Alterna-Winning

You just wouldn’t expect the twenty-first-century GOP to stoop this low.

As we all know from school, democracy is important to America. But as you might also know, if you had a good history teacher, anti-democratic wankery is as American as apple pie, too. Jonathan Chait puts it lucidly in a recent edition of New York (one of the cool city’s cooler mags):

The tradition of expanding the scope of American democracy commands all the retrospective historical glory. But the counter-democratic tradition—a concerted advocacy not of dictatorship but of restraints to prevent the majority of citizens from exercising political power—runs just as long and deep. It runs through John C. Calhoun, the titanic nineteenth-­century theorist who defended the rights of the white South against the growing majority in the North. (“The first and leading error … is to confound the numerical majority with the people, and this so completely as to regard them as identical.”) Our history books record the arguments of the crusaders for voting rights for women and blacks and overlook that they were, necessarily, arguing against something. Women’s suffrage, warned former president Grover Cleveland in 1905, would “give to the wives and daughters of the poor a new opportunity to gratify their envy and mistrust of the rich.” In 1908, New York City tried to suppress voting by Jews (who held notoriously left-wing views) by limiting voter registration to Saturdays and Yom Kippur. It took a hotly contested constitutional amendment in 1913 to allow people nationwide to vote for their senators, who previously were appointed by state legislatures.

American history has always tugged back and forth between a more pure democracy and some constricted facsimile thereof. “In the very long run, to be sure, we have become more democratic,” Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar has written, “but there have been numerous moments in our past when the pendulum swung in the opposite direction.”

Nice of a journalist to know a lot about history. Hey, kids: take that little seminar where the professor makes you write a 25-page paper. You might end up a contend-uh.

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One thought on “Alterna-Winning

  1. Pingback: Speaking of Non-Majority Rule | The General Reader

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