Recently while working on a paper concerning the English political journalist Walter Bagehot and his 1867 classic The English Constitution, I was struck by Bagehot’s heated objections to the Reform Act of 1867. An act introduced by the Tory government of Benjamin Disraeli and reluctantly supported by most Liberal MPs, it doubled the franchise in England and Wales from one to two million. In the boroughs it extended the vote to small property-holder and lodgers who paid at least 10 pounds per annum; in the rural counties it gave the vote for the first time to day laborers with exceedingly small property holdings. Although full manhood suffrage would not be reached in England until the 1890s, the Reform Act of 1867 brought about the equivalent in opening up the franchise, as Bagehot put it, “not only to skilled but also to unskilled labor.” The author attacked this in the preface to the second edition of his work in 1873 as a leap into the dark. What kept the English constitution, with its system of ordered liberty, operating, he argued was the presence of a “deferential community.” The middle class understood the need for “political excellence” even if they didn’t often embody it; and while they thrilled to the “theatrical show” of the monarchy, they were emotionally stable and had an investment in the existing society.
Bagehot’s argument runs through the writings and speeches of nineteenth-century European liberals (mind you, liberals, and not only the counterrevolutionary Right). For these defenders of the historic middle class and of a lawful society, it seemed reckless, as I stress in my book After Liberalism, to extend the vote to those who would subvert the existing constitutional order and abolish inherited liberties. Traditional liberals in the nineteenth century typically favored the distinction that was introduced during the first (and liberal) phase of the French Revolution between active and passive citizens. Although all citizens should enjoy certain basic liberties regarding the free exercise of religion and the rights to express political opinions, hold property and assemble for peaceful purposes, not every citizen, it was reasonably assumed, should be allowed to vote. Only those who paid taxes in a certain amount and who were people of substance should be declared censitaires, that is, eligible for the franchise. Others would have to wait until they reached a certain level of wealth and presumably sobriety before they could enjoy the same right. A similar practice was introduced under the liberal July Monarchy in the 1830s, which limited active citizenship to men of means, or what the premier Francois Guizot called the classe capacitaire, leaders of French society who had a stake in preserving it.
I certainly wouldn’t argue that in our peculiar historical situation we should limit the franchise to people of material substance (perhaps typified by the Clintons, Sheldon Adelson, NFL players and Beyoncé) because these are the only people who would exercise the vote discreetly. Rather I would contend that there is enormous value in restricting the suffrage to those who are law-abiding, accept constitutional restraints on the actions of government, and do not view the majority of the citizenry as a hostile, oppressive force that needs to be disempowered. Allowing a hostile, generally ignorant majority or even a significant minority that meets this description to acquire the franchise is to play with fire. Such indulgence is not an exercise in “justice,” with all due respect to the American civil rights lobby and our celebrants of the Voting Rights Act and its periodic extensions supported by both national parties. Classical conservative and classical liberal notions of justice centered on safeguarding the integrity of the family and protecting property and private association, not rolling the dice in the name of creating the widest possible franchise, no matter where it may lead.
Last week I disputed the charge that the white South African government was being unjust or immoral by not turning the country over to a black majority. Contrary to this view, I argued that the Afrikaners were working to preserve a highly civilized, materially productive society, with an irreproachably honorable judiciary, from being overwhelmed by African tribal societies and their black-nationalist and Marxist-Leninist advisors. I have no idea how the agreement that F. W.de Klerk struck with the representatives of the ANC in 1993 to give his country a black majority government had anything to do with justice. It was a regrettable betrayal of de Klerk’s people that had been forced on him by among others American politicians and the American media. Incidentally, remaining apartheid laws had been repealed before this deal was struck, and the later surrender of de Klerk’s government to the ANC was not necessary to remove laws barring blacks and the Colored from what had been previously all-white facilities and areas of settlement.
