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Disenfranchising Democracy: Constructing the Electorate in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, David A. Bateman

Reviewed by Dawn Langan Teele


David A. Bateman’s new book explores nearly all of the crucial questions concerning democracy and inclusion that we are grappling with today, from the very broad—how do the ways in which we think about the origins of our nation inform the welcoming or hostile attitudes we assume in relation to immigrants and outsiders?—to the very narrow—do requirements that voters present physical documents verifying their identity reduce the electoral participation of minority groups? In answering these questions, Bateman offers a detailed portrait of the political machinations that result in electoral reforms, describing elites’ efforts to blur lines between expediency and morality and the circumstances that led conservative parties (the same that today seek to abolish laws that give special status to protected classes of people) to work hard to establish and maintain legal provisions that awarded different rights to different groups. Fundamentally, Bateman explains why steps toward inclusive democratic institutions are often accompanied by steps back, which leave us uncertain of our accomplishments and anxious about our future.

Remarkably, though, Disenfranchising Democracy considers these familiar dynamics and dilemmas not in the contemporary world but in the rather distant past, drawing on a wealth of archival sources to analyze the timing of electoral reforms, the emergence and ossification of party- based patterns of support for franchise reform, and the political ideas of would-be reformers and resisters in three of the world’s first semidemocratic countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

Bateman argues that the dimorphic group-politics models common in the contemporary political science literature on democratization, which pit “elites” against the “masses” or “urban” interests against “rural” interests, oversimplify both the ways that conflicts over electoral reform are fought and the ways that they are resolved. When faced with excluded groups’ demands for inclusion, influential insiders split into opposed factions, pursuing different visions of the franchise and different electoral rules. Bateman shows that these intra-elite struggles are resolved by appeal to both electoral calculations and, crucially, to competing ideas about who rightfully constitutes the political community.

In the antebellum United States, Bateman notes, at the same time that state legislatures moved to abolish property and taxpaying as prerequisites for casting ballots, they begun to insert the word “white” into electoral laws. Thus, more democratic state constitutions for white men emerged only when free black men were explicitly excluded. In the United Kingdom, disenfranchisement went hand in hand with democratization during several major reforms. First, after 1828, Irish Catholics won the right to stand for parliamentary elections at the same time that many Irish freehold property owners were denied the right to vote. Thereafter, the expansion of the vote to professional middle-class male voters on the mainland during the 1832 Reform Act brought with it an exclusion of working-class voters in the countryside.

Bateman offers the French case as an exception that proves the rule. At the founding of France’s Third Republic in the 1870s, a push by royalists to simultaneously exclude working-class voters from the franchise while maintaining franchise rights in the countryside was successfully resisted by a coalition of fledgling Republican partisans. Here, Bateman argues that it was not electoral calculations that drove the Republicans to push for manhood franchise (for they may have doubted the loyalty of the urban poor), but rather that the ideas of French peoplehood on which the republican movement rested cemented the citizenship status of all French men. (And he does note that the concept of French citizenship was decidedly masculine until after World War II.)

This is an excellent book that should be read and taught by scholars of political development. The excavation of archival records, including from newspapers, from constitutional conventions, and from census and other numerical records, are contributions in their own right. And the argument that ideas are more than just reflections of interests, and that they matter for politics independently, will resonate in many corners. To be sure, Bateman has not settled the debate over whether the discursive construction of the “people” is more important to understanding our political past than electoral calculations. But his book, which shows that the impulses toward white democracy, male democracy, and English democracy have always been strong, suggests that our new stories about the purpose and the boundaries of our political community had better be good.

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