Among those concerned by the incoming Trump Administration, one of the most common appellations for our time has become “The New Gilded Age”. This is quite apt, what with plutocratic interests on the verge of rolling back worker’s rights and protections across the board, supported by a subservient ruling political class. But I would argue that the situation is perhaps even worse. The clock is not just being turned back to the late 19th century, in many ways we are returning to the 18th century. This is not true in every way of course–I do not foresee the return of outright slavery or the monarchy–but the likely outcome of the various GOP assaults on the franchise is a version of ‘democracy’ in which the various reforms made to Western Democracy over the last two centuries are abolished.
More simply put, rural constituencies will have vastly more representation than urban constituencies, districts will be well-shaped so as to be dominated by a few families and businesses, the voter rolls will be well purged of People of Color, students, and anyone else who falls afoul of the increasingly restrictive laws, and an aristocratic class will dominate our political affairs. None of these concerns are new to Americans. But while we talk of gerrymandering and voter suppression, we fail to realize that these are merely new words for rotten boroughs and property requirements. Or at least, while they may differ in the technicalities, they retain virtually the same function: to maintain electoral power in the hands of the elite.
Much of the political history of the 19th century is the story of how brave reformers fought to take the inchoate democracy of the parliaments and assemblies of the 18th century and hammered it into something actually democratic. But for the sake of brevity, I’ll (mostly) restrict myself to one example: the Representation of the People Act of 1832. This was the first step in the (very, very long) process of reforming the British Parliament, and virtually everything it tried to fight against is something advocated by the modern Republican Party.
The Endless War on Cities
Conservatives hate cities. This is an immutable fact of nature, all the way back to the middle ages when landlords and archbishops fought wars with merchant cities over a myriad of feudal issues. Cities are full of foreigners and Jews and poor people who care more about money than they do proper behavior (i.e, obeying one’s betters). This distaste carried over into the British Parliament, dominated as it was by the rural gentry who maintained control via their tenants. Urban towns and counties were granted only two MPs each, the same number granted to lightly-populated rural districts and small villages with a tenth the population. Worse, many of the large cities that had grown up in England near the end of the 18th century had no representation at all. Thomas Paine famously summed up the situation in his pamphlet The Rights of Man.
“The county of Yorkshire, which contains near a million souls, sends two county members; and so does the county of Rutland which contains not a hundredth part of that number. The town of Old Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upwards of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any. Is there any principle in these things?”
This problem was by no means fully resolved by the 1832 Reform Bill, but it began the process. Fifty-six of the smallest boroughs in England were abolished entirely, and another thirty had their representation halved. Conversely, approximately thirty counties were granted additional representatives (Yorkshire, for example, had its delegation increased to six MPs), and around forty town and cities were granted representation for the first time.
In the United States today, conservatives retain their age-old hatred of cities. In the recent election, Clinton’s popular victory of nearly 3 million votes were brushed aside by a simple expedient: Those voters lived in cities! They don’t really count. And the Republican Party is now engaged in a project to make sure they don’t count. The centerpiece of this is the never-to-be-sufficiently-dammed Electoral College, an actual relic of the 18th century which will always assure that urban states will be underrepresented compared to their rural counterparts. Even more damaging is gerrymandering, which Republicans in dozens of states have used to attenuate urban constituencies, splitting their votes up among larger rural districts to deny them any collective voice. In effect, the attempted result will be one in which cities are represented at the national and state levels on a scale completely disproportionate to their actual populations.
Gerrymandering and Rotten Boroughs
I think anyone even remotely familiar with the history of 18th century Britain knows what a rotten borough is, but for clarity’s sake, rotten boroughs were voting constituencies for parliament with tiny populations (often as low as a few dozen) all of which were tenants or otherwise dominated by a wealthy landowner or patron. These patrons could could rely on their boroughs to return them or their favored candidates to parliament indefinitely. In America today, this role is being played by gerrymandered districts. These districts are not ‘owned’ individually by local members of the gentry as in days of yore, but they are ‘owned’ outright by one of our political parties, and they serve the same purpose: consolidating and concentrating power in the hands of the few.
In the last two general elections, democratic candidates for Congress have received more votes than Republican candidates. And yet, the House of Representatives remains in GOP hands. This is true on the state level as well, with legislatures in places like North Carolina, where the Republican party won a fairly narrow victory this year but will continue to control a super-majority of the state legislature. And while none of the North Carolina state legislature districts had patrons in the old sense, behavior like this from people like the Koch Brothers shows that the wealthy have not lost their desire to direct their employee’s votes.
