Are we getting there?
In the years following the independence of the 13 colonies from Britain, voting rights for women and native Americans were only extended very gradually (1920 and 1924 respectively). For African Americans the picture is complicated by the different laws in the states, even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Many non white Americans weren’t actually able to exercise their right to vote in the segregated south well into the middle of the 20th century. Even today, extensive gerrymandering and selective use of felony disbarments as well as ID voting conditions continue to be used to exclude black citizens from expressing their democratic choice at the ballot box. And then there is always the use of the election ballot and its ‘hanging chads’, and the ever present power of the electoral college to, let us say, modify inconvenient electoral outcomes. Failing that, there is always the similarity between the two main parties to act as a block on radical change. Much of this is well known.
What is less remarked is that at independence poor whites couldn’t vote either (Washington was elected on a franchise that only extended to 6% of the population) The franchise was extended to poorer white men during the 19th century (different states had different laws and President Jackson, that killer of native Americans, was pivotal in extending democracy to white men). From the start it was a limited democracy, and in many ways it has stayed limited.
The same process of extending the franchise in stages was also going on in Britain in the 19th century. The USA was ahead of Britain in this respect, but not so far ahead as all that. (The French had been ahead of both in 1793, but voting rights underwent restrictions after the jacobins fell from power). That the franchise was extended had a lot to do with the pressure, the struggles, that occurred throughout that period in all three countries, and beyond. ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will’ as Frederick Douglass famously remarked.
Which leaves me with these thoughts: doesn’t this leave the founding of the USA as more important in terms of its promise – the principle of political equality – rather than the fact? And aren’t we still waiting, in many ways, for that promise to be made good, not just in the USA but across the ‘democratic’ world? And one might add that political democracy is itself a rather limited thing. How much democracy is there, after all, in the workplace?
It’s especially moot, given the obsession with the word ‘democracy’ that the USA, along with the U.K. and other countries have, and which exists more as a preventive than as an enabler for creative political thought. ‘We are democratic, you aren’t, and that’s why we aren’t changing anytime soon’. As if the meaning of the word were clear as day. What counts as ‘democratic’ changes over time, as does the reality of who gets included as a voter and who does not. Democracy, so far, has been marked by its limited and often exclusionary nature – denied, blocked and subverted by class, racism, patriarchy and ‘the markets’. If we take the view that this is as good as it gets for democracy, we are liable to get more of the same – or less, if capitalism finds what democracy we have too irksome to continue to tolerate.
It may be, on the other hand, that we don’t yet know what democracy might be. To answer that question, we should recall Douglass’ point about the importance of making a demand. And then make that demand.