15 April 2013

Election Law: the party of the poor always cheats

As long as there have been elections, and long before there was a "left," solid citizens have been haunted by the specter of the demagogue. This snake in the grass grabs for power by making promises to the poor, wherever they can vote. The promises fall into two categories: those he can't fulfill at all, and those that can only be fulfilled by shaking down the wealthy. In worse cases, the demagogue gets into power not with mere promises but by blatantly bribing the rabble. His goal throughout history is to reduce people who might otherwise be virtuous, productive citizens to a state of dependence that can only be sustained, to the rabble's comfort, by keeping the demagogue in power -- until he can do without elections entirely. In history, it's probably the exception rather than the rule when the party of the poor is conceded victory without accusations of fraud, bribery or other offenses against the purity of the franchise. The news today from Venezuela, then, is really an old, old story. Chavismo has a new lease on life, though barely, after Hugo Chavez's handpicked successor eked out a narrow victory in a special election to take the late president's place. The margin seems narrow enough to justify calls for a recount -- that's standard operating procedure in modern republics. But the opposition in Venezuela can't be content with demanding a recount. They, and their sympathizers abroad, have to make the usual accusations of fraud, intimidation, sabotage, etc. The Wall Street Journal goes so far as to accuse Cuban agents of rigging the election for President-elect Maduro in order to maintain their supply of cheap oil from Venezuela. I don't bring this up just to dismiss or mock the claim. I've read too much history to believe that no one cheats in partisan elections. The Chavez party is no more entitled to a presumption of absolute (as opposed to statutory) innocence than the Democratic party in the U.S. We have no more reason to presume that parties of the poor are pure than the opposition has reason to presume them corrupt. The higher the stakes involved in an election, the more likely any party is to see what it can get away with. The most important point to remember in that observation is "any party." The opponents of the parties of the poor are always quick to accuse them of cheating, but why should we assume that bourgeois or plutocratic parties are more pure and law-abiding? The same calculations of stakes, risks and benefits apply to those who would keep the parties of the poor out of power -- though for most of history, admittedly, the easier way to keep the poor out of power was not to have elections at all. That's not an option in most places anymore, but the same imperative endures wherever there are parties of the poor and people who dread those parties having power. No one may be without sin in politics, but fear of the poor may be the original sin. 


Anonymous said...

I'd have to say, given southern white trash, the Democrats don't have a monopoly on the poor.

Samuel Wilson said...

True enough, but those folks don't think of themselves as "poor" or the same kind of "poor" who favor the Democrats, nor by any stretch of the imagination can the Republicans be thought of as a "party of the poor."