasters of the 19th century. It was an act of mercy, finally burying the distorted corpse of the once great Roman Republic.
The Roman Republic had been built on the union of landed farmers and urban elites – people close enough together to share a lot of the same incentives. This balance, like the balances in our own Western democracies, led to glorious achievements. Conquest of the known world, the explosion of culture, the union of Greek philosophy and Egyptian engineering, the introduction of civilization to France, Spain and the Balkans. These Roman Republicans laid the legal, cultural and politcal foundations of our modern world. They are, in my analysis, the greatest builders in world history and yet, they fell away.
The elites succeeded in buying land from the farmers and attempted to assauge that shame and powerlessness by providing the world’s first welfare system. The common people, reduced to the status of a minority, saw their paths to power shut off and embraced more and more radical champions. The Graccus Brothers brought hope, economic redistribution, hatred for the elites, a disregard for republican norms and the legitimization of violence against political opponents, just like Donald Trump has.
After the Graccus brothers, a series of ever more radical, superstitious and frankly stupid champions of the common man wrought destruction on the great Roman Republic. It was then, Sulla, champion of the elites, crushed the people and re-imposed both order and aristocratic domination. It is only upon this barren landscape a populist, left wing politician like Gaius Julius Caesar could sow the seeds of totalitarian empire.
I suspect, my fellow citizens, there is a Sulla of our own just around the corner though I have never wished more to be wrong.