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Voting Is Our Basic Guarantee of Democratic Equality

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November 5, 2018

When Karl Marx wrote to the newly-re-elected President Abraham Lincoln after the November 1864 elections on behalf of the International Working Men's Association, Marx summarized the essence of the United States Civil War as follows:

When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, "slavery" on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counterrevolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding "the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old constitution", and maintained slavery to be "a beneficent institution", indeed, the old solution of the great problem of "the relation of capital to labor", and cynically proclaimed property in man "the cornerstone of the new edifice" -- then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders' rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic.

Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the pro-slavery intervention of their betters -- and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause (Marx, November 22-29, 1864).

Without digression, subterfuge, or misdirection, or with any intention of sanitizing the issue, Marx directly hit at the primary reason for the American Civil War: slavery. And, unlike apologists for the South [1] and its so-called "peculiar institution" [2] of slavery, Marx, in no uncertain terms, considered slavery to be extremely detrimental to humanity. Slavery was the organizing principle of the armed Confederate revolt. Slavery, in this case, enthralled Africans who had been forcibly transported to the Americas for over 200 years as well as their descendants. What was being fought over during that epoch conflict was nothing less than what would be the organizing principle of the American state with regards to the question of labor and whether African laborers would be considered as property.

So, too, during this momentous struggle for personhood were women roused from their historically subjugated position of being man's helper. [3] And while arguably Genesis did not imply that woman was to be subordinate to man, historical practice and law by the 19th century had relegated women to a near-slave existence. On July 19th and 20th, 1848, women representatives gathered in the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women. It took the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1920, to guarantee a woman's right to vote, though, in practice, women had to fight decades of further subordination in the workplace and in the home to garner some semblance of equality and personhood. What was being fought over in these tumultuous struggles was nothing less than what would be the organizing principle of the American state with regards to labor and whether women would be considered as property of their husbands or as secondary citizens.

Thus, in examining the significance of the vote today, one must keep in mind that when the United States became a separate country in the eighteenth century, only white males who owned property were allowed to vote, a crucial aspect of democratic participation. Beginning in the 1820s, white men without property gained access to the franchise, thus widening the democratic base of the republic. Following the U.S. Civil War in 1865 with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, African American males were legally given the franchise--albeit they had to fight for another 100 years to exercise this right freely. Following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, women were granted access to the franchise, though they, too, had to fight additional decades of battles both in courts and on the streets in order to exercise this constitutional right. And with the passage of the Snyder Act of 1924 [4], Native Americans born in the U.S. were granted full U.S. citizenship and the right to vote. With the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952 [5], immigrants of Asian descent were allowed to be recognized as U.S. citizens and having access to the vote. The passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964 prohibits both Congress and the states from conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax or other types of tax. And the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution approved in 1971 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The continual expansion of the franchise to all peoples of the country is thus a core issue of our democracy. [6]

Today, when queried on the essence of politics, a number of American students emphasize the equal protection of human rights and their understanding that in a democracy, everyone should be treated the same by the laws and by the government, as equals with no favoritism towards any one person or a subsection of society. Some of the more advanced students will cite the equal protection of the laws for all citizens guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. [7] In so doing, they are asserting what political scientists call the principle of political equality. Political equality, as such, is defined as "the principle that each person carries equal weight in the conduct of the public business" (Greenberg & Page, 2018). In the context of American democracy, this means that each citizen has the right to vote and to make political decisions and that each citizen has only one vote. [8] Thus, the vote is our basic guarantee, as U.S. citizens, of our democratic equality. And it is the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees all U.S. citizens the right to vote. [9]

Historically, the three-fifths clause (Article I, Section 2, of the 1787 U.S. Constitution) declared that, for purposes of representation in Congress, enslaved blacks in a state would be counted as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state. African Americans did not obtain the constitutional right to vote until the passage of the Civil War Amendments following the Confederacy's capitulation in 1865. Subsequent barriers to voting, including Jim Crow segregation [10], white-vigilante leagues, literacy tests, a culture of white supremacy, restrictive judicial rulings, and numerous other impediments prohibiting blacks from exercising the right to vote prevailed in the United States until the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which was then followed by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which established federal inspection of local voter-registration polls and introduced penalties for anyone who obstructed someone's attempt to register to vote, and then the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6 of that year, which secured the right to vote for racial minorities, especially those in the South. What the Voting Rights Act of 1965 essentially did was to guarantee federal protection for African Americans and other minorities who wished to vote or run for public office. The post-Civil War racial voting restrictions all attempted to negate the victory of the North in the Civil War and the emancipation of blacks. It was to the credit of the twentieth-century civil-rights movement and black radical activists that this attempt to move back the clock was thwarted.

Today, just nearly 60 years after that momentous civil-rights act, voter restrictions are being enacted in a number of states including voter ID Laws, cuts to early voting, barriers to voter registration. selectively eliminating polling places in working-class or minority neighborhoods (cf. Williams, August 18, 2018), purging the voter rolls (cf. Palast, October 9, 2018), and numerous other tactics utilized to suppress the working-class vote (Pan and Mohammed, November 4, 2012; Serwer, November 1, 2012). In sum, the Voting Rights Act today is under continuous attack, and at least 14 states have enacted new voting restrictions ("New Voting Restrictions in America", May 10, 2017).

Today, one percent of the population own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Today, the average employee must work more than a month to earn what the average CEO earns in one hour. Today, just 400 extremely wealthy individuals have as much wealth as 16 million African-American households and 5 million Latino households.

Over the past century, the share of America's wealth held by the nation's wealthiest has changed markedly. That share peaked in the late 1920s, right before the Great Depression, then fell by more than half over the next three decades. But the equalizing trends of the mid-20th century have now been almost completely undone. At the top of the American economic summit, the richest of the nation's rich now hold as large a wealth share as they did in the 1920s.

The 21st century has not been kind to average American families. The net worth -- assets minus debts -- of most U.S. households fell between 2000 and 2011. Only the top two quintiles of the nation's wealth distribution saw a net increase in median net worth over those years (Wealth Inequality, 2018).

Thus, while the American working class asserted its power after the Great Depression of 1929, bringing down the great asymmetries in wealth that had existed prior to the 1920s, that trend, since the 1980s, has reversed and has, largely, been completely undone. Today, we are experiencing the greatest disparity in wealth since the founding of the country, and such inequality threatens the very democratic fabric upon which our nation rests. [11]

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Colin S. Cavell, Ph.D. Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Colin S. Cavell earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Louisiana State University in 1982, his Masters of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of New Orleans in (more...)

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