When I cast my vote last week, I placed it into the secure ballot box with hopes for a future where democracy, fairness, justice, and the right of all to be heard will flourish. I voted against a future at odds with that vision, a future captured in an idea that is currently running amuck in right wing circles:
“Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”Utah Senator Mike Lee
Was I surprised by this statement? Only in the sense that Mike Lee said the quiet part out loud.
Lee, a Republican, tweeted his thoughts during the Vice Presidential debate. He was quickly supported by The National Review and others who, more often than not, pointed out that we are a republic, not a democracy. They look to 1787 and say America was never meant to be a democracy. If we only recognize those things in place in 1787 as valid, however, then Utah wouldn’t be a state, Mike Lee would not be a U.S. Senator, African Americans would be enslaved, and married women would be the property of their husbands. Progress, to most of us, has its benefits.
We could discuss in good faith the differences between a republic, a representative democracy (which is what we have), and a pure democracy like New England town meetings. We could but for the fact that the Republican party, in falling over itself to suppress voting in 2020, shows that it isn’t acting in good faith.
I am old enough to have voted for Republicans, responsible leaders such as Senator Howard Baker from my home state of Tennessee. And yes, understanding history I know that white Democrats suppressed voting for decades in the South during the Jim Crow era. Conservatives changed teams in the 1960s and 1970s, however. Different uniforms, same players.
You can play word games, but the fact of the matter is that the current leadership of the Republican party does not like it when too many people vote. Especially people in certain cities or in particular states. Why? Well, Donald Trump said the quiet part out loud, as is his habit: Republicans generally lose when voting turnout is high.
Rather than change to support more popular policies, the Republican leadership takes approaches to keep people from voting. Approaches which include:
- Using social media ads to bombard voters with so-called “dark” advertising that might repulse people likely to elect Democrats, as they did four years ago. A recently uncovered database found 198 million Americans, potential Hillary Clinton voters, targeted with the single word “deterrence.” A disproportionately large number of these “deterrence” votes were African Americans.
- Limiting the number of places voters can submit early ballots during a pandemic, especially in heavily Democratic areas. Until a federal court overturned his order late last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) ordered that ballot drop boxes be limited to one-per-county. Harris County, the state’s most populous county and a Democratic stronghold, would have had 12 drop-off locations reduced to one. Over 40% of Harris County residents are Latino and nearly 20% are Black.
- Better yet, making ballot drop boxes unconstitutional. A federal judge in Pennsylvania denied the Trump campaign and Republican Party’s bid to make ballot drop boxes in Pennsylvania unconstitutional. The judge also refused to throw out other policies designed to suppress Democratic votes.
- Claiming that mail-in balloting, which has been used safely and securely since the Civil War, is rife with fraud. And, for good measure, screw around with the U.S. Postal Service to suppress those votes and sow chaos. I don’t really think I need to go into this as everyone has been following it since the post office is one of those things that does date back to 1787 and it matters to all of us.
- Gerrymandering and protecting minority rule. Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle (R) told donors that Republicans must maintain their Kansas State legislative supermajority so they can create gerrymandered state and federal districts to undermine the will of voters and ensure complete Republican control of the state.
And that’s just some of what was discovered this past week. To understand the range of ways the democratic will of the people is thwarted, read this list of 61 forms of voter suppression from the Voting Rights Alliance.
Building on work he has been studying for more than four years, New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait recently suggested that Senator Lee isn’t playing word games but is, instead, articulating a conservative orthodoxy that does not believe in democracy; a view long in vogue on the American right, but which Republican politicians were generally hesitant to express openly.
“The premise is that liberty is a higher value than democracy, and they define liberty to mean a right to property that precludes redistribution. That is to say, the far right does not merely view progressive taxation, regulation and the welfare state as impediments to growth, but as fundamentally oppressive.
…Republicans believe that the political system must retain, and ideally expand, its counter-majoritarian features: restrictive ballot-access rules that restrict the franchise to the most “worthy” citizens, gerrymandered maps that allow the white rural minority to exercise control, a Senate that disproportionately represents white and Republican voters, and a Supreme Court that believes the Republican economic program is written into the Constitution.”
