A Bigger Picture: Money v. The Vote

by Helene Swanson

 By At The Threshold

Jesus talked about the sins that came of the abuse of money and power more than anything else. The totalitarian abuses of the Roman Empire were at the forefront of his every thought, and those of the people who listened to him. For Christians, the authority granted to what Jesus called “the little ones,” and “the people of the land,” is not merely a matter reserved to isolated categories of “politics” or “government”; it is a crucial matter regarding moral theology and the role of religious imperatives for government.

This is the third in a series of presentations that examines some of the deeper issues and a bigger picture of the continuing attempts in the United States to roll back the “one-person, one-vote” decision of the Supreme Court in 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – to increase the voting power of the wealthy few and their political minions, while minimizing the power of the vote by “the people.” What follows is a historical survey of the gradual expansion of the franchise to become fully available to all categories of citizens, with a focus on the confusion of the freedom to use money (unequally available to individual citizens and groups) with freedom of speech (constitutionally intended to be equally available to each citizen and group).
A New Idea of Government

The founders did not give serious consideration to a direct or pure form of democracy but placed the decision-making responsibility in the hands of elected representatives. Leaders are to vote and take action according to personal conscience and specially informed expertise. Leadership is accountable through elections. Which citizens and inhabitants, then, make up the electorate and form the pool of those qualified for election? How and to what extent is leadership accountable during the governing process itself, that is, between elections?

The exchange of ideas during the formative stages of the nation elicited a most exciting notion. The ultimate and sovereign authority of government is not in a person or an institutional body, it is “the people.” This was not an entirely new idea. Some earlier postulations came close, but suddenly it was new. It was new first, because the founders discovered the concept as a fact, a reality in the nature of things that could not be denied. The sovereign authority of the people had become obvious to the leaders of a colonial revolution and it had to be applied by inventing a new form of government.

But for the United States, the question of precisely what was meant by “the people” became the most dramatic, difficult, and peculiar issue  profoundly problematic and profoundly stirring. It provided inspiration for the living institutions of representative democracy and vitality for the expanding nature of the body politic. It provided creative compromises and the nation’s harshest conflicts.

When the founders had talked about “the people,” it was with a certain creative ambiguity, at once both inclusive of every inhabitant of the land and limited to those holding the franchise. The voters were white men of property. In that sense “the people” certainly did not include women, slaves, or the uneducated and financially unvested male population. Historians have periodically had to remind Americans that when President George Washington delivered his farewell address to his “Friends and Fellow Citizens,” he did not, in the way we may assume, picture everyone in the land. Joseph Ellis imagines that, “The core of the audience he saw in his mind’s eye consisted of those adult white males who owned sufficient property to qualify for the vote. Strictly speaking, such men were the only citizens.”(1) In other words, most citizens were not “the people.”

The founders nevertheless held a sense of “the people” as a whole that in many ways went beyond the official matter concerning elective processes. They recognized that it is the people at large who form a corporate reality and somehow serve as the sovereign source of all political authority. Washington specifically “…told Hamilton that his Farewell Address was aimed especially at the ‘Yeomanry of the country,’ the American people….”(Ibid) At the beginning, some people were elected as representatives and some people voted to elect the representatives, but it was the whole people who were represented.

Finally, it was not until a civil war was fought over the issue and the most decisive crisis in the conflict had been successfully met, that a president decided the propitious moment had arrived to say exactly who the people are and fully acknowledge what making them the sovereign political authority means. At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln approached this by tersely expressing the purpose of the Civil War. Soldiers were buried in the fields before him, not only for the preservation of the Union, but to fulfill the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution of the United States of America. Lincoln spelled out what was implied in defining the sovereign as “the people” and therefore clarified the underlying authority that legitimates the American government. America, he declared, is establishing a “…government of the people, for the people, and by the people.”

Slavery was abolished and the vote was extended in the constitutional amendments that followed, but still it was not fully extended to everyone. The slow but steady expansion of the franchise for all categories of people had to continue well into the 20th century. Despite the Civil War and the constitutional amendments it produced, the vote still was not available to those oppressed by the Jim Crow laws of the South and the prejudices of the North, and women had to engage the electorate and struggle to achieve their right to vote. Indeed, the expansion of the electorate reveals only the storyline. What truly has been at stake is the effect and empowerment that is supposed to come with the vote and with the right to residence, and for this to take place concretely. We too little consider the crucial importance of this form and this level of citizen participation.

With the right to vote should come certain other rights, opportunities, and responsibilities. These should adhere regardless of race, color, class, creed, gender, sexuality, or handicap, and regardless of wealth, power, privilege, or status. Each citizen should have as much an opportunity to exercise her or his right to vote as anyone else, each person’s vote should count as much as anyone else’s, and each voter should have as much possibility for being elected to representative office as anyone else. And, each citizen should be responsibly engaged in the decisions and execution of government in between elections. These indispensable implications of voting have been hard to come by, their effective establishment has invariably required a significant and determined struggle over a long period of time, and we have not seen the end of it.

Archibald Cox, serving as President John F. Kennedy’s solicitor general, successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court that finally established the principle of “one person, one vote.” The issue is relatively simple  however controversial and painfully difficult to institute – it is the ability of each citizen to participate in representative democracy by voting and influencing their elected officials, and to do so equally with anyone else. The new idea of government had finally been established: the people are in actual, as well as “natural” fact, the ultimate and sovereign authority, through the vote and citizenship participation.

(1) Founding Fathers, The Revolutionary Generation, Joseph J. Ellis, Vintage Books, New York, 2002, p 156

Permission to publish this piece was given by Bishop Joe Doss retired Bishop of Diocese of New Jersey.  Please feel free to follow At The Threshold on Twitter, Facebook, or Subscribe to their eblasts at the below links.

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