Posts Tagged ‘Voter I.D. laws’

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions

May 9, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions


Platonic politics seems very distant from “the American way,” so distant that we may wonder if it has anything at all to teach us. But as one of the earliest attempts at rational political theory, it is also the source of some of our deepest principles. Most fundamentally, Republic’s politics are rooted in the notion of the leaders as public servants. Plato’s rulers were to live entirely on the public dime, and that dime was supplying their daily bread—not caviar. They were to have simple food, simple clothes, no private property of any kind. Even family was denied them; children were to be raised by the community. This may seem insane today, but in Plato’s day it wasn’t so far from the actual society of Sparta. The main difference between Sparta and Plato’s ideal society, as he himself says, is that the Spartans were no philosophers. Plato believed that philosophy was essential to full human achievement and to the sound running of a society. A society led without a moral sense would inevitably collapse into corruption and tyranny, so the leaders had to be as philosophically devout as they were socially dedicated. Furthermore, in Plato’s day “philosophy” included areas of thought that we would today consider very separate subjects: engineering, mathematics, and natural science were all areas investigated first by “philosophers.” Music is math in action, turning physical ratios such as length of string on a lyre into audible harmonies; so his philosophers had to study and practice music as well. History and drama help us understand the human condition and explore moral truths, so philosophy would include knowledge of what we broadly call “arts and humanities.” All of these would be strictly disciplined, turned to the service of promoting social order; but while actual Sparta had little use for all this art and thinking, Plato’s republic would put them at the center of education for future leaders. They would not be warrior-ascetics like the Spartans, but philosopher-warriors. But like the Spartans, Plato’s rulers would not only sacrifice their comforts, but if necessary even their lives for the good of the State, serving as guardians and auxiliaries, a lean, mean professional army to be used not for conquest, but ruthlessly in self-defense.

The second lesson Plato teaches is the importance of expertise. No one can be good at everything; different people have different abilities and different motivations. Some will be delighted by a life of public service; others will see no point in a life lived for anything except their own pleasure. In Plato’s world, those who want to make money and build businesses would do so, and their acquisitive instincts would be turned to the good of society as a whole; someone has to make the weapons the soldiers use to guard the nation, or raise the food that feeds the philosopher rulers. Those who want to serve and who crave excitement and prestige will become lifelong auxiliaries, professional soldiers and police defending and enforcing the laws created by the philosophers. And those with the philosophical temperament and mental ability to wisely lead would be given the job of thinking and making laws for the society.   One of the things that separates human society from the much less successful social structures of other primates is the notion of a division of labor. Chimpanzees work entirely on a dominance model of leadership; the bigger and stronger become alphas until deposed. Among humans, leadership often rests more on expertise and the prestige it affords; people listen to someone who knows what he or she is talking about. They also listen to the one who can bully or punish, or more broadly can impose an agenda rather than solicit one from the group; so among humans the “dominance” and the “expertise” models of leadership often compete. No alpha male chimp takes advice from a weaker subject, nor does he fear being undermined by someone who can make better tools. Human leaders may organize and rely on those with expertise in different areas, or they may see the “eggheads” as threats to be slapped down or kicked out of the group. In Plato’s world, expertise rules; the “alpha male” personality would, in his view, be too passionate and irrational to be allowed power. Better to let him be a warrior if he can obey orders, or let him build a business, so long as he doesn’t actually undermine the State.

But “the American way” is only distantly descended from Plato’s republic, as this passed through Augustine’s civitas Dei to Aquinas and Luther and other Christian political thinkers, thence to the Enlightenment and John Locke. In Locke, both dominance and expertise are modified, and in fact he is not creating an “ideal society” at all; he is proposing principles for real people living in real civil society. And in this, the government’s job is to discern and fulfill the collective will of the community. The would-be alpha must persuade others to follow; the expert must teach and sell his or her thoughts in the marketplace of ideas; both models of leadership ultimately rest on getting people to agree to be led, which means a combination of persuading them where to go and agreeing to lead them where they ultimately say they want to go. The ultimate leader is not the king, or the Prime Minister; it is the voter. As with Plato, in Locke’s view the political leader is a public servant. Despite their differences, as we saw before, they have very similar views of what the bad government, tyranny, looks like: the true leader is a public servant working for the good of society, while the tyrant expects the society to work to his (or her) own profit.

Thus, in a civil society all citizens are both subject and ruler, making and obeying the laws. No one is above the law and no one is too lowly to help write the laws all will obey. One of the inalienable rights of all human beings is liberty; we may agree to obey the will of the majority, but only because we also had a part in making the decision. Even when the citizen is outvoted, the government is still an expression of his or her will, created by the process of voting and debating in which all have their part.