Let me mention those incisive tracts that Carl Schmitt wrote in the early 1930s, before Hitler’s ascent to power, in which the renowned jurist asked the question whether a constitutional government should be expected to capitulate if the Nazis or the Communists won a majority of the votes in Germany. Schmitt maintained that no sane constitutional order would will its own destruction by bringing its adversaries to power. But we may no longer be dealing with sane opinion-molders. The same people who would say “never” if they imagined the Right would come to power via a majority vote had no problems with surrendering South African whites to the tender mercies of the Xhosas. There seems nothing implausible about the theme of Michel Houllebecq’s latest novel Soumission. Here we areshown leftist and centrist parties in France making an alliance with Muslim fanatics in order to keep the conservative National Front from forming a government. The cultural Left hates white, Christian bourgeois nations far more than their Third World enemies. Majorities only count for the Left if they can be used to weaken what they hate or to empower those who are the enemies of their enemies.
This brings me to the spirited response of William F. Buckley to the efforts of civil rights activists to mobilize the black vote in the South in the 1950s. One may be bowled over in reading these passages in a fortnightly that now dutifully advances the state cult of Martin Luther King and worships Lincoln the Great Emancipator. Indeed in a recent commentary, National Review ‘s editor not only celebrates the voting-rights activists at Selma but gives the impression that there was a total suppression of the black vote in the South before the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
Not only did a Southern black vote exist before then but in states like Texas massive gerrymandering was already occurring a hundred years ago to minimize the effects of black-voting. (Curiously, one can find evidence for these data on civil rights advocacy sites.) Although blacks in the Deep South were kept from the polls, particularly in areas in which they were the majority, what is suggested by Rich Lowry, that blacks were not allowed to vote anywhere in the South before the Civil Rights Act, is false. One can note the intimidation of black voters and the efforts to depress black turnout at the polls, without going over the top and denying that there was in fact a growing black vote in Southern cities, and this became particularly the case by the 1960s even before the VRA was passed. Least of all do I understand the by now ritualistic rejoicing from Republican publicists like Lowry that so many blacks are now voting. Are they stupid enough to revel in the results?
Perhaps the statement of Buckley’s made in 1957 should be quoted in full to convey some sense of how far his magazine has wandered in the direction of the PC Left:
The central question that emerges – and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal – is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.
My response to this statement is that it is entirely correct in principle but that the author may have chosen a difficult case on which to base his argument for a restricted suffrage. I too would have opposed the reach of the Voting Rights Act and if I had known where it would lead, I would have resisted even more strongly the extension of the vote to women. My reasons would not have been a commitment to a more advanced race or to a more advanced gender but my concern with maintaining a stable regime that protects life and property and does not engage in “family planning” and social engineering.
The Voting Rights Act and women suffrage, in my view, pushed us exactly in the opposite direction by creating or vastly expanding what became a radically egalitarian constituency. But my objection to permitting certain groups to enjoy the franchise has never been categorical. I would prefer granting the vote to particular blacks and particular women more than to just about any male academic or Goldman-Sachs employee. It would pain me if the franchise were set up in such a way that some of the white male dummies I tried unsuccessfully to teach would be able to exercise it but not, say, Phyllis Schlafly or Walter Williams.
But looking at the aggregate effect of black and female voting, anyone who believes in a constitutionally limited government that allows private associations and permits employers to hire and fire whom they want without state interference should rue our present franchise. The disproportionate corruptness of black elected officials and the race mongering of black political activists should make our conservative establishment wonder (given this group’s pandering to the MSM, I doubt this will ever happen) whether mobilizing the black vote in the way the government did was really a good thing. Personally I think this voting-expansion is an ongoing disaster, and the fact that black voter fraud is no longer even exposed by the putative conservative opposition, except by such principled reactionaries as Jeff Sessions, makes the matter even worse. What we see is by no means a “just” outcome but, given the distaff vote being thrown in for good measure, a problem that threatens our once relatively free constitutional republic.
By the way, although I couldn’t think of a more exhaustive treatment of the subject of justice in a social or political sense than Aristotle’s Politics, nowhere in this magisterial text does Aristotle indicate that it is “unjust” to exclude women from the franchise or that everyone living in a Greek city state should be permitted to vote. That voting is claimed as a “human right” proves nothing: “human rights” are invented every mini-second by our educators and media. But then perhaps we shouldn’t include Aristotle as a member of our progressively enlightened civilization. Certainly this sexist, parochial ancient Greek didn’t belong to the “West,” as presently defined by our “Western” media.