Another conservative jumps on “only property-owners should vote” bandwagon

JISHOU, HUNAN — Just days after Matthew Vadum of American Thinker proposed the dubious analogy that letting the poor vote was like giving crooks burglary tools, another brilliant mind pops up with similar cutting edge 18th century political ideas.

This time the mind in question belongs to John David Dyche, a Republican lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. He wrote an opinion piece for the Courier-Journal entitled “Property rights crucial to voting rights.”

He begins with another dubious analogy — doctors this time, not second-story men.

Some bemoan Kentucky’s 10 percent voter turnout in recent primaries. But quantity hardly assures quality in making important choices.

If you had a serious disease would you open your treatment to everyone or confine it to a few specialists? A free society’s biggest decision is how it shall be governed. The Founders therefore placed prudent limits on participation in it.

After offhandedly suggesting that it was probably a good idea to let blacks and women vote, Dyche then takes us to the good old days when only the landed gentry could participate in politics or governance. You know, the situation that encouraged some demented landed gentry types to create an entirely new nation sometime around 1776.

Unlike Vadum, who draws his arguments from paranoia-scented thin air, Dyche dresses up his anti-democratic broadside with lots of quotes from historical figures — none of whom lived after the 1850s — with whom he happily agrees. Must be that law school training.

First he quotes a figure from the Puritan Revolution in England, Commissary General Henry Ireton (1611-1651), who advised that the men participating in government should be free from dependence on others. In other words, only rich guys should run the government. That didn’t work all that well at the time.

(The leader of that revolution was Oliver Cromwell, and it should be noted here that Ireton was Cromwell’s son-in-law, which benefited his political career greatly. But he was independent. Really. After the monarchy was restored in 1660, King Charles II had Ireton and Cromwell’s bodies exhumed and mutilated in a symbolic execution. Ouch.)

Now that Dyche has introduced us to one of the shortest lived political philosophers of the 17th century, he dismissively mentions the efforts of those left-wing radicals, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, to expand suffrage to the “common man.” Then he quotes more great conservative minds.

James Kent (1763-1847) was a lawyer, judge and legal scholar in the State of New York. During the 1821 state constitutional convention, he argued against universal suffrage. Dyche quotes just a bit of Kent’s passionate speech. Here’s a longer quote:

The apprehended danger from the experiment of universal suffrage applied to the whole legislative department, is no dream of the imagination. It is too mighty an excitement for the moral constitution of men to endure. The tendency of universal suffrage, is to jeopardize the rights of property, and the principles of liberty. There is a constant tendency in human society, and the history of every age proves it; there is a tendency in the poor to covet and to share the plunder of the rich; in the debtor to relax or avoid the obligation of contracts; in the majority to tyrannize over the minority, and trample down their rights; in the indolent and the profligate, to cast the whole burthens of society upon the industrious and the virtuous; and there is a tendency in ambitious and wicked men, to inflame these combustible materials. [Dyche’s quotation is in boldface here.]

Short version: The rabble will take over government, and civilization as we know it will crumble into dust. Demagogues will whip them into a frenzy, and we rich guys will be in big trouble. Remember what happened to Louis and Marie Antoinette?

Now we hear from Daniel Webster (1782-1852), a somewhat better known figure in US History. Dyche quotes Webster as saying:

Those who have not property, and see their neighbors possess much more than they think them to need, cannot be favorable to laws made for the protection of property. When this class becomes numerous, it grows clamorous. It looks on property as its prey and plunder, and is naturally ready, at all times, for violence and revolution.

Sounds like Webster also had the French Revolution in mind. Like Ireton and Kent, he unequivocally opposed universal suffrage, and lobbied against it (unsuccessfully) during the Massachusetts constitutional convention of 1820.

A more extensive quote from Webster will help put his argument in context. These remarks Dyche quotes come from a commemorative address at Plymouth, Massachusetts, 200 years after the Pilgrims landed. Webster expounded on the American political system, noting that it depended on laws regulating government, the military and the “descent and transmission of property.”

The freest government, if it could exist, would not be long acceptable, if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in few hands, and to render the great mass of the population dependent and penniless. In such a case, the popular power would be likely to break limit and control the exercise of popular power. Universal suffrage, for example, could not long exist in a community where there was great inequality of property. The holders of estates would be obliged, in such case, in some way to restrain the right of suffrage, or else such right of suffrage would, before, long, divide the property. In the nature of things, those who have not property, and see their neighbors possess much more than they think them need, cannot be favorable to laws made for the protection of property. When this class becomes numerous, it glows clamorous. It looks on property as its prey and plunder, and is naturally ready, at all times, for violence and revolution.

