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Democracy Is Good
Therefore: even ignorant, lazy and stupid people should vote
This is going to be a relatively short post, and probably a subject I’ll return to in the future. But in my last post I said in passing that “the right to vote is fundamental, and that therefore anything that makes it more difficult to vote is presumptively bad,” and it occurs to me that not everybody believes this. Indeed, it feels to me like fewer and fewer people believe this — notwithstanding the enthusiasm among Democrats for extending and protecting the franchise. Take a look at the responses to this tweet from Matt Yglesias accurately calling out Andrew McCarthy in the National Review for saying ignorant, lazy, stupid people shouldn’t vote:
Overwhelmingly, the responses are of the form “McCarthy isn’t wrong, but he’s trying to disenfranchise the wrong voters” — meaning: it’s Trump-voting Republicans who are ignorant, lazy and stupid and therefore shouldn’t vote. To be fair, many also argued from a purely defensive — and perfectly valid, but limited — position that it’s better to have the universal franchise since once you start limiting it you can’t be sure that those in power won’t restrict it for you. But few said, simply: ignorant, lazy and stupid people should vote because their votes matter too.
So I think the question is worth asking. If what you want is policy outcomes that promote the common good, why should you want ignorant, lazy and stupid people to vote?
The simplest and most correct answer from my perspective is that even ignorant, lazy and stupid people presumptively know their own interests better than their “betters” do, and that it’s ignorant, lazy and stupid of those “betters” to presume otherwise. At a minimum, they know better than you do who they trust to make decisions for them (which is what representative democracy is all about). That applies to QAnon believers just as surely as it applies to whoever Andrew McCarthy is ranting about (unemployed people? former prisoners? social-justice warriors?). If you have contempt for the idea of their being consulted as part of the democratic process, contempt for the need to win their trust as opposed to compelling their consent, then you probably have contempt for them. And if you have contempt for them, why should I assume that you have their best interests at heart when you construct your notion of the “common good?”
To some extent that contempt is often venal; I don’t think you know what’s best for you because I know what’s best for me and I don’t want to think too hard about the possibility that it might not be best for you. But when it isn’t purely venal, I think what animates that contempt is the conviction that agreement on the common good is impossible. You and I and people who think like us know what the common good is, and therefore we should be allowed to participate in collective decision-making. But those people over there have a thoroughly insane notion of what the common good is, one so repulsive or incomprehensible to us that we don’t even know how to have a conversation, much less deliberate together.
From a Rousseauian perspective, I think that implies that there is no people, because a people has to be homogenous enough and have sufficient consensus to manifest a “general will.” I’ve never much liked this formulation, both because I don’t think “the people” are ever homogenous enough to have a will in the sense that individuals do (indeed, I’m not even convinced that individual people have a will in the sense that 17th-century philosophers and their heirs thought they did), and, not unrelatedly, because the word, “will” brings up all kinds of bad associations for me in general. But I think it’s valid to say that deliberation of necessity works differently when you have deep and irreconcilable differences about the nature of the common good, and profound distrust about the motives of other groups within your common society. Of necessity, you look less often for compromises on how to live together and more often for ways to live separately.
Voting, though — everybody voting — remains just as essential to the process of separation as it does to consensus-building. A separation agreement in which one party is inadequately represented is hardly likely to win that party’s acceptance; and in the absence of a common future together, there’s little reason for the aggrieved not to resort to blows in response. But I’d go further. One other argument for democracy being good in and of itself is that participation in the process of self-government is an essential part of building precisely the virtues that we want in a citizenry. In modern mass democracies, though, this is only vestigially the case. True self-government is only possible on a very small scale, and in large representative democracies the great mass of the citizenry are the targets that power-seeking elites aim to capture, rather than being actual participants decision-making. There’s a lot more scope, though, for direct participation in the process of separation than in the process of consensus building, because while most people don’t know much about public affairs, we all know something about who we are, and therefore who we want to associate with.
That’s maybe the basis of an optimistic case for the “turn to identity” in contemporary society. But it’s a case that depends on us continue to know who we are in and of ourselves. We don’t have to be well-informed, industrious and brilliant to participate. But we do have to be who we are, and not let ourselves be defined by others for their own political purposes.