Furthermore, anyone who chooses not to vote is eo ipso choosing the part of a slave, letting others make the essential decisions. If voting is the way individual liberty is expressed in a civil society, to not vote is to not be free. This idea, however, raises other questions. Logically, does freedom have to be exercised to be real, or can it be merely potential? What if one likes none of the options one is asked to choose between? Or, what if (as often happens) there is only one candidate for a position? And what if the voting rules are written or the voting maps are drawn in such a way that one’s vote is rendered powerless?

There needs to be a way to vote “none of the above” in an election. The wise parent asks the child, “Do you want your red shoes or your blue shoes?” The important point, wearing shoes, is not left to a vote. For adults, this is not acceptable, for it is no choice at all. It is “managed democracy,” not real democracy.[1] It is intended, as is the choice offered the child, to give the appearance of freedom while denying the substance. The difference is that the child is not a fully rational being, and the parent is guiding the child towards becoming a fully free and rational adult in the future by giving “practice” choices. The autocrat is trying to create the illusion of freedom while denying true choice to the citizen. Allowing voters to say “none of the above” allows them to express their displeasure. Even if this no-confidence vote has no formal sanction attached, at least it informs the leaders that the people are not in fact endorsing through silence. This is, however, only a first step. The fact is that, politically speaking, freedom is only real when there is a viable way it can be expressed. Politicians, like anyone, want job security, and generally will try to find ways to win reelection beyond simply asking what the voters want and then delivering it. Democracy is, after all, “rule by the people;” thus it is not always in the interests of the current leadership, regardless of party or factional allegiance. Democracy is, essentially, the periodic opportunity for peaceful revolution, to eliminate the need for violent transfers of power. Those who currently hold power may not want to transfer it. But democracy is always in the interests of the society itself, simply because it is a way to resolve conflicts without chaos and bloodshed. Thus, politicians will always be tempted to gerrymander, to mislead, and to obstruct the right to vote. They may not even consciously recognize that this is self-serving; instead, sometimes they say that voting is a privilege, or that some people vote “wrong” and thus should be discouraged from voting until they “grow up” and “understand better what it means to be an American.”[2] Even today, some argue that voting age should be raised back to 21 or even 25.[3] And others have argued that women should not have the right to vote.[4] The arguments in these and similar instances are that voting is a privilege which must be earned, and that people who are likely to make the wrong choices shouldn’t be granted that privilege. This is the very opposite of the idea advocated by Locke and repeated by the leaders of the American Revolution, that the right to vote is an expression of freedom and freedom is a natural right.[5]

I believe it should be clear now that these efforts at voter suppression are the very opposite of what “The United States of America” is supposedly about, and in fact could have tragic, violent consequences. The U.S. political conversation has always been controlled by the debate between paternalism, represented by Plato, versus participation as advocated by Locke. In practice, paternalistic language has often been a cover for tyrannical agendas. I would say that the paternalism/participation debate is more fundamental than the so-called “conservative” versus “liberal” polarization that gets so much press. The question of whether the people should have a voice in running things, or should be controlled by leaders who claim moral or intellectual superiority, is the first question that must be settled; after deciding how to decide, a society can then address the conservative/liberal debate. That is what the Founding Fathers believed, and that commitment to participation is an essential part of American politics. It is the air we have breathed since the Revolution itself. It is as much a part of our political DNA as the oxygen we breath is part of our blood. And the logic of participation, as bequeathed to us by John Locke, is perfectly clear: a government that does not allow you to vote is not your government. Any person or institution that seeks to deny you the right to vote, or to render that right impotent —because you are likely to vote for the “wrong” party, because you are black or poor or female or non-Christian or your parents immigrated here more recently than theirs, or for any other reason not obviously related to your incapacity as an individual person—- is your enemy, is at war against you, and you have a natural right to resist such an attack with violence if necessary. Democracy is the alternative to civil war; to try to thwart, suppress, or subvert it is to attack the peacekeeping and problem-solving ability of the society, and to leave civil war the only choice for those shut out of full participation. Currently in the U.S. the largest, best-organized, best-funded and most dedicated group working to suppress democracy is the Republican Party. Repeated investigations have found that so-called “voter I.D.” laws are aimed solely at denying legal American citizens the right to vote.[6] Repeated legal rulings and investigations have shown that these laws are not addressing any real problem but are solely intended to stop the “wrong” people from voting. Even Republicans, when faced with their President’s claim of widespread voter fraud, publicly admitted that there is no evidence that widespread fraud exists.[7] Attacks on the very concept of factual reality, reliance on “alternative truths” and other such gaslighting of the public are another way to undermine functioning democracy. And while the language of paternalism is used, the actual practice has been what both paternalists and participationists would define as tyranny: authoritarianism, cliquishness, government by power and intimidation rather than by expertise and wisdom, dishonesty, and profit-making by the ruling family and its hangers-on.

