What did the founders really intend for our democracy? Political Science Professor Quentin Kidd talks about how the government was built and how Americans have adapted it.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. With midterm elections coming up November 2nd, it seems like a good time to look back on elections in our nation’s history: how they worked and how they’ve changed.
Here with us now is Quentin Kidd, Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Government at Christopher Newport University. Quentin, thank you for being here.
Quentin Kidd: You’re welcome, glad to be here.
Harmony: Well I think the first thing that might surprise people about the history of voting and elections is what sort of snobs the founders were – how restricted they intended the vote to be, versus today’s universal suffrage.
Quentin: I don’t know if I would use the term “snobbery” as much as I would say that the founders thought of voting as a really serious thing. I think today we might not think of voting as serious as the founders thought it was.
For the founders, people who had some responsibility in society, who understood how important it was to keep society running smoothly and to make sure that rules were properly instituted and that taxes were paid and that roads were taken care of – those people who understood the seriousness of that had the right and the responsibility to vote.
So initially the founders limited the right to vote to white, property-owning men, essentially. The reason for that was, it was thought by the founders that if you didn’t own property, you probably didn’t have enough of a vested interest in society to take seriously enough the responsibility that was reflected in voting.
Harmony: So they were worried that if they left voting up to society as a whole, people might choose the wrong leader, they might choose poorly.
Quentin: They were worried that if, for example, anyone could vote, that you might vote for somebody who promised you something that was like a short-term gain, that really wasn’t good for the country and society long-term. For example, you might vote for somebody that promised to lower your taxes and provide some sort of benefit to you that the government couldn’t over the long term pay for.
The result is that the government might sort of go into debt and then have to worry about trying to pay off this debt. So they wanted people to vote who would have to actually be responsible for whatever the outcome of that vote was. Those people were largely property owners.
Harmony: And another concept, a safeguard that they put in place to try and make sure that the right people were elected was the electoral college. Can we talk a minute about that, maybe first sort of sketch out what the idea was, what the plan was with creating the electoral college?
Quentin: Well the founders did feel that there should be some sort of check, on say, the unrestrained will of the voters. So they instituted an electoral college. The electoral college was essentially a group of people in each state who would go to the capital of that state just after election day when property-owning white men cast their votes for president.
This small group of people would go to the capital and basically say, “Here’s what the people say they were interested in, here’s who the people said that they were interested in being president, and do we agree with them or not agree with them? Is this a wise choice on the part of the people or not? If it isn’t a wise choice, then we need to essentially select the wisest choice.”
So it was really a check, an elite check on the unrestrained will of the voters. So in our history, you can see this real fear that the unrestrained voter is going to elect somebody who isn’t responsible or who doesn’t take the office that they’re elected to seriously. You see that going all the way back to the earliest institutions and the earliest elections in our Constitution’s history.
Harmony: Some of those checks have been dissolved over time. We talked initially about the right of voting being limited to white, land-owning males. How has that evolved through time as our idea of what American citizenship is, has changed?
Quentin: Well if you read the founding documents, the founders were writing about and talking in idealistic ways about the will of the people, and about free people, and about people who had rights because they were people. But they set these institutions up that restricted people, that gave the vote only to white property-owning men and not to women and not to slaves. And so as we go through time, as history progresses, the ideal conflicts with the reality.
The conflict is over the will expressed in the language and the practice of our democratic institutions. That conflict is probably most evident over the issue of slavery. How is it that human beings could be human beings who were endowed by their creator with these natural rights, and yet certain human beings, because of their race, are kept as slaves and counted not as full people?
Over time that conflict becomes the most pressing, and it results obviously in a civil war. After the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution are ratified, and they basically abolish slavery, they make former slaves citizens, and they give citizens the right to vote. Now the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments do those things, but they still limit the right to vote to men. So the conflict over the idea of who is a citizen and what rights citizens have, by the late 1800s, don’t involve women.
But then as we go through time, women press their case, and say, “Wait a minute. How is it that the language can talk about the rights of human beings and the rights of citizens and all that, but we’re not including women?” So, by 1920, we ratify the Constitution again, and we give women the right to vote, we as a society reflect the difference between what we say we are and what we are in reality. Then as we go through time even more, in 1971, we lower that voting age from 21 down to 18. So we let younger people vote. That’s how it stands today.
