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Credit Cards for Everyone, But a Voter ID for Thee

Glenn W. Smith

The war on voting rights continues. In the latest development, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal of a voting rights case over whether or not government identification requirements discriminate against the poor and minorities. The lower court opinion under review was written by an appeals court judge who believes voting distracts citizens from their most important duty: shopping.

The court will hear the appeal of a U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling upholding such a law in Indiana. It is disheartening to see that the federal appeals court ruling was written by Judge Richard A. Posner, who has written elsewhere that political participation distracts citizens from their responsibilities as consumers. And it is far easier these days to obtain a credit card than it is to register and vote. Every day the credit industry offers, unsolicited, new and remarkable credit cards. Not one of those solicitations asks for a picture ID before the card will be issued. And few retailers ask for an ID, either.

Posner is an outspoken advocate for "elite democracy." Issues are too complex for Americans to deal with, and so it is necessary that key decisions be made by a select few. Voting, Posner says, is good to have as a possible corrective on elites if they should get carried away with their power. But it is not important, Posner says, that many Americans participate in American political life.

Posner, appointed to the court by Ronald Reagan, is a well-respected jurist and conservative intellectual. He is not a crank. He represents a serious movement in conservative political theory, one that believes not in democracy, but in elite, authoritarian rule with some democratic institutions kept in place just in case.

Elite democracy contemplates the de facto disenfranchisement of millions of Americans. That's why barriers to voting like voter identification laws are no big deal. (My colleagues at the Rockridge Institute recently examined the use of voter ID requirements to achieve voter suppression.) In fact, they promote the kind of elitist rule these authoritarians believe is necessary to maintain social order.

In Posner's political world, "The participation required of the people is minimal. They are left free to spend their time on other, more productive activities, undistracted by the animosities, the polarization, and the endless inconclusive debates of an active political life," as he wrote in his 2003 book, Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy. By productive activities, Posner means consumer support of the economy:

" is doubtful whether political deliberation would today have fruitful spillovers to private or commercial life, and, if not, the reallocation of time from private and commercial activities to the political realm could reduce social welfare."

When the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, appointed George W. Bush president in 2000, it followed the conservative, elitist logic. It was the first time in American history that the Court had chosen the president. But nothing in the elitist view considers such a circumstance extraordinary. In this case, nine voters were as good as ninety million voters.

Driven by a kind of inertial wishful thinking, the political press and many Americans want to believe we live in an era of politics as usual. But today's conservative movement represents a threat to democracy that has never before had such traction. The will of the people is secondary to their own righteous authority.

Tom DeLay's unprecedented mid-decade congressional redistricting of Texas, voter suppression and fraud in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, un-verifiable voting machines, the proposed California ballot initiative that will steal electoral votes from Democrats and hand them to Republicans - all these things are manifestations of a new kind of twisted, anti-democratic power.

These power-mad right-wingers, so different from the individualistic, Barry Goldwater conservatives of old, really do believe themselves to be our anointed strict fathers. No other authority approaches their own, at home or abroad. That is why attacks on voting rights are not so different from the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. No other world leader is Bush's equal; therefore in the eyes of these elites we are not one of many sovereign nations, we are the only sovereign nation. With regard to voting rights, since we are supposed to do what we are told by our authoritarian leaders, how could it matter to us whether or not we have unobstructed access to the ballot box?

We are no longer sovereign individuals. That term is reserved for the conservative elite, just as the term sovereign nation is reserved for only one country, the country these elite believe they embody and rule.

I wish I was exaggerating, but I'm not. Since the 2000 Florida debacle and the Supreme Court anointing of Bush, a re-energized progressive movement has blossomed to challenge the emerging authoritarian hold on America. But sometimes I fear that even the progressive movement underestimates the madness behind the conservative thirst for power. Their politics is not usual. We are not engaged in a battle over ideas. We are engaged in a fight that will determine whether the experiment in Democracy continues or ends.

I don't know how the press overlooks the danger. They have watched the Bush Administration be handed the keys to the White House by the Supreme Court, watched it lie the nation into a war, watched in lie about the occupation of Iraq, watched it privatize the armed forces and every other government function it sought to turn over to its cronies.

I suppose it is easier to believe that attacks on voting rights are just partisan squabbling, that Bush is just another conservative, that an imagined ever-swinging pendulum will swing back one day. That democracy can thrive without an effort, like the moon circling the earth.

There is no pendulum. There is only us. And if we don't save democracy, no one will. God help us if the Supreme Court should agree with Posner that barriers to the ballot box are no big deal. They've already stolen one election from us. Now they have the opportunity to steal all future elections in a single ruling.

Glenn W. Smith is a Senior Fellow at The Rockridge Institute

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