There are some who would ask, “Who cares about what some musty old philosophy book says?” Philosophy matters, especially to non-philosophers. There is a dialogue between philosophy and the wider culture. Thinkers look at the world, distil the essence of trends and notions around them, make unconscious assumptions visible and conscious, and occasionally invent novel solutions to problems and conflicts. The ideas they present are in turn taken up by law schools and courts, by seminaries and divinity schools, and by writers and other artists, and become part of the legislative processes and the popular culture. So it matters, deeply, what John Locke has to say about government by the people. These ideas are the original programming of our nation, and they will continue to run when activated, as long as America is America.

There is government that encourages the people to speak and works to give them voice, or there is tyranny, war of the government against the people. The people may tolerate a state of cold war or siege war for a long time, as long as things run smoothly; but when things turn sour, as they inevitably will, the final resolution is revolution. The only escape from future political violence is present action to strengthen democracy, even (especially!) at the risk of political and social change brought on by empowering everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever. As Thomas Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The government that seeks to deny millions of its citizens these rights that Americans have been taught to regard as “inalienable” will itself alienate those citizens, and risks the same response King George received.

[1] Nicholay Petrov and Micahel McFaul, “The Essence of Putin’s Managed Democracy;” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 18, 2005 (

[2] For examples, see Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 ( So-called liberal politicians are also inclined to such sentiments as well.

[3] Austin Frank, “We Shouldn’t Lower the Voting Age—We Should Raise It: People Under 25 Shouldn’t Vote;” Today in Politics February 9, 2017 (

[4] Mikayla Bean, “Ann Coulter says ‘Women Should Not Have the Right to Vote,’ but ‘They Can Still Write Books.’ Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, June 11, 2015 (

[5] Granted, this was not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, and not universally held even by all the Founding Fathers. Like the right of non-whites and women to vote, the right of the poor to vote was certainly implied by that “all “men” are created equal” idea, but only made explicit later in amendments. Today, however, it is explicit: all American citizens have the right to vote, and that is what it means to be a citizen. For more discussion, see Garrett Epps, “Voting: Right or Privilege?” The Atlantic September 18, 2012 (

[6] Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow, “Appeals Court Strikes Down North Carolina’s Voter I.D. Law;” Washington Post June 29, 2016 (

[7] Reuters, “Republicans Unenthused Over Trump’s Voter Fraud Claims;” Newsweek January 25, 2017 (

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

August 23, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

            Journalists have wondered why the massacre in Colorado has not inspired any calls for gun control, unlike previous atrocities such as Columbine.  True, there have been some pleas from die-hard activists and even from non-politicians such as Jason Alexander.[1]  Jon Stewart has pleaded with us to at least have a conversation about the need to balance gun rights and gun dangers.[2]  But politicians do not dare even discuss gun control, and Americans are more opposed to gun control than ever.  We can talk about banning costumes in movie theaters, but we can’t talk about banning guns in movie theaters.  Are we more afraid of turning our movie theaters into Castle Frank-n-Furter than we are of turning them into war zones?

A quick Internet search (Wikipedia followed by checking the sources used there) reveals some interesting facts.  First, gun violence overall has fallen significantly over the last decade.  Second, most gun deaths are suicides.[3]  When you add in the gun deaths from accidents, from lost tempers during family disputes, and from previously unarmed criminals who take the owner’s own gun and use it, it seems clear that guns are, on the whole, far more dangerous to their owners than to criminals.  And yet, despite these facts, people cling to gun ownership more tightly than ever.  Even the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse.  Why not legalize machine guns?  At least a .50 cal requires a tripod, which would be a lot harder to smuggle into a movie theater than an M-16 without being much more dangerous to the innocent.  If the 2nd Amendment is absolute, then banning any weapons is unconstitutional; if it is permissible and moral to ban machine guns, tanks and RPGs then it is not qualitatively different to ban other military hardware.  Banning guns is banning guns; if society has the right to say that heavy machine guns are too much firepower and thus beyond constitutional protection, then it has the right to make the same judgment about any military-grade weaponry.  That is not so much a plea for gun control as it is a plea for logic.  As a society, we have in fact made judgments about what weapons our neighbors and ourselves will be allowed to own, and what we will not.  It is illogical to claim that such judgments are illegal or immoral while we continue to make them.

