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Tim Stafford

A Terribly Undemocratic Thought

Is universal suffrage a failure?

The Right to Vote

The Right to Vote

The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, by Alexander Keyssar, Basic Books, 467 pp.; $30

The history of suffrage in the United States is a strange tale, in which two anomalies stand out. The first is that for much of its history the most democratic nation in the world, a nation whose charter document begins with the words, "We the people … ," gave the vote only to a small minority of its citizens. The vote was largely kept from women, immigrants, people who moved, people who did not own property, people who could not read and write, people who did not speak English, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asians, poor people who required government aid, criminals, and young people.

These restrictions were not a fault in our democracy, according to most of its leaders, but a positive virtue. They considered voting a privilege, not a right, and thought it should be given only to those who were (by their lights) best qualified to adjudicate difficult decisions. Thus, for example, one reason only property holders could vote in most of Colonial America was that they were theoretically independent of influence. A factory worker or a tenant farmer might be controlled by someone else.

The second anomaly is that the right to vote, struggled over during the entire history of the United States, turns out to be less precious than one might suppose, once granted. Immigrants, poor people, non-English speakers, African Americans, Native Americans—the very groups once excluded—have the lowest voter turnout. Our time of universal suffrage shows the lowest level of voting participation in all American history. Hence a terribly undemocratic thought comes to mind: What was all the fuss about?

Alexander Keyssar has produced an admirably restrained, thorough, and thoughtful account of American suffrage. There are few surprises and no blinding revelations, but Keyssar writes well and shows an excellent grasp of a very wide subject range. It would be easier and probably more striking to write of any one of the groups whose struggle to win the vote he patiently chronicles, but Keyssar's wider view makes us think of more fundamental questions, such as What is America? and What is Democracy?

Keyssar points out that very often undemocratic forces worked to widen voting rights—most notably, war. Very rarely (if ever) did American voters decide that democratic principles would be best served by giving the vote to people on the other side of the tracks. Many voices urged them to think that way, but rarely was the majority convinced. Rather, some set of events brought voters to realize that the nation's welfare demanded that these "others" be included, for reasons that were not particularly democratic. War did this most obviously, because it required a maximum effort of the whole country. And how could you get Johnny to fight for a government that gave him no say?

The case of women is particularly instructive. Looking back, it seems in comprehensible that they could be denied the vote for the first 140 years of our history. Surely no one who read the novels of Jane Austen could believe that women lacked the sense to adjudicate complex claims. Nor did women suffer from the kind of ignorant prejudice extended to people of other races or languages. Every single voter claimed intimate contact with at least one woman, and most with several! And yet, though leaders as intelligent, forceful, and attractive as Elizabeth Cady Stanton were well known to the public for over 50 years, offering cogent arguments for woman suffrage, they made almost no progress. Groups as generally despised as African Americans were given the vote, but the proportion of the electorate favoring woman suffrage remained pathetic. Only a few states in the far, unpopulated West gave women the vote before the twentieth century. Surely this says loud and clear how little claim democratic principles had on the mind of American voters!

This situation changed not when women got a better argument, but when they got better organized. Alice Paul and Carrie Catt—who replaced the pioneer generation of Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony—led two separate, competing, but complementary lobbying organizations that were as politically sophisticated as any known at that time.

There is some special niche in the Irony Hall of Fame for this fact: lobbying techniques, through which an organized special interest can exert undue influence, were pioneered by the leaders of woman suffrage. Their success in Washington was directly parallel to, say, today's health insurers', or the Teamsters'.

World War I was perhaps the first war in which the mobilization of an entire economy, not just an army, was understood from the beginning to be critical. Suffrage women threw themselves into the war effort. They thus raised the question (and they meant to), How can we ask Molly to support the government's efforts to save the world for democracy, when we re fuse her democracy at home?

One of Alice Paul's favorite tactics was to picket the White House (an unheard of, unladylike activity) with banners quoting President Wilson's speeches in favor of democratic principles. The point was effectively made, but not just rhetorically. It was in the newspapers almost every day, as were the subsequent arrests, mistreatments, and hunger strikes. The suffragists learned to use publicity not merely to make their point but to make themselves a political problem, until they got their way.

The disappointing denouement of this stirring movement was that women got the vote, and did nothing distinctive with it. Carrie Catt went on to found the League of Women Voters—a fine, honorable group that has had almost no political potency. Women have led no political revolution, and in fact vote for the same men (and occasional women) that their husbands, brothers and fathers do.

Does this history suggest that the vote is unimportant? I do not think so. Rather it suggests that we should think of democracy somewhat differently than we usually do. Keyssar makes the point that democracy is better understood as a project than as a set of unchanging rules and institutions. I would go further and suggest that it can be likened in some ways to a family.

If a child is for some reason deprived of a father, the desire for one can become a raging obsession. Give a child a father, however, and he probably thinks little of him. He may make little use of his wisdom and guidance. He may even resent it (for good reason, in many cases). Only those who lack a father know how very crucial one is. Once you have a father, you must then take the next very large step and make something of him.

So with the vote. For a reasoning creature to be deprived of a place in the affairs of his country is a terrible thing, sure to create resentment, longing, and fantasies of how wonderful it will be when he or she has the vote. Once the vote is granted, however, the larger projects of democracy become possible. They are not, and never have been, to give an equal voice to everyone. Rather they are "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." (Note how easily these might de scribe the purposes of a family as well as a nation.)

Universal suffrage is only a beginning, not an end in itself. Given the state of the world today, and its need for democracy, Americans would do well to remember how much our own democracy has been, and continues to be, a project.

Tim Stafford's Sisters: A Novel of the Woman Suffrage Movement, has just been published by Thomas Nelson. This is the second volume in Stafford's series, River of Freedom (www.riveroffreedom.com).

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