So over the course of our history, over the 220 some-odd course of our history, what has happened is, we’ve tried, and I think to a large extent done a good job, we’ve tried to reflect in reality what our documents say we are. Which is a country that allows its people to engage in the political process, gives citizens rights, and tries to hold citizens up to a high standard of responsibility.
Harmony: We’ve talked about how the understanding of the Constitution and voting rights has changed, and the way that we’ve interpreted the philosophy of the founders over time and allowed that to adapt to our changing society. Can we look at the opposite way, and think, what’s really the same? What ideals have we kept at the core?
Quentin: The ideals that we’ve kept at the core I think are the ideas that at some level, the will of the people should govern. The will of the people should be what government does. So if the will of the people in 1790 is the will of a small group of people: white, property-owning men, then whatever that will was is what should govern.
So if the will of the people today is everybody 18 and older, then whatever everybody 18 and older says on election day is what government should do. Now we’re in a time in 2010 where what the will of the people is, isn’t absolutely clear. We’re going to have a midterm election coming up, where it looks like for the third election in a row, the government in power is going to be thrown out.
Harmony: Do you think that midterm elections give us a different insight into what’s happening politically than a presidential election does?
Quentin: Yeah, a presidential election is normally about big ideas and about the broad direction of the country.
A midterm election is where voters essentially say, “Is the president doing what he said he was going to do well enough?” And if the voters say, “Well, we don’t think the president is doing it well enough,” then they can hit him. They can hit him by saying, “We’re going to vote against your party and we’re going to vote for the opposition party.”
Harmony: We’ve talked about our two dominant political parties: Republicans and Democrats. How have third parties affected the course of the democratic process?
Quentin: Third parties have acted as almost like a pressure valve in the American political system, in the American political process. Third parties are usually where voter frustration gets expressed if the two major political parties don’t deal with a problem.
So let’s take the current tea party movement in America. The tea party movement is about the size of the Federal Government, and the reach of the Federal Government, and federal spending. Is the Federal Government spending too much, is it reaching too far into Americans' everyday lives? Is it doing too much?
Both political parties are going to absorb the message of the tea party movement in some way, and respond to that complaint in some way. So it’s likely that four years from now we don’t have a tea party movement – eight years from now, we don’t have a Tea Party movement. Just like the reform party movement in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was a complaint about the size of the federal deficit.
Harmony: How can we compare today’s idea of citizenship– and when we say “citizenship,” we mean being actively engaged in the country’s democracy, not just your passport status – how can we compare that to what the idea of being a citizen was when the country was founded?
Quentin: Well, you know in some ways I think we’ve come full circle. Initially, citizenship applied to a very small segment of the population: people that had property who were men. And the idea of citizenship was more than voting. It was a responsibility for society.
So, for example, Thomas Jefferson would think of a citizen’s responsibility as to care about his neighbor, to care about his community, and if there was a problem in the community, to engage in trying to solve the problem, and to vote when it was time to vote, and to serve in office if there was a call or a need for him to serve in office.
We sort of lost that to some extent, as we go through the middle part of our country’s history. But oddly enough, the younger generation, the millennial generation, and then their younger brothers and sisters are bringing that idea of a general responsibility back. So for example, you hear a lot of people complain right now about young people not voting at the same rates as older people.
Well, the response to that is, young people are actually doing a lot in their society. They’re volunteering at rates that are far higher than their older brothers and sisters and their parents. They’re engaging in their communities in many ways beyond just voting.
So the idea of just focusing on voting as citizenship actually is not in keeping with the original notion of citizenship. But thinking of citizenship as more broadly engaged in your community, which is what a lot of younger people are now, is actually the better way of keeping in keeping with the original notion of citizenship.
Harmony: Quentin, thank you so much for being here with us today. You can learn more about the history of election politics in the October 14th Electronic Field Trip “The Will of the People.” Watch it on local public broadcasting stations, or register online at history.org/trips.