This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

The myth of universal suffrage

 “Only experience has ever taught the lesson, and only at the end of the whole development has it been assimilated, that the rights of the people and the influence of the people are two different things. The more nearly universal a franchise is, the less becomes the power of the electorate.”

~ Oswald Spengler[1]

If there is a consensus on the failure of the ideal of universal education, and not only a consensus but masses of objective evidence pointing to it, then we must ask ourselves why this chimera is still pursued with such passion, as if our survival depended on its success. What is really at stake?

Well, it is not the survival of humanity, because humanity lived and civilizations thrived before widespread literacy was achieved and will live on after it falls out of favor. Therefore, it is not humanity that is at risk, then, but an ideal that modern humanity has adopted—the ideal of universal suffrage.

If popular education fails to achieve its goals, then democracy can know longer be sustained, since the illusion of universal competence will have been proven false.

Universal education is the result of the belief in universal suffrage: men have known for some time now that universal suffrage could not function with an ignorant populace, even if they only felt this unconsciously, and because this threatens to undermine the feasibility of the democratic idea, they fight feverishly to overcome it with the chimera of education. Let us, then, look at the ideal of suffrage that has fueled this project.

The term “suffrage” itself signifies the right to vote in political elections, and when we attach an adjective to this term, we specify the category of persons to whom this right will be extended. Women’s suffrage, for example, concerns the voting rights of women, and a regime that accepts women’s suffrage is one that allows women to vote. Universal suffrage, then, means theoretically unlimited extension of voting privileges to all regardless of class, gender, etc.

Yet our first point of discussion must be to admit that this idea is always and everywhere only theoretical—something embraced in the abstract and not in the concrete experience of the governed. Even in nations such as the United States, where we congratulate ourselves on our achievement of universal suffrage, we can see immediately that the principle is applied only in part. For example, we know of no society, however democratic, that allows groups such as children to vote. No one even argues for it, and the reasons seem obvious, of course, but the reasons that a child cannot vote are analogous to the valid reasons that many other groups should not vote. The difference is that there are no consequences for ignoring children.

In addition to the discrepancy between theoretical and practical suffrage, we need to acknowledge that even the desire for universal suffrage is a very novel thing. The American Founders would not have dreamed of allowing their wives, their slaves, or their un-propertied neighbors to take part in an election. In fact, rarely do we see even the most avid proponents of democracy advocating the sort of universal suffrage that Americans today imagine that they accept.

Whether we are speaking of the philosophical history of the concept or the contemporary reality of its application, everyone stops somewhere. They all set a limit, even if that limit is the requirement of adulthood (a completely arbitrary classification if there ever was one). This unwillingness to apply the principle completely tells us something: First, it tells us that almost everyone knows that there ought to be some sort of qualification for electoral participation; and second, it tells us that no one knows exactly what this qualification ought to be. Because everyone agrees, even if unconsciously, on the first point—that qualifications there must be—then we can consider this an implicit acknowledgment that universal suffrage, even where it is preached, must be considered a purely sentimental notion which no one is actually willing to implement. We may then set about examining the second point, concerning the necessity and nature of the qualifications that ought to be set before the voting citizen.

[1] Decline of the West, v. 2, p. 455.

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