Bourgeois Freedoms

Thinking about Shelby County v. Holder—last week’s Supreme Court decision overturning Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act—on this 4th of July…

People on the left often pooh-pooh voting and voting rights.  Bourgeois freedoms and all that. But  if voting is really such a nothing freedom, why do conservatives so consistently oppose its extension to the lower orders of society? Not just in the 19th century or in Europe, but today, in the United States?

Discomfort with protecting the voting rights of African Americans has long been the calling card of John Roberts, who wrote the Shelby County decision. At least since his days as a young attorney in the Reagan administration. It’s also the signature issue of the modern Republican Party. Not just in its southern viscera but in the northernmost precincts of its legal cranium.

I wrote a line in The Reactionary Mind that got a lot of attention: “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.” After Shelby, can there be any doubt that I was right?


  1. Alan Hertz July 4, 2013 at 10:05 am | #

    I trust there are stronger arguments for universal suffrage than conservative unease. My enemy’s enemy is not always my friend . . . And radicals might be right–electoral politics might just be a nasty combination of window-dressing and smoke-screen.

  2. jonnybutter July 4, 2013 at 10:38 am | #

    I didn’t see that Corey made the argument that the strongest argument for universal suffrage was that conservatives oppose it. But I notice that you don’t grapple with why they do oppose it, and doggedly so. Why?

    I’d also say you ought to use one of your ‘bourgeois freedoms’ (freedom of expression) to make the follow-argument that electoral politics – not only voting rights – is necessarily ‘just a nasty combination of window-dressing and smoke-screen’. Otherwise it’s really a content-free comment.

  3. Glenn July 4, 2013 at 11:07 am | #

    If voting could change anything it would be against the law.

    I am a registered voter even though voting is a two legged stool. For example, no one knows what might happen; no one thought it possible the Soviet Union would collapse until the day after.

    I have also been on an election ballot, knowing full well I had a snowflake’s chance in hell, but taking the opportunity to engage with people anyway, both the zombies and the aware.

    I am opposed to everything Ron Paul stands for, except his anti-war position. I spoke to Sierra club members about the inability to stop inadvertent destruction of the environment when supporting intentionally environmentally destructive pro-war candidates like Obama.

    Voting is not relevant now, but I keep the option open just in case one day democracy gains some influence over State authority.

    • ChristianPinko July 6, 2013 at 5:27 pm | #

      Glenn – The whole point of Shelby County is precisely so that states can make voting against the law, for people whom the Republican Party deems undesirable.

  4. Cade DeBois (@lifepostepic) July 4, 2013 at 11:18 am | #

    One nice thing about being educated at a Catholic liberal arts uni is that I have a pretty good historical prespective on the the development of the contemporary cnservative mindset. I often am reminded of the long line of Catholic conservatives who would argue that the human condition is static, and that things like inequality and poverty will always exist. You just couldn’t do anything about it,. Accept it. Oh and Jesus maybe said something about being nice to the poor or whatever. Of course this was all drawing from European aristocractic thinking stemming way back into the Middle Ages that defended the ruling classes, fueled by interpretations of the Christian Gospels and Hebrew Scriptures that justified this way of thinking. It’s the ultimate rationalization and ego defense: I am right to oppress you because it’s the human condition! Whaddaya gonna do?

    But more distressingly, we have this problem among liberals who really buy into this “inequaity is part of the human coniditon” malarky but manifest it in indifference and passivity. They’ll pity the oppressed, but they’re not very motivated to take any personal responsibility here either because, welp, whaddaya gonna do? Nevermind the very impressive list of liberal icons who have pointed out how inequality is actively created and perpetuated with the help of those who passively go along with the status quo. Douglass? Pfft. MLK? Pfft. Day? Pfft. Mandela? Pfft.

    So yes, “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes” because upper class power and privilege depends so much on this worldview that inequality is a given. Can’t have those underclasses exercising any agency and screwing up what is natural and perhaps divinely ordained! And it’s a nice bonus that liberals often just go quietly along, making excuses for why they can’t do more. It is, after all, their own power and priviege at stake too.

