When I was an undergrad at a fancy university, I remember being criticized on several occasions for not being “discriminating”—it was suggested I should be more exacting in whom I accepted as friends; it was said also that, as a Midwesterner by birth, I was “too nice.” Nice, Midwestern, not discriminating—those were euphemisms for consorting with the wrong sort of person, for an unseemly lack of contempt. In truth, I could be plenty contemptuous when faced with a bad argument, but when faced with a human being, I took all comers, high and low.
Not bad training for tending bar. Maybe I wasn’t discriminating enough when I donned my apron (sans heels, btw), but I needed the money and, besides, I was proud to hold this difficult, demanding, and weirdly powerful position.
Bars are experiments in democracy, in that anyone, with a few exceptions, can walk in. Like voters, bar patrons have to be a certain age. And like convicted felons in some states, certain patrons, patrons with prior convictions, can be banned from participating, usually because they wrote bad checks or ran out on tabs. Fraud is not tolerated; the punishment is to be 86ed—permanently exiled. Drinking too much, on the other hand, even if the result is disorderly behavior, gets pa trons only temporary suspensions—and jocularity upon their having slept it off and returned. After all, people who drink too much spend a lot doing it, which is good for business. So in my bar, I served hundreds of people every week, thousands over the course of months, and while I carded assiduously to keep youngsters out, I had to consult the 86 list of banned patrons but once. The number of patrons on that list? Two.
Fraud was not a big issue in that particular democracy, nor is it in our national democracy, and yet, our 86 list is about to get really long, thanks to a Republican-led wave of voter suppression laws across the United (not) States. Absent from that list will be people who wrote bad checks—who turned out to be impersonating a dead guy or who say they’re citizens but aren’t really—in short, people who have actually committed acts of fraud. Instead it’ll be full of people who are the “wrong sort,” like the ones I was supposed to shun in college. Black people, brown people, poor people, disabled people, those are the ones Republicans are systematically trying to weed out of the polling booth, where they stand in the way of “taking back America.”
Republicans need a long-term strategy for shrinking the electorate because where they want to take America back to—Jim Crow? 1919, before women got the vote? the 1950s?—isn’t popular with the electorate we have now. And it’ll only get less popular, as America’s skin color gets browner. But popularity is the factory of democracy. Or, as the distinguished senator from South Carolina, Republican Lindsey Graham, has it, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business.”
Hence the anti-democratic voter suppression of a party already prone to a tyranny of the minority, filibustering a record number of bills that would otherwise pass the Senate with majorities and putting one-person secret holds on routine appointments and overwhelmingly popular bills. Oh, and let’s not forget holding the credit rating of the nation hostage to such kind-hearted agendas as gutting health care programs and putting a squeeze on food stamps for poor people who persist in their bad habit of eating meals.
It’s kind of a mystery to me why bars work. You jam a bunch of strangers into a small space, give them mind-altering substances, then unleash them into the night, long after the sober people have gone to bed. On paper, that’s a terrible idea. Likewise with democracy, the nutty idea that all sorts—rich or poor, male or female, strait or gay, black or white, cranky or kind, better or worse—can step into a booth and drink the draught of their choice. There’s no “wrong sort.” There’s only the wrong of sorting.