In the 1959 novel Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, a future society run by the military grants citizenship and voting rights to only those who serve in the armed forces. The society is run like a quasi-fascist militarist state that glorifies war, sacrifice and patriotism and encourages a xenophobic disposition. 

The novel, though successful, was also controversial. Some critics lamented that it was eulogising fascism and militarism. The Welsh-Canadian writer Jo Walton, while revisiting the novel in 2017, writes that Heinlein was making a case for limiting voting rights to a select group of people because he believed that giving this right to all adults had caused chaos and the erosion of social discipline.

Whereas Heinlein, rather perversely, did not really try to either rationalise, nor refute the criticism that his novel received, the 1997 film of the same name, based on the novel and directed by Paul Verhoeven, clearly treated the book as a scathing satire on militarism and patriotism. But the fact remains, Heinlein never meant it to be a satire. 

One must remember that, even till 1959, when the novel was published, universal suffrage, or every adult citizen of a nation-state having the right to vote, was still a relatively new practice. It had taken multiple decades for democracies to fully introduce universal suffrage. For long, voting rights were limited to landed elites and wealthy (white) men.

Even till the 1920s, women were not allowed to vote in various European democracies and in the US. In France, for example, men who could vote were called ‘active citizens’ and those who were not given this right were labelled ‘passive citizens.’ The fear was that granting universal suffrage would only result in ‘mobocracy.’ 

Maybe this was what Heinlein, an American, saw the US becoming. Especially, after the unprecedented four terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) introduced numerous ‘people-friendly’ social and economic policies, which to many of his critics were ‘socialist’ and thus ‘anti-American.’ The country’s working classes, blacks and women (who were given voting rights in 1920) had overwhelmingly voted for Roosevelt. The impact of Roosevelt’s policies had triggered social shifts which disoriented some Americans who, like Heinlein, began to imagine a state and society run by a disciplined and traditionalist elite, to circumvent the ‘unruly’ effects of popular democracy. 

PM Imran Khan’s latest frustration seems to be directed at parliamentary democracy. Like many populists, he feels his failures are because the system hinders what he wants to do. What happens when public unreason promoted by populists expires?

If men such as Heinlein remind one of a generation of elites romanticising the wonders of restrictive democracies of yore, then such elites soon faded away. But Heinlein was from the middle class, the class that has the biggest stake in modern American democracy. In fact, till 1934, he had supported Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, before breaking away. So why would a middle-class individualist such as him dream up a monolithic militarist state in which only a handful of ‘worthy citizens’ are given the right to vote? 

Universal suffrage has had an unsettling history. To some it played havoc with established structures of societies by allowing ‘untrustworthy’ segments to determine the outcome of elections with their votes; to others it was introduced too late. In fact, according to the American historian Richard Wolin, at least one of the reasons behind the crisis that democracy is facing today, was the extremely slow manner in which universal suffrage was introduced. In his 2004 magnum-opus The Seduction of Unreason, Wolin writes that the slowness in this context created electoral elites who could not fully address issues related to the new, ever-growing segments of society given the right to vote. 

The 18th century British philosopher Immanuel Kant’s idea of ‘public reason’ in which all components of a society participate in a rational discourse to democratically address issues of common interest, could not be fully realised because not all citizens were immediately given representation through the vote. By the time universal suffrage became established, democracy — that was for years operating through limited suffrage — was overwhelmed.

According to Wolin, this was exploited by all manner of demagogues and populists, who offered simplistic solutions to those who felt alienated and unheard, despite having the vote. The idea of public reason was turned on its head by public unreason through the fiery rhetoric of the populists, who substituted the need for structural economic reforms with scapegoating minority groups and encouraging xenophobia.  

Read: Imagining real democracy

Men and women, especially from the middle classes (in Asian democracies and ‘hybrid democracies’) and the lower-middle-income economic groups in the West, chose what the German social psychologist Erich Fromm termed as ‘escape from freedom’, or the willful submergence of the independent self into a group that begins to define the identity of the submerged self. 

Despite Donald Trump’s defeat, various countries are still being ruled by ‘democracies’ quivering under the influence of populists leading large communities of middle and lower-middle-class individuals who submerged themselves to adopt a group identity they couldn’t express as independent individuals.

Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan, though still a somewhat softer version of the kind of populists ruling the roost in many countries today, does preside over many largely middle and lower-middle-class groups who actually like the idea of retracting voting rights of the so-called ‘illiterate.’ And despite that fact that Khan is heading a ‘hybrid regime’ bolstered by the support of the military establishment, he hasn’t hidden his frustration towards the parliamentary system. Nor has he concealed his admiration for one-party rule, with him heading it of course. 

There is enough evidence that populists are not capable of offering viable solutions outside their fiery rhetoric and dramatic promises. Khan now believes this is because of the restrictions of the parliamentary system which hinders what he wants to do. This is a weak excuse. But the question is, once the populists have exhausted their penchant of exploiting the frustrations of the groups they have formed around themselves, and public unreason has run its course, what will become of those who had been bestowed an identity by these groups?

It is still too early to say. All eyes should thus be on the US and on how a new government there is trying to restore public reason and the democratic norms shattered by Trump. The most recent observations in this context suggests that the groups Trump was courting have begun to melt away. But one is not sure into becoming what.

Interestingly though, the idea of limiting suffrage has returned as well, mostly in Republican-held states where, through controversial legislation, attempts are being made to restrict the ability of black voters to vote.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 11th, 2021

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