When the original US Constitution was first ratified in 1788, it made no mention of the right of the PEOPLE to vote. This was not an omission. That right was INTENTIONALLY left it out. Blame this on a tradition of English Common Law or a class-based society or whatever reason you like but, the founders didn’t trust ordinary citizens to protect the rights of others and maybe they were right.
I am not going to predict the next president, that decision has been made and will be validated soon, but the global opinion (especially among our trading partners and allies) is that Donald Trump is a failed President – EXACTLY THE SORT OF PERSON THE FOUNDERS DID NOT WANT TO HOLD ANY OFFICE. Call it elitism, oligarchy, or just plain realism, our founding fathers felt that if we allowed the mob to select our leaders, we would end up with the worst of people in charge. Had someone like Mr Trump been elected in the early years of our nation, we would likely have taken up arms to remove him in much the same way the French purged the dissipative Bourgeoisie in the years following their revolution.
In 1787, our country embarked on a radical experiment in self-government paired with the protection of individual rights. We had just survived a war with the world’s preeminent superpower and several decades of tyrannical proclamations and abuses by the Crown and Parliament. Lawlessness and excessive abuses by both Royal Governors and, more importantly, riotous mobs, instilled a fear in our founders that if we were ruled by the masses would mean the destruction of – not better protection for – all the other rights the Constitution and Bill of Rights uphold.
Many of the rights the Congress enumerated in the 1793 Bill of Rights protect small groups from the power of the majority – for instance, those who would say or publish unpopular statements, or practice unpopular religions, or hold more property than others. That said, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison expressed the prevailing view that “the freeholders of the country would be the safest depositories of republican liberty.” The Constitution left voting rules to individual states, which had long-standing laws limiting the vote to those freeholders. The common belief was that freedoms and rights would require the protection of an educated elite group of citizens, against an intolerant majority. It was also felt that those people who PARTICIPATED actively in civic society through juries, committees, the militia, and political office were deserving of more voice in government than those who did not.
Today, the country remains engaged in a long-running debate about what counts as voter suppression versus what are legitimate limits or regulations on voting – like requiring voters to provide identification, barring felons from voting or removing infrequent voters from the rolls. These disputes often invoke an incorrect assumption – that voting is a constitutional right protected from the nation’s birth. While the nation has certainly evolved from being led by an elitist toward a more universal suffrage, the founders’ fears are still valid. Levels of support for the rights of opposing parties or people of other religions are strikingly weak. Many Americans support their own rights to free speech but want to suppress the speech of those with whom they disagree. Racist, sexist, and nativism abound and people often view the “other” as somehow less “American” than themselves. One need only look to a recent psycological profile of supporters of Donald Trump to understand this.[i] Trump supporters are:
- Mercenary – They forgive all manner of abusive, illegal, and immoral behavior if it benefits them.
- Emotional rather than intellectual – They respond to language and presentation rather than facts and often choose not to learn facts that contradict their beliefs.
- Celebrity Worshipers – They are more impressed by the name they recognize than the values of the person with that name.
- Obsessed with schadenfreude – Most of them just want to see the “others” in our society suffer for real or imagined crimes.
- Fearful – They are truly afraid someone will take what they have, undo what they believe in, or otherwise upset their good fortune.
- Insecure – They are easily manipulated into believing that any threat is real.
- Overly confident in their political expertise — The Dunning-Kruger effect explains that the problem isn’t just that they are misinformed; it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed, which creates a double burden.
- Entitled – They feel discontent when they compare their position in life to others who they feel are inferior but have unfairly had more success than them.
- Insular – Simple prejudice is too narrow a view, these are people who actively limit contact with people outside their own social group. They actively seek reinforcement for their beliefs (eg FOX NEWS) rather than accepting or even hearing other perspectives.
- Mentally Vulnerable – They are not all crazy but many score high on consistently scored high on measures of “odd beliefs and magical thinking.” One feature of magical thinking is a tendency to make connections between things that are actually unrelated in reality.
- Narcissistic – They have an unrealistic belief in the greatness of their social group. They believe that one group of Americans represents the ‘true identity’ of the nation — the ‘ingroup,’ in Trump’s case only White Americans are deserving of acceptance.
- Socially Dominant – They believe that society should be divided into a hierarchy of groups, specifically with a structure in which the high-status groups have dominance over the low-status ones. Its ironic that Donald’s name is Trump because this is perhaps his greatest fault.
- Authoritarian — They advocate for strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom and without concern for the opinions or needs of others.
- Racist and bigoted – Trump’s bigotry and racism is reminiscent of the 1950’s Jim Crow South but broader and he constantly uses tactics that appealed to bigotry, such as lacing speeches with “dog whistles” — code words that signaled prejudice toward minorities that were designed to be heard by racists but no one else.
This is not the sort of person our founding fathers believed should be engaged in any intellectual and political activity. Most of our founders wouldn’t do business with these people much less trust them to govern. My modern sensibilities and love of equality rail at the elitism of our Constitution but we have not yet solved the problems that made our founders reign in the ideals of universal suffrage and true democracy in favor of representative republic. Maybe someday we will. Until then be careful of the rabble, they won’t protect your rights.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall by a lady who asked: “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy.” Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.” We need to work harder to keep it. Some would tear it down for their own short-term benefit.
[i] Bobby Azarian, A Complete Psychological Analysis of Trump’s Support, Psychology Today, December 27, 2018