Over the weekend a Washington Post op-ed titled “We Must Weed Out Ignorant Voters from the Electorate” got a lot of negative attention, including from me. And on reflection I still don’t agree with the surface-level argument of the piece, which is that people who don’t know enough about civics should be denied the vote. There’s too long an American history of struggles over the franchise to welcome an argument couched this way.
But here is the part of the argument that does strike a chord with me. It is the reminder that overconfidence about civics, by everyone, is part of what makes this election cycle an unsettling and potentially dangerous one. Let me explain:
Any exposure to American history offers reminders that public affairs in the country have often been in bad shape. The latest in the very long shelf of Lincoln biographies, A Self-Made Man by Sidney Blumenthal, takes its protagonist only to age 40 but offers a very vivid look at the close-run struggles over economic policy, tariffs and national banks, nation-building and nullification, and of course the extension of slavery in the 1830s and 1840s. The country would have been much worse off if several of those struggles had gone the other way, and of course it nearly came apart during the Civil War. Even beyond that unparalleled emergency, pick your decade and you can pick your crisis in the performance of the American government, the injustices of the American economy, and the cruelties or blind spots of American society. Things have always been dicey.
But because the United States is now such an old country, considered as a system of government, and because after all the turmoil it has ended up as the strongest and most resilient of nations, it’s very hard not to assume that whatever is today’s crisis will work itself out. Through my conscious lifetime American society has seemed on the verge of blowing up at least half a dozen times. The episodes have passed; the caravan moves on.