If we Americans still believe in democracy, it’s time we re-commit to it. That commitment must include protecting the right to vote.
When rebellious colonists threw off the British Monarchy and drafted a constitution to secure their freedom, they were well aware of power’s tendency to corrupt. They were mostly men of power themselves. They designed a system to balance and check the roles and ambitions of governors and to secure the rights of the governed. They knew self-rule would not be easy or go unchallenged. Ben Franklin’s quip about having given us a republic “if you can keep it” was not a joke.
The lynchpin of the Constitution is its grant of the ultimate power of government to the governed through the right to vote. The importance of this right has been recognized again and again with the expansion of suffrage from landowning white men to all citizens. It stands as the first answer to disgruntled citizens, and is arguably the last best antidote to political violence. It is precisely our right to vote that legitimizes government’s exercise of power and control over us.
Granting the power to control the destiny of a nation to its citizens is an act of faith. It’s likely very few of those in power believe voters understand the issues as well as they do, or even well enough to choose wisely. They are likely right about the former; but maybe not about the latter. By giving ultimate responsibility to the people, our system is not claiming all voters are smart or even informed, it’s committing to a principle that we-the-people do, must, and will govern ourselves for better or worse. Acceding to that principle is an act of faith, faith that some kind of wisdom resides in and can be drawn from the collective will of all the people, and that the strength and stability of a nation will be enhanced by this deference, this sharing of power, from the elite to the masses, from the politically powerful to the politically weak.
Opinion polls and experience here and in other western countries are suggesting that faith in democracy today is declining and tolerance for authoritarianism is on the rise. Here at home, partisan movements to limit the ability of people to choose their government through voter suppression measures and gerrymandering reflect a weakening commitment to this most fundamental component of democracy. Whether pursued by force or by subverting the rights of the governed to vote, anti-democratic power-grabs by and for a few, are threatening rather than ensuring our freedom and independence.
Free and open elections gave Trumpism its day in the sun, just as they now have called forth an alternative. That’s how the system works. No matter how intense our feelings, we tolerate our losses by trusting we can win next time if we try harder and win more votes. What we cannot tolerate, as evidenced by Americans who attacked the capitol with the (mistaken) belief their side’s votes weren’t counted, is being shut out of the process. The January 6th experience should leave no doubt about the importance to all citizens of the right to vote.
While the complexity of our pluralistic nation today would probably surprise the Founders, they, too, faced chaotic colonies of passionate and competing interests when they chose this system of self-governance. They knew from history and their own experience the spirit crushing effects of authoritarian governments. Their decision to grant the power and responsibility for governance to the governed offered the possibility of collective freedom. That grant is as important today as it was in 1787.
Faith is never rational. It’s an act of trust. It asks us to set aside our arrogance and selfish ambitions for the good and love of all, to defer to a wisdom bigger than our own egos. We would do well to renew our faith in democracy, to trust it, respect and honor it. We the people may look and sound more different from each other than ever before, but we all are human beings who want mostly the same things for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our country. We are much more likely to achieve and sustain those goals if we pursue them together.
We pledge our allegiance to this great American experiment that chose to trust citizens to govern themselves. Giving fair meaning to that pledge means insisting that our laws, policies, and politics protect and strengthen rather than hinder and weaken the ability of each and every citizen to vote. To break that pledge is to give up on America.