The Declaration of Independence made it clear what the founders were seeking to build in 1776: a government that derived its powers from the consent of the governed. That dream has never been fully realized, yet it is nonetheless our guide star and what has made us unique as a country for almost 250 years.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The last sentence often gets left by the wayside.
Writer and social critic Lewis Lapham has written that “What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry…but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.” And yet from our founding, a strong minority has pushed back against giving all citizens a voice and has tried to define America by race and ancestry. They have worked to disrupt the idea of a full democracy with equal representation.
Deliberately breaking things apart
August 24th, it turns out, is an inauspicious date for disruption. On this day in 1814, British forces captured Washington, D.C. and burned the White House and other landmarks in an attempt to destroy America’s democratic government and return the country to the control of the British monarchy. (*)
1814 wasn’t the last time someone tried to disrupt our form of government through violence and attacks on our institutions, however. Those efforts continue today and involve attempt-after-attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance.
Violence is a key part of the effort to disrupt democracy while physical landmarks remain highly symbolic to the work of disrupters. Legal landmarks, however, are the new targets as disrupters work to make sure millions of our fellow citizens do not have the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote in our elections. This is a long-standing American tradition with violence as part of that effort throughout our history. But columnist Charles P. Pierce notes that in the 21st century, those who seek to suppress voters are “not going to use white sheets to keep away black voters. Today they’re using spreadsheets.”
Pierce’s quote is included in One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy (2018) by historian Carol Anderson. This book is a ringing condemnation of the rollbacks to Black and Brown Americans’ participation in the vote both before and especially since the 2013 Supreme Court decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you care at all about fairness and believe that voting is a citizen’s right and not some privilege parceled out by rich oligarchs trying to cling to their money and conniving politicians trying to cling to power, then the first half of Anderson’s book will have you reaching for your ACE inhibitors to lower a soaring blood pressure. The second half will perhaps inspire you to sign up to help the warriors fighting the disfranchisement measures that are the worst since the beginning of the Jim Crow era.
Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner. In this book on voter suppression her writing moves along at a steady clip, fearlessly skewering lies and liars as well as bogus barriers placed in front of the work for equal representation by fraudulent politicians. Carlos Lozado, who named One Person, No Vote one of the best books for understanding the Trump era, called out one of the biggest lies when he wrote, “Anderson underscores the ‘feigned legal innocence’ that always accompanies voter suppression, as its architects cloak their designs in benign-sounding justifications, especially the always popular crusade to prevent alleged (and largely nonexistent) voter fraud.”
A long history
In the first chapter, Anderson sets the stage for her work by noting that the drop-off in the number of Black and Brown voters in 2016 was not because minority voters refused to show up following historic wins for Barack Obama. Instead, in the 2016 election’s most “misunderstood story,” Anderson shows how “Republican legislatures and governors systemically blocked African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans from the polls.” Faced with demographics that were quickly shrinking the party to permanent minority status, “the Republicans opted to disfranchise rather than reform.”
Anderson walks the reader through a crisp history of disfranchisement from the country’s founding to Jim Crow, from the response to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to the most cynical Supreme Court voter suppression decision of our time, led by a chief justice who had spent his entire career working to destroy the “most effective legislation ever passed by Congress.”
Anderson places her well-researched arguments for that claim directly in the lap of Chief Justice John Roberts. This is a Chief Justice who has been worried about his legacy almost from the day he stepped onto the stage at the nation’s highest court. Yet, as Anderson powerfully demonstrates, when Roberts’ legacy is determined by history, the key architect of the 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder decision gutting the VRA along with the 2010 Citizens United decision allowing unlimited dark money by corporations to influence elections will be seen as the Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of the 21st century, forever on the wrong side when it comes to protecting the country’s democracy. Roberts, like his mentor Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said he was not in favor of “giving” rights to minorities. Note, as Anderson does, that the framing used is “giving” instead of simply recognizing that minorities have rights.
Voting is a right, not a privilege.
In the chapters that follow, Anderson takes the reader through the most effective and insidious techniques to keep Black and Brown voters from the polls following the Holder ruling:
- Requirements for voter IDs (where most forms are not readily accessible to minorities and the poor);
- Voter roll purges (so much so that in the two years before the 2016 election, sixteen million voters were wiped off the rolls); and
- The rigging of the rules through gerrymandering (using those spreadsheets Charles Pierce mentioned) and other equally effective techniques.
She is direct and not afraid to call out the most powerful who have supported this work. Her examples cut to the very heart of fairness and equal representation. In Texas, Anderson notes, whites are 45 percent of the state’s population but control 70 percent of the congressional districts. State-after-state is called out for reducing voting places in minority communities, making some as far as 20 miles away for people without cars and public transportation. She also has no patience for the games played by Justices Antonin Scalia (he of the “judicial coup d’etat” of the 2000 election) and Neil Gorsuch (“who owed his very seat to the rules Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell bent, rigged, and contorted”).
We are going to “Warrior Up“
In the book’s last chapters, Anderson turns to how those most affected — the nation’s African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Indigenous citizens — have fought back. She highlights the under-the-radar resistance shown in Alabama to keep the racist and serial pedophile Roy Moore out of the U.S. Senate. She looks at how communities traditionally kept from voting fought back against the Trump administration and its Department of Justