Suffrage does not equal democracy

The Right to Vote
September 28, 2001

Is the United States a democratic nation? Has it ever been one? Alexander Keyssar answers negatively in a thoroughly researched history of suffrage law at local, state and national levels. His book is a lucidly written, textbook-like chronicle of how universal suffrage emerged from the original definition of the American voter as a white, property-owning male. It fills a gap in the scholarly literature and will be the point of departure in the field for some time.

Even though change in the law of suffrage guides the narrative, it has attracted the attention of Keyssar, a self-described "revisionist social historian" of the 1960s scholarly generation. While the application of this approach to suffrage is new, the account nevertheless rehearses the by now de rigueur analysis characteristic of this regnant genre.

First comes the debunking iconoclasm: despite the myths Americans tell themselves, the nation was never truly democratic by the standards of the 1960s generation. That generation built on previous piecemeal reform efforts finally to set things right. Last comes a paean to democracy as a "project" of "genuine political equality" "to be endlessly nurtured and reinforced, an ideal that cannot be fully realised but that can always be pursued". Here we are warned darkly that "antidemocratic forces" oppose current proposals for campaign finance reform and thereby undercut the hard-won achievement of universal suffrage. In between the initial debunking and the closing hymn to democratic equality are chapters recounting the long struggles, always "contested" but ultimately victorious, of the "excluded" race-class-gender triumvirate to overcome various "denials" and "deprivations".

Such "contestation" for equality is the leitmotiv of the book. This theme advances the revisionist deflation of the triumphalist view that universal suffrage came as a steady, welcomed and perhaps predestined development. Instead, it was contingent upon class tensions, political party calculations and the federal government's need for public support during wars. Such points no doubt need making, especially because Keyssar's effort is the first book-length treatment of the topic in decades. Until now the triumphalist view stood unchallenged. Nevertheless, Keyssar cites no contemporary triumphalists who need correcting. His argument consequently carries a certain deprecation of the past and of earlier scholars for failing to be as egalitarian as the present age; or else it seems aimed at unscholarly Americans benighted enough to believe their nation is truly democratic.

The debunking imperative combined with the conception of democracy as a "project" yields the claim that democracy was never truly established in America. For Keyssar the history of suffrage shows that "a polity cannot be truly democratic without universal suffrage". This is to put the cart before the horse. As Aristotle taught in The Politics , not law but the regime is the fundamental political phenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville understood this insight, and he is our best guide when America and democracy are under discussion. Tocqueville argued that the American regime was definitively and profoundly democratic. Since the earliest Puritan settlements, America rested on the democratic claim that every individual is sufficiently reasonable to make decisions about things that directly concern himself; from this claim came the idea of human equality and its clearest political instantiation in the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people.

Going beyond the Aristotelian understanding of democracy as the regime in which the most numerous part of society rules the others, Tocqueville saw America as the first modern democracy because its "social state" was democratic. No longer were there any separate parts, orders, or estates - only the sovereignty of the people that was derived from the equality of individuals. To order a society around this idea was indeed something new under the sun. It is in this Tocquevillean sense that America was always democratic despite the limits on suffrage that existed until relatively recently. Indeed, it is only from within the democratic state of equality that one can reproach suffrage laws for being insufficiently egalitarian and expect that it could actually make a difference. This is true in the same way that the statement "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence first made slavery a problem for a regime dedicating itself to the proposition, even though the institution had been entrenched for generations.

Keyssar regards Tocqueville as a purveyor of mechanistic 19th-century ideas that helped reinforce the triumphalist view. But the most profound student of democracy in America cannot be so easily dismissed. Tocqueville goes much deeper than Keyssar's assumption that democracy can be analysed simply by measuring suffrage, a mistake evident in the very title of the book. Within this limited horizon, Keyssar predictably insists that remedying democratic ills requires more democracy, thus "flattering" the democratic sovereign in a way Tocqueville found characteristic of intellectual life in such regimes. The theoretical assertion of equality at the heart of democracy serves as the measure of all things, including the past and future. Equality is never adequately realised, and the inevitable gap demands equality in ever more aspects of life.

Identification of this enveloping, stupefying tendency in democracy as the modern threat to liberty was Tocqueville's greatest insight. As Pierre Manent has noted, the political teaching Tocqueville generated from it was that to love democracy well we should love it moderately. Keyssar's understanding of democracy as a project that has achieved some equality but will (always) require more is the kind of thinking Tocqueville found immoderate and inevitable; Tocqueville's broad but subtle analysis thus encompasses and explains the normative basis of Keyssar's evaluation of suffrage. Keyssar's book forgoes analysis at this level because its horizon is fundamentally limited by the equation of suffrage and democracy. Accordingly, this book will serve best as an able history of suffrage, but not of democracy in America.

Johnathan O'Neill is lecturer in American studies, Institute of United States Studies, University of London.

The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

Author - Alexander Keyssar
ISBN - 0 465 02968 X and 020969 8
Publisher - Basic Books
Price - £21.99
Pages - 467

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