If logic cannot explain waning support for gun control, perhaps psychology can.  Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety is a philosophical, psychological and religious analysis of anxiety as a personal and social force.  His discourse “Every Good Gift and Perfect Gift is From Above” is a theological examination of anxiety as the fruit of sin.[4]  Together, these writings present an analysis of anxiety as a primordial driving force in human life.  Briefly, anxiety is described as “the dizziness of freedom.”  Life is full of choices that are both significant and underdetermined by the facts.  We experience anxiety because of this.  This anxiety is compounded when we begin to be anxious not only about our own capacity to choose wisely and justly, but also about the world and the uncertainty of existence.  In the face of such anxiety, the common human reaction is to seek for authorities that can take the burden of freedom from us, or to transform our anxieties into fears.  Both play into the current state of the gun control/rights debate.  Logically, the idea that “I will be safer if I have a pistol, so I can stay and fight a madman in Kevlar hurling tear gas rather than running for an exit” is a stupid idea.  But as Kierkegaard points out, the person in the grip of anxiety will latch onto anything to regain the delusion of security.  The only logical, not to mention pious reaction is to admit that we live in a dangerous world and that we cannot hope to fight off all dangers; we can only commit our souls to God and then live as we are called.  The faithful person is the one who is schooled by “the earnest thought of death,” recognizing that death is both the one certainty in life and yet absolutely unpredictable, so that the only fitting response is a humble recognition of one’s own powerlessness and a commitment to live each day for values that are truly worthy.[5]  Instead, as most of us are not truly faithful, we seek a false sense of security and then turn around to devoting our time to trivialities.

Gun sales always spike after a mass shooting.[6]  Logically, what should spike are calls for gun control.  But from the point of view of anxiety, “gun control” means “I am not the master of my fate;” no control means “I can have a gun and feel safe, relying on my own power.”

In much the same way, the call for voter I.D. laws have caught the imagination of the electorate:  I say “imagination” because all the evidence is that that is where the fraud these laws supposedly will prevent exists.  Millions of dollars are being spent to prevent voter impersonation fraud, which has never taken place in sufficient numbers to affect an election.  These laws even encourage fraud by pushing more people to use the easily-faked absentee ballots instead of showing up in person.  At a time when we cannot afford to repair bridges, pay teachers what we promised them, feed the hungry, and on and on, we are spending millions to chase phantoms.  Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating:  at a time when we cannot afford to honor contracts signed with our teachers, firefighters and police; at a time when we cannot afford to fix the bridges which we cross every day, at a time when we are capable of feeding every person on the planet and yet we claim to not even have enough money to feed, cloth, shelter and provide health care for all of our own citizens—-at this time, we are ready to spend millions of dollars to fight a crime which the best evidence available suggests occurs once per state every two or three years, on average.  It is as if we were to unplug the life support system for Grandma in order to power up the yeti-repelling force field.

But from the anxious perspective, it makes perfect sense.  Those whose sense of security is invested in a certain social order find that security undermined when they contemplate the latest census.  In a few decades, whites will be a minority in this country for the first time since we invaded and occupied it.  As Kierkegaard would point out, faith is “to be out over 70,000 fathoms and yet be joyful;” but most of us don’t have faith, and want to imagine the water is only a few feet deep.  We can reestablish that sense of security first by transforming our anxiety into fear.  Anxiety’s object is really nothing; it is the possible, and thus cannot really be controlled.  Fear is fear of something actual; we feel that if we can only defeat the object of our fear we can be safe.  The fact that the whole world is changing daily and unpredictably induces anxiety; but by focusing on “illegal aliens” and convincing ourselves that if we can just control those “illegals” we can solve everything, we quiet our anxiety.  Someone comes along and says, “Don’t be anxious about the vast range of possibilities the future presents, and your responsibility to respond to them; just be afraid of illegals, and then we’ll pass laws to protect you from illegals stealing your vote and you can rest easy.”  And we jump at the offer of phony solutions to false dangers that can distract us from our real anxiety.

To be continued….

[1] Jason Alexander, reposted on Salon ( Sunday, Jul 22, 2012 04:38 PM EDT

[3] “55% of all Gun Deaths are Suicide,”  July 21, 2008 (

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 125-39

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, “At a Graveside,” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) pp. 71-102

[6] Dylan Stableford, “Gun Sales Spike in Colorado After Shooting, Just Like They Did in Arizona,” The Lookout July 24, 2012 (–finance.html )