Republican Virtue and the Fraud of Voter Fraud

Ezra Klein guest-hosted for Rachel Maddow last night and offered a beautiful primer on the mythical issue of our era:


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It's worth watching twice. Ezra makes a great point about the "newness" of voter ID laws, and the incredible paucity of claims. Pennsylvania officials have the luxury of having confessed that there has no proof of voter fraud:
The state signed a stipulation agreement with lawyers for the plaintiffs which acknowledges there "have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states."
... and having confessed to the laws true purpose:
Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R) said that the voter ID law passed by the legislature would help deliver the state for Mitt Romney in November. "Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it's done. First pro-life legislation -- abortion facility regulations -- in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done," Turzai said at this weekend's Republican State Committee meeting ....
One thing to understand is that while voter ID laws are new, attempting to restrict the vote isn't. One corollary to America's historically broad franchise is a deep-seated worry about the maintenance of republican virtue among franchise-holders. Unfortunately the same people who pioneered the notion of "republican virtue" tended to be racist and generally believed that "virtue" could be detected, and ensured, through the most superficial means. This is the context for understanding the vote being restricted to property-owning white men. Property represents a stake in society. Whiteness represents not having the instincts of a baboon. And maleness, of course, means the ability to resist fainting twice a day. 

The notion that only certain people should be able to vote is still with us today. In many states, we strip felons of their voting rights because we believe they have shown themselves to not be worthy of the vote, to be lacking in "republican virtue."

I'm actually sorry that liberals have mostly abandoned this tradition, and left it to demagogues and white populists. The founders were wrong about virtue being the strict province of white males, but they were deeply wise in their sense that democracies don't run on autopilot. If a law were passed today making literacy illegal, I suspect that the quality of our democracy would quickly decline. 

Frankly, I think too little is said today about "republican virtue." I don't think liberals have yet gotten to the point where we can convincingly invoke patriotism, or even a broader nationalism. Passing off quackery as science, and passing off quackery as American history injures our children, thus injuring our citizens, thus injuring our democracy. I think about our need to be perpetually entertained and I worry. I think about our comfort with drones and I worry. A serious conversation about "republican virtue" involves, necessarily, some threat to individual rights. I don't know where that conversation goes. But I wish it were on the table.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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