Commentator Teri Kanefield states it this way:
…there are two views of the purpose of government:
- Maintain a hierarchy (order), or
- Create fairness
The GOP wants to maintain the hierarchy.
History would suggest that those who have spent the past 400 years in various forms of oppression — people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals — may not agree with the hierarchy of Senator Lee and the Republican leadership. They may have seen what happens when white men can grab whatever they want. Ziblatt and Levitsky, in How Democracies Die, say: “It is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities gave up their dominant status without a fight.”
History shows the lengths such groups will go to maintain power, as they did in the case of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.
Hayneville is the county seat of Lowndes County, Alabama. With a population just under a thousand souls it looks like countless other small towns in the rural South. Fort Deposit, slightly larger, sits close to Interstate 65 but has the same small-town personality. I passed both communities on occasion while driving between Atlanta and Mobile in 1980 to see a friend. The relationship soon ended and I didn’t think about those communities again until I was sitting in Washington’s St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in 2015, listening to Ruby Sales tell her life story.
Ruby Sales should have died in Hayneville on August 20, 1965.
Sales was a 17-year-old African American woman, and one of 29 young people who were working to integrate stores and register black voters in the days following the passage of the Voting Rights Act. One of the other members of the group was Jonathan Daniels, a white Episcopal seminarian who had studied at the Virginia Military Institute and Harvard before heeding Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for clergy to go to Alabama in the summer of 1965.
While picketing in Fort Deposit, the group was arrested and taken in a garbage truck to the county seat of Hayneville. Most of them stayed in jail for six days until all were released, but without transportation back to Fort Deposit. Sales, Daniels, and three other young people went to Varner’s Cash Store, one of the few local establishments to serve non-whites, to buy sodas. Their way in was blocked, however, by Tom L. Coleman, an unpaid special sheriff’s deputy who was holding a shotgun. Coleman threatened the group and leveled his gun at Sales. Daniels pushed her down, caught the full blast of the shotgun, and died instantly. Instead of Sales’s life ending at 17, it was Jonathan Daniels who gave up his life in the fight for freedom, justice, and the right to vote. Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury and lived in Hayneville until his death in 1997.
Fifty years later, Sales — then age 67 — called herself “a remnant” of the great civil rights generation. Ruby Sales may see herself as a remnant, but her call for justice that day was strong and unequivocal. “I never imagined that there would be people working overtime to dismantle those changes,” she said. “I never imagined that…once again black people would be fighting for our lives.”
Our nation is a work in progress. Works in progress take work. And works in progress must be protected against those who want to go backwards in time to a system where a few white men controlled all the levers of power. The American people rejected Mike Lee’s view that “Democracy isn’t the objective” when they ratified the 15th Amendment (giving blacks the right to vote), the 17th Amendment (ensuring that Senators are elected, not appointed), and the 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote).
We can learn from the places where history was made. We can learn from the ordinary people in ordinary places who do extraordinary things, like Ruby Sales and Jonathan Daniels. We can respond with the tools of grace and love instead of hatred and violence, but we can also respond with a strong determination not to let those who have never wanted a democracy take ours away. We can follow the example of those who have walked this path before us and help bend the arc of history a little further toward justice.
Vote, if you need yet another reason, because so many have sacrificed to ensure that everyone has the right to vote.
(NOTE: During October, I am writing articles on how history and the places where history happened can help us understand the issues we are facing as a country and a democracy. Besides this story of voter suppression, you can find posts on the use of misinformation, wrongful imprisonment and racial violence, religious liberty, and revealed history, in addition to a book review on how democracies die by clicking on the links.)
More to come…
UPDATE No. 1: The day after I posted this, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave a master class on dark money and the threats to democracy. It is a 30-minute class, but worth every second. As Whitehouse said to sum up his presentation, when you find hypocrisy in the daylight, look for the power in the shadows.
UPDATE No. 2: Yesterday I found this excellent piece on Vox that goes through an explanation of Chief Justice Roberts’ life-long crusade against voting rights. His evisceration of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County vs. Holder (2013) — against the strong, bipartisan vote of Congress — led immediately to a new, disturbing round of voter suppression across a range of Republican-led states that many are just beginning to fully understand. It is one of several reasons that discussions of judicial reform, and changing the size of the Supreme Court, have to be on the table after this election.