Make Voting Harder or Face the Rise of Pelosinomics

Dispensing first with the obvious, that Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion that 16-year-olds be allowed to vote is asinine, and second with the obligatory, that any malevolent impediments to grownups voting ought to be removed, we may proceed to the particular premises behind the House Democratic Leader’s brainstorm and what they disclose about the sorry state of American politics.

Speaking to Generation Progress, Pelosi warmed the audience by emphasizing a plan to allow refinancing of student loans, then dived, or rather wandered, in:

[T]here is a direct connection between legislation and the quality of life the people enjoy, and elections.  To achieve what we want to do for the middle class, for kids in school, for immigration reform, we must change our politics.  We must reduce the role of money in politics.  … Reform our campaign system to empower small donors; and empower voters with a renewed and strengthened Voting Rights Act, removing obstacles of participation.  I am all for—I’d love to hear your thoughts on it; I know you’ll let me know—for lowering the voting age to high school age, whether that’s 16 or 17 or… [applause]

That is a one-paragraph encapsulation of the sickness infecting American politics.  All is transaction.

Start with the premise: a “direct connection between legislation and the quality of life that people enjoy, and elections.”  This is, to be sure, a perennial claim.  Democrats and Republicans make it alike; it emphasizes their importance.  And there is a sense in which it is a truism: Legislation matters.  Fine.  But it cannot possibly be healthy for a republic that its public realm occupies so much subsidiary space that the people’s “quality of life” depends, at least routinely, on elections.

One reason that cannot be healthy is the transactional politics to which it inevitably leads, which is where Pelosi goes next: namely, why, in particular, 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote.  Note the preposition: It is to achieve what we want to do for them.  The argument for the 26th amendment allowing 18-year-olds to vote—that if they could be drafted they ought to have some say in where they were being sent—had to do with what was being asked from them.  What was that about not asking what your country can do for you?

Never mind: Voting these days is like shopping—more, actually, like ordering on a restaurant tab that is going to be split between several parties regardless of what each individually eats.  It tends to inflate appetites.

Notice, moreover, that these appetites, on Pelosi’s analysis, are permissible for 16-year-olds—who can exchange political for public goods—but not for sinister donors of dark money.  Why one transaction (a politician offering student loan relief at the public expense in exchange for votes) is democratically empowering while another (a politician offering, the presumption goes, a public good in exchange for campaign spending used to persuade voters) is corrupt is unclear.

It is, of course, nothing new in American history for electoral coalitions to be assembled on the basis of promises, including self-interested ones.  But there is a difference between asking for a vote in exchange for a public good and authorizing people to vote explicitly because doing so will enable them to obtain a public good—which is rather pathetically to say, one supposes, that it would be nice if the transaction could at least be conducted with a little discretion.

The classical problem of politics used to be how to get people to sacrifice their own appetites for the public good.  But the basis of Pelosi’s proposal underscores the extent to which politics is now about the distribution of goods, especially other people’s goods.  The sharing of goods can be perfectly noble—again, the classical problem of politics—but it assumes an incentive for some people to make the goods.

Consider, then, Pelosinomics, according to which, in this speech, “[w]e’re in a consumer economy.  When consumers have confidence to invest, to spend, to consume then our economy turns around no matter how good the other indicators are.”

No matter how good?  Where did that consumer spending come from?  Never mind.  A consumer perspective would seem to be an excellent case for trade deals that keep prices low, which renders Pelosi’s decision to enlist in the revolution against the Trans-Pacific Partnership curious, but never mind again.  Pelosi calls it is curious instead that Jeb Bush says people should work harder so they have more to spend whereas, on her description, President Obama wants to mandate that they be paid more.

Bush actually, if inartfully, called for productivity increases and more full-time work.  In any case, the mandates Pelosi wants may or may not be justified, but they help only if wealth is being generated with which to pay wages.  The same is the case with the sharing of public goods.  The redistribution of wealth depends on the generation of wealth.  Politics as transaction—passing the same dollar around to different constituencies and hoping it never diminishes, indeed grows, in value—would seem to undermine that.

This is why her latter-day suffrage movement has it exactly backward: Voting should be harder, not easier.  That is not to endorse, again, unreasonable impediments, and still less antagonistic ones.  That someone who earns an hourly wage must forgo it to wait hours on line to vote is, for example, a problem.

But the political puritans’ perennial claims that all citizens bear upon their burdened shoulders a civic duty to vote—or proposals to relieve the weight of that burden, such as online voting—are absurd.  The franchise is not a duty.  It is a portion of the coercive power of the state—one that, to be sure, can be exercised nobly and politically, but also abusively.  It therefore ought not be a matter of flippant convenience.  The circumstances of the franchise ought to emphasize deliberate choice.

Precisely because it is a form of power, votes can also be cast defensively.  That is one reason all citizens who meet the requisite requirements—age, residence, etc.—have the right to vote.

Public-spirited, informed and deliberate citizens might do their fellow citizens a service by voting thoughtfully.  But the appetitive, impulsive or ignorant, qualities that have been known to describe 16-year-olds as well as certain of their parents and grandparents, have a civic duty not to vote.  Pelosi’s proposal would merely indulge them.  Perhaps getting elected Minority Leader of the House of Representatives should be harder too.