January 27th, 2017
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
I think this illustrates what gets Lehmann’s goat. Perhaps Lehmann views the right to vote as a kind of honorific. And she’s right that it is. In most modern societies, people use the right to vote as a kind of public affirmation of who matters and who doesn’t. We load suffrage with all sorts of expressive value. Getting the right to vote is like getting a gold star and a pat on the back. Being denied suffrage is like getting a big fat middle finger in your face. That’s why it seems so sinister to say that an ignorant army vet shouldn’t get the right to vote even though he served in Afghanistan.
My interests are different. I would offer this thought experiment:
Imagine two countries. In one, everyone has the right to vote in free elections, but there are no labor unions. In the other country, there are no free elections, but the workers have shown surprising solidarity and they have managed to build a powerful, militant union.
Actually, we know what happens.
The first country is the USA 1980 to 2016: the nation shifts to the right eventually elects an ignorant fascist such as Trump.
The second country is Poland in the 1980s, where the labor union gets stronger and stronger till it can overthrow the government and establish a reasonably liberal regime.
What conclusion do I draw from this? Simply this: the right to vote is a trailing indicator. It’s the last right that a successful liberal movement wins, and its the last right that authoritarians take away. And, in fact, authoritarians no longer take a way the right to vote — Putin and Orbán both allow elections.
Progressives should not focus on elections. Elections are nearly useless. Build the kind of movement that can gain power. That is what matters.
The key insight here with respect to Trump is that U.S. democracy, or any democracy for that matter, is not inherently inclusive. Past U.S. presidents with legitimacy derived from (relatively) free and fair elections tended to find inclusion beneficial for their legitimacy, so democracy in the U.S. tended to be associated with increasingly inclusive institutions (well, at least for white men). But inclusive institutions are an outcome, not a cause. They are an outcome of the process through which political rulers are legitimized. Each society has its standards for what makes a legitimate ruler, and these standards are determined by the society’s culture, religion, beliefs, and social norms (the works of Avner Greif are particularly relevant here, especially his book, as is an amazingly prescient paper by Murat Iyigun). A president who can chip away at the institutions that constrained previous presidents while still maintaining some degree of legitimacy with a sufficient portion of the population can undermine inclusive institutions in the context of a democratic setting. There is nothing inherent about inclusive institutions or democracy that leads to good outcomes. What is important to answer is why democracy works in the first place – that is, why are democratically elected rulers considered legitimate and what can happen that may undermine this belief?