Politicians often remark of civil participation, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” This admonition sums up the importance of voting in the United States of America; it is the foundation of our democracy. And yet, this constitutional right was not always available to all people. Historically, Native Americans, African Americans, and women have been excluded from the process and in some places, voting is still suppressed.
Over the last century, many have fought long and hard for voting rights. Still, many citizens today choose not to exercise this prerogative, despite overwhelming evidence that voting has a profound impact on legislative policies that affect the distribution of wealth and our quality of life. The following fictional and historical books delve into the struggles, controversies, and stakes involved in casting a ballot in America.
It’s high drama at a New Jersey high school where the political process during a student election goes awry. Election, by Tom Perrotta, is a fictional story that explores important themes such as Social Darwinism, justice, and hypocrisy that are often the focus of modern political elections. The idea of Social Darwinism is appropriately applied to the cutthroat world of politics where the novel’s main characters—teachers and students alike—manipulate and take what they think they are entitled to at the expense of others. Justice eventually catches up to a teacher whose actions and schemes undermine and betray his role as an educator. His co-conspirator and student nemesis must face the consequences of their actions as well in this risky quest for power.
America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction
Comedian, Jon Stewart, takes a satirical look at the failure of American culture and its political institutions in the book, America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. Stewart explores the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and how each have become corrupt in various ways. Stewart starts by arguing that the executive branch, which was intended to have limited power, has overreached its authority. He then mocks the legislative branch for how it is influenced by special interest groups, which ultimately alters the substance of bills before they become law. Finally, judges are charged with being partial to ideologies inconsistent with the values of the American majority. Since these three branches of government fail to function as they were intended, they have failed to promote the common good.
In Dark Money, Jane Mayer explains how corporatization of politics, oligarchy, and fear are the tools special interest groups use to garner votes. While it’s a commonly held belief among the electorate that most politicians are corrupt to some degree, the financing of elections by the super-rich is not as commonly understood. Mayer uncovers how the nation’s richest oligarchs used their wealth to bankroll think tanks, philanthropies, educational institutions, and newly formed political movements to shift society’s political ideology from the ground up. In a representative democracy, elected officials are supposed to champion the interests of their constituencies. Instead, Mayer reveals how politicians, enabled by wealthy contributors, now disproportionately represent the profit margins of big business, at the expense of the middle class and poor in America.
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72
Renegade journalist Hunter S. Thompson gives a self-deprecating and subjective account of his coverage of a presidential campaign in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. His observations of the media are revealing as are his scathing accounts of politicians’ tricks of the trade used to court the toughest votes. Always in a tense and symbiotic relationship, politicians tend to view journalists as pigs hungry for any truth or falsity they can print, while journalists likewise view politicians mostly as liars and thieves. Thompson brutally deconstructs the voting populace, including the youth vote which is historically underrepresented. Ultimately, Thompson’s rock-n-roll style of journalism coalesces with American politics to reveal emerging cultural trends.
A Testament of Hope
Martin Luther King, Jr., fought tirelessly and nonviolently for Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s to gain equality for African Americans. These rights included equal access to housing, education and employment opportunities; freedom from discrimination; and the right to vote. In A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., King shows how only a small percentage of African Americans at the time were allowed to register. Many Southern leaders feared that if African Americans exercised this constitutional right, they would become a powerful tool for change. Brutality, abuse of laws, complex voting registration, and literacy tests prevented many African Americans from voting. King proposed change through automatic voter registration requiring only basic details from the applicant; abolition of any literacy tests; the application of registration laws to all levels of government; registrars appointed by the president; and versatile laws affecting the South and North. Eventually, these struggles lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, or religion; required equal access to employment and public places; and enforced the right to vote and desegregation of schools.
You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton?
Women were not allowed to vote in the U.S. until 1920. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, mild-mannered American suffragist who pioneered the women’s rights movement, was one of many who stood up to this injustice. She endured harassment and threats on her life while setting the tone for public debate on civil liberties for women beginning in the 19th century. This unassuming activist compared women’s lives and their lack of empowerment to those of slaves. She gave many speeches on the controversial movement and wrote others that were recited by Susan B. Anthony, who was put on trial for illegal voting. Only after decades of courage and activism was the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified.
The Constitution of the United States
The Constitution of the United States, written and signed in 1787, is a beautifully crafted document describing the fundamental characteristics of American governance. In the Preamble, the founding fathers justify the need for a representative democracy:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Now in 2018, we are the “Posterity” referred to by these men and as such have a duty to uphold our inherited rights. These include the 15th amendment, which gave citizens of all races the right to vote, in 1870; the 19th amendment, which established the right to vote regardless of gender, in 1920; the 24th amendment which prohibited states from denying the right to vote due to delinquent taxes, in 1964; and finally, the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 years old, in 1971.
The right to vote is a privilege we enjoy today because many Americans have fought to protect it. Preserve it by clicking here to register to vote!