Why Universal Suffrage?

Recent political thought conflates democracy with capitalism, and vice versa. In her 2008 essay, “Rethinking the National Interest,” Condeleeza Rice says, “…the practices and institutions of democracy are essential to the creation of sustained, broad-based economic development… market-driven development is essential to the consolidation of democracy.” Both ideas stem from a simple principle, that the optimal choice for a group is most easily made by the aggregate choices of infinitely many, powerless, individual decision-makers. This natural principle is expressed in countless animal species–a school of minnows, an anthill, and a herd of zebra, to name a few. Ironically, human societies are predominantly structured to give a small number of individuals an inversely proportional decision-making power. Perhaps universal suffrage is our attempt to return to nature’s best-practice. Metaphysical justification is unncessary. Universal suffrage is natural in observation, not only in speculation.

Contemporary democracies assume suffrage ought be universal. It was not long ago in the lifetime of democracy that suffrage was granted to less than half or a smaller portion of the population. In today’s most successful democracies, some groups are still excluded from the election process. There is justification for preventing felons and those with severe mental handicaps from voting. One rarely thinks of children or non-citizens as unfairly disenfranchised. Together, perhaps a quarter of the United States’ residents lack a direct voice in selecting a representative.

The elite’s great fear of universal suffrage, the fear of mob rule, is misplaced. The elite strive to constrain democracy to inoculate themselves from the terrible plague of the mobile vulgus. Statesmen worry about the contagion spreading across national boundaries. The fear is that passion will overcome reason, and that a self-serving demagogue will rally the masses to his ignorant cause. Is it not the one demagogue who is to fear, rather than the mob itself? When the mob is healthy and rational, then we must let their voices be heard. When their minds are ill, stifle them. But who is to say what is ill and what is whole? The elite’s fear is not that the people choose to follow leaders, it is that the people might choose to follow leaders with different values.

To ensure the health of a nation, the elite must rely on its constitution. Only the values represented by the constitution must remain, and even those may be reinterpreted for a new day. When new values arise, we must accept them as the people accept them. When our eye sins, we do not cut it out. A strong constitution keeps us whole. If the body is birthed strong, its life will be long and without sickness.


Rice, Condoleeza (2008) ”Rethinking the National InterestForeign Affairs.