As the 2012 election season winds down to its chaotic finale, it is worth examining the state of democracy—such as it is—in the American Republic.
It is well known that in the early days of the nation, only property-owning white males could vote. Thomas Jefferson may have stated that all men were created equal, however it was clear that, at the time, some were far more equal than others.
But there is a strange genius contained within the founding ideals put forth by those colonial aristocrats we refer to as the founding fathers. Over the course of two centuries following the ratification of the constitution, the right to participate in the governance of our country was slowly expanded thanks to the tireless struggle of those who had the nerve to believe themselves equal to the elites of society, regardless of wealth, gender, or race.
Technically speaking, full voting rights were granted to all males in 1870, regardless of race, with the passage of the 15th Amendment, though reality stubbornly refused to play along. In many Southern states, a combination of poll taxes, literacy tests designed to exclude undesirables, and outright intimidation by groups such as the Klu Klux Klan prevented black people and, oftentimes, poor whites from participating in the voting process.
Women were kept from the polls—even if they were wealthy and white—throughout the 19th century, and even a couple of decades into the 20th. It was with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920—thanks to the tireless struggle of the “suffragettes”—that Americans lacking a Y chromosome could make their voices heard through the ballot box.
Unfortunately, extending that participation to women and men of color would take several more decades of bloody struggle. It wasn’t until the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 24th Amendment in 1964, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that all Americans were finally able to take their place as equal participants in the selection of who exactly would hold the reins of power.
In the intervening decades, we’ve seen the introduction of ideas such as early voting and same-day registration that have dramatically increased the number of citizens who are able to cast a ballot. The only real excuse for not voting these days, at least for the vast majority of Americans, is apathy—which, sadly enough, our culture contains in abundance.
On the flip side, we’ve seen the ideal of a country governed by its people come under fresh assault by the upper echelon. In 2000, the nation came under the governance of what essentially amounted to a court-appointed president. In 2009, that same court declared that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of cash influencing the outcome of elections, citing the argument that since corporations were legally the same as people—a truly baffling component of American jurisprudence—the money they spent was the same as speech, thus making limits on the amount they could spend a violation of the First Amendment.
Never mind the staggering disparity between the kind of resources the average corporation can bring to bear compared to all but the absolute richest human beings. It can be assumed that college logic professors wept bitterly along with believers in democracy the day that ruling was handed down.
And, very disturbingly, a great many districts count their residents’ votes using electronic machines that leave no paper trail and have been proven to be prone to outside meddling. It would not be out of the question to wonder if some elections have already been stolen in this manner.
But nevertheless, democracy still has a pulse, and the people of this country still hold the power—when they choose to exercise it. After all, the corporations wouldn’t bother spending gobs of cash in attempts to influence the outcome of an election if the desired result could be obtained by more nefarious means.
And, while it can be certain that the weaknesses of electronic voting machines have been—and will continue to be—exploited by those who would circumvent the democratic process, such attempts can only meet with success in circumstances where the electorate isn’t paying close enough attention. And that particular problem could potentially be addressed if the voting public demanded their votes be counted with verifiable methods. Once again, apathy is democracy’s greatest enemy.
So, for those who give a shit about the world we live in, and furthermore about the world we are creating for future generations, get your ass to the polls and vote for whichever of those sorry, corrupt bastards you think will do the best—or least bad—job in the position they are seeking. Read up on your local elections and make sure to participate in those as well, as your city council and state legislatures often have a much more direct impact on your life than the federal government.
Most importantly, participate, for better or worse. Our democracy may be blood-stained, torn, and frayed around the edges. But it’s the only one we’ve got.