Solidarity, the 19th, and the Future

September 19, 2019
Michael Treleaven, Political Science
We should see the 19th Amendment not as a conclusion, but as an essential and necessary step toward a not-yet achieved and more and more needed rich social solidarity.   

Voting is controversial in America. Gerrymandering is normal in many states. Voter identification laws restrict the exercise of the franchise. Race, ethnicity, religion, gender, language, socio-economic status, criminal history, and age are all contested. There is not now and there never has been, in America, a universal, adult, effective right to vote; state laws differ, and are apt to change per the advantages of whichever of the two parties holds power in a state.  

Yet in the struggle for the amendment were some aspirations for solidarity between whites and blacks, between men and women, between the rich and secure and the poor and the desperate.  

In a liberal democracy such as is the United States, voting is a symbolically powerful avenue for the competition of ideas and interests, a means of having a voice. Elections abound in America, but scarce are the elections which truly decide and direct the governance of this society. The fragmented, often outdated array of jurisdictions, authorities, and at best only partial responsibilities that is American government – municipal, state, and federal, seriously divides and diminishes the electorate. The chances that this country will ever truly face its climate duties are in doubt and its array of governments may make voting seem unpromising even as the costs of global warming rise every month.

If this depiction of the present is sound, and I think it is, what is to be celebrated about the 19th Amendment?  

There can be no social, politically important solidarity in the wide diversity of America if any adult citizens are precluded from voting. Today and for the next several decades, America, in my judgment, needs to foster not uniformity, but policies and convictions of solidarity. In working at having the lively diversity involved in American individualism and identities, survival and justice depend, more and more, on a rich, abiding conviction that Americans “are all in this together” and on policies that incarnate this.  To use the ballot to advance one’s own interests is OK in market, individualist regimes. It is now imperative that Americans realize that individualism and markets are useful, yet also insufficient in the face of dangerous climate change.  

There remains much that is wanting, for example gerrymandering, in the way America practices electoral democracy. Yet the struggle for the 19th Amendment included African American suffragists who had strong senses of using the ballot to affect a wide justice for all African Americans. Some other, white suffragists hoped for better public health services, better education systems, and less corruption in government. Decades later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 began to enrich the possibilities of admitting excluded voices. Inclusion will not itself produce the moral and effective solidarity now needed, but inclusion, such as that gained by the 19th Amendment, is some of the ground upon which this nation may take up the hard work, new directions, and tough sacrifices required now for an humane world in the future. Those who brought in the 19th Amendment opened enormous and needed possibilities and today’s Americans may rightly celebrate but should also now build on this vital achievement.

(The author gained his doctorate from the University of Toronto and is a citizen of Canada.  He has been a member of the Political Science department at Gonzaga University since January 1990. AMDG)