The qualifying words, which Dyche omits, I have put in boldface. Webster was in fact saying, if property laws allowed a small minority of landowners to control most of the property, the “outs” would eventually rise up in revolution. (Like France, 1789, for example). We could therefore also use Webster’s address as an argument against letting the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but Dyche appears not to consider that possibility. Nor have most of our Congressional leaders, for that matter.

Next, Dyche pulls out another “modern” political theorist, John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833), whose words could have come from the mouth of anyone of the current Republican presidential candidates.

Look at that ragged fellow staggering from the whiskey shop, and see that slattern who has gone there to reclaim him; where are their children? Running about, ragged, idle, ignorant, fit candidates for the penitentiary. Why is all this so? Ask the man and he will tell you, ‘Oh, the Government has undertaken to educate our children for us. It has given us a premium for idleness.

We don’t need public education. We don’t need a social safety net. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

Randolph made these remarks in 1830, during the Virginia state constitutional convention. Like a lot of modern day Tea Party members, he favored “small government” and the self-sufficiency of the population. As you can see, he did not favor public education, unlike his fellow Virginian, Tom Jefferson.

Randolph, a wealthy plantation owner with many slaves, was also fervently against rule by the masses — “King Numbers,” he called them. He believed that men were not created equal, and some should by right of birth be in positions of power. He lost those arguments in his own time, as did Kent and Webster, which Dyche and others seem to forget. There are after all certain reasons why old political ideals are no longer currently in fashion. Like the divine right of kings, they were discarded long ago, and should stay in the trash heap.

But nevermind, the definition of the conservative mind is hold onto the old — or dig it out of the trash heap — and reject the new (until it later becomes old). Now that Dyche has built up this bulwark of “modern” conservative political theory, he now comes to the crux of the matter.

Roosevelt and his New Deal, Johnson and his Great Society, President Obama, and the Congressional Democrats — all bad, bad socialists. Doom approaches. Revolution! Blood in the streets! Run for your lives!

Dyche continues:

These misguided liberals seem oblivious to the reality of America’s current fiscal crises and cultural decline. Their excessive generosity with other people’s money has bankrupted the country and helped rot its moral core.

Let’s review some basic facts here. When Bill Clinton (a Democrat) left office, the USA had a budget SURPLUS. When George W. Bush (a Republican) left office, the USA had a ginormous budget DEFICIT. Why? For a start, he cut taxes, mostly for the wealthy few at the top and the big corporations, a trend which continues even under Obama’s administration. He escalated one war, and started another, at the same time. He cut revenues and increased spending. The Dems in Congress were complicit in this financial mismanagement, but for Dyche to pin the current economic crisis on liberals misses the culprits by a country mile.

I won’t even go on about lax regulation of the banking, mortgage and investing industries, which trampled the property law system that Webster extolled in 1821. If we still had property ownership as a requirement for voting, there would be hundreds of thousands of people without homes and the right to vote. But remember, it was the liberals’ fault.

Nor will I gloss on the “cultural decline” and the rotting “moral core” that Dyche refers to. I can only guess what he means.

Dyche invokes fear as a reason for clamping down on suffrage. “King Numbers may take to the streets in violence choreographed by social media (referring to the Arab spring, I suppose) and encouraged by thuggish labor leaders (referring to Teamsters boss James Hoffa, who told union members to ‘kill’ those guys at the polls). It is a recipe for despotism, the Founders’ foremost fear (referring obliquely to the Nazis — no political column nowadays can omit some allusion to Hitler).”

And he concludes with these terrifying words:

That dread day draws nigh. We have forgotten the Founders’ carefully considered conclusion that broader voter participation (especially from the half of American households paying no federal income tax) could hasten it.

And how much tax did General Electric pay last year? Zero. Cry me a fucking river.

What is the point of bring all this up now, anyway? What do Dyche and the paranoid Trotsky-doppelganger Vadum propose, seriously? Tell one-third of the voting population they can’t vote anymore? (I’m extrapolating from census data. The home ownership rate in the USA in 2009 was 67.4%.) That will go over well, I’m sure. Renters, the unemployed, retirees, college students, as well as welfare recipients, would have no vote and no chance to run for office. It would mean I could not vote either.

Maybe counselor Dyche might re-read Webster’s remarks at Plymouth again. If we allow the rich and powerful to get more rich and more powerful, and increase the number of the people in the lower classes, then the USA will be in big trouble — a larger version of a banana republic, without the bananas. Rather than seeing universal suffrage as a threat, Dyche should see it for what it is — one of the principal strengths of the American Republic. Blacks, women, non-property owners did not seize political rights by force; they acquired them after long years of an evolving democratic political process. And the Nation still stands.

Time moves on, counselor. Kent, Webster, Randolph and their unlucky English predecessor Ireton were in the minority, even in their own time. Maybe you need to propose some new ideas.

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