  5. zenner41 July 4, 2013 at 11:55 am | #

    #1: There are a lot more people interested in electoral politics in the U.S. than there are interested in revolution. So if those are the alternatives, you can engage with a much larger group of people in the former category.
    #2: One can always become a candidate in order to “inform the public” about one’s ideas while fully aware than one cannot win. But usually that’s an awfully difficult and expensive way to get publicity, if that’s all you’re interested in.
    #3: In local races, especially, there are often candidates with pretty decent platforms, even if not flamingly radical ones. I think it’s important to fix the current mess in Congress and certainly in many state governments (practically all of them, in fact), and electing better people is the only way to do that. On the other hand, if you’re sitting around waiting for a revolution, of course you’re not interested in that stuff.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg July 4, 2013 at 1:00 pm | #

      Electing better people is not the only way. Constitutional litigation, in particular, has done a lot for the USA — the case at hand notwithstanding. It wasn’t electing better people that got DOMA off the books, to give the most recent example; and of course there was Brown v. BoE, etc..

      In the case of the Civil Rights Acts (including the Voting Rights Act), it also wasn’t electing better people that created the impetus for new law. For the most part, the same legislators remained in place, but changed their positions. Legislators responded to a shift in the popular culture, which was only partially the result of activism, which in turn was only rarely electoral activism.

      • zenner41 July 4, 2013 at 1:33 pm | #

        The problem is that, ultimately, judges are appointed and confirmed by elected politicians (when they are not themselves elected), and if voters elect crummy politicians, they tend to appoint and confirm crummy judges.

        Certainly legislators respond to shifts in culture, at least sometimes, but again, you have to elect legislators who (you hope) respond the right way. Congressional Republicans at this point are hopeless in that respect, and the only thing to do with them is vote them out. (Good luck with that.)

  6. Freddie DeBoer July 4, 2013 at 1:37 pm | #

    I don’t think voting is a bourgeois value, but there is no sanctimony like those who defend partisan politics as the beginning and end of political change. And they’re always the first to declare others sanctimonious.

  7. lberns1 July 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm | #

    Voting = The Slave’s Suggestion Box which is pretty much nothing more than begging for permission from your masters. After all, people vote in North Korea, too.

  8. Harald K July 4, 2013 at 3:46 pm | #

    That is not really a mystery to me. Even if voting is a purely symbolic act with little real value, it’s perfectly understandable that one group would try making it an exclusive thing. Especially if it symbolizes influence, status, citizenship, respectability etc.

    That people see value in exclusivity itself is not unusual. It’s pretty much the basis for Freemasonry and other initiation cults.

  9. charliebucket July 4, 2013 at 6:47 pm | #

    “But if voting is really such a nothing freedom, why do conservatives so consistently oppose its extension to the lower orders of society?”

    To blow up its perceived importance in order to make it seem like it matters or actually does anything? I’m having a hard time figuring out why conservatives should care about the Democrats winning any election these days. Personally I can’t think of too many reasons why a mass no vote isn’t more threatening than lots of people legitimizing the duopoly through voting for one of the two entrenched parties. How to make the lower orders vote? Make it seem like their vote is threatened, natch..

    N.B. I’m not saying this is the answer, but it’s a plausible hypothetical for those of us who are skeptics and don’t believe a single word these people say publicly. The Emma Goldman quote seems ever more relevant now.

    • jonnybutter July 4, 2013 at 9:44 pm | #

      I don’t think voting is a bourgeois value, but there is no sanctimony like those who defend partisan politics as the beginning and end of political change.

      So true, and here in the US so obviously self aggrandizing for the political duopoly we have – which is usually where political change goes to *die*. The most common form it takes here is the cliche that ‘if you don’t vote you can’t complain’ (implicitly meaning you can’t do radical analysis). It’s ridiculous because of course you also can’t complain (in that sense) if you *do* vote!

  10. Hank July 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm | #

    The recent Scotus decision on voting rights is proof that voting–contra Emma Goldman–DOES change things.

    The problem is that the changes tend to be local rather than national, because that’s where the exact constituency of the electorate can make a genuine difference in who’s in power.

    The other problem is that the changes can take a very long time to take effect: in the case of the voting rights act, it HAS changed things, and the people in power (including Clarence Thomas, who would not be in power if the voting rights act had never been passed) want to reverse the course.

    The whole Electoral College system was deliberately set up to make damn sure that ordinary folks would NOT have a say in who was president.

    The so-called ‘founders’ were often quite up front about the dangers of letting anybody but the rich and powerful get access to real power.


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