As mentioned in the previous section, the 1832 Reform bill began the process of reducing and abolishing the rotten boroughs. Gerrymandering, seems likely to remain entrenched for the foreseeable future.
Shrinking the Franchise
In both the United States and Britain, the right to vote was initially limited to property-owners. In Britain, these restrictions were not fully repealed until 1918. The first attempt at reducing them however was the 1832 bill, which did away with dozens of competing local standards to impose a uniform requirement that voters possess property worth at least £10.Though still a substantial sum, this had the effect of increasing the electorate from approximately 500,000 voters to around 800,000. This, however, was still only around 5% of England’s population.
In America, most of these requirements were abolished during the 1830s and 1840s, though explicit racial restrictions on voting remained commonplace into the mid-20th century. Over the last decade or so, there has been a huge resurgence in attempts to restrict or limit suffrage in the United States as the Republicans react to an unfriendly demographic clock by ridding the voting rolls of as many of their opponents as they can get away. They’ve undertaken this project with a wide variety of legal actions, most famously Voter ID laws, but also including the elimination of early voting, selective placement of polling places, felon disenfranchisement, police harassment of voting activists, and simple purges of the voting rolls. All of this has been greatly aided by the effective repeal of the Civil Rights Act by the Supreme Court, and though the Obama DOJ has put up a valiant fight, it’s clear that the incoming administration will do its best to support these policies across the board.
While most of these laws have been racially-based, the overall effect continues to be one reducing the electoral power of the same sorts of people who would have been denied the vote in older, more ‘aristocratic’ republics. Indigents, felons, service workers and those without a steady job at all. Anyone without the financial stability to accept the temporal and financial penalties imposed by these new regulations. The Republican Party has yet to be able to garner enough public support to begin pushing through new property requirements but one suspects that’s just a matter of time.
The last issue I want to talk about is one that was extremely important to the 19th century English democratic reformers, albeit not one addressed at all by the 1832 bill. Namely, the professionalization of politicians. In an age where American approval of Congress remains startlingly low, it may surprise people to learn that one of the foremost demands of British democratic reformers was the introduction of parliamentary pay, a goal not achieved until 1911. Traditionally, Members of Parliament were not paid because it was assumed that they were well-off gentlemen whose service in government was only a hobby or community service. Of course, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy: by treating parliament as a gentleman’s debating club, it ensured that none but the rich could afford to serve. In 1842, the Chartist movement included a demand for payment of MPs on a petition submitted with Parliament with 3.5 million signatories. The government’s rejection led to a wave of strikes and riots across England.
There is an ongoing effort to restore this state of affairs in America today, occurring one many levels. Trump has already called for the imposition of congressional term limits, a measure largely designed to foster a congress lacking in experienced leadership that can resist dominance by political operatives or lobbyists. And many other Republicans make proposals like Jindal’s, in which Congress would only meet for a few months a year and its members who be required to have a ‘trade’. Advocates of this paint a picture of a legislature filled with citizen-farmers dropping the plow to declaim patriotic verse. The reality is that we would face a congress filled with millionaires, multi-millionaires, and billionaires. Even more so than we already do. Already one requires vast personal wealth to properly fund the endless campaigning needed to maintain hold over an office. Remove congressional pay and benefits and we have completed the reduction of our legislature to a club for plutocrats to meet and discuss which regulations they find particularly onerous.
My hope for this essay is not to reveal any new great threat to American democracy –I assume that most informed observers of American politics are already aware of every compliant I make above. But rather, I wish to show that the various attacks being made by the Republican party right now are not random and disconnected, but a concerted and programmatic attempt to undue several centuries worth of reforms. This is not to say that there is a conspiracy, but merely that history rests on a fulcrum and that the souls of Man remain the same in every age. 18th century Britain may have been dominated by a landholding gentry while we face rule by a trans-nationalist plutocracy, but the principle remains the same. Those with wealth will wish to concentrate power as well, and will attempt to reconstruct our government to suit them. We can beat this. It took our activist ancestors literally centuries of sweat and blood to do it the first time but it was done. But first we have to face the reality.
The Republican Party has become the party of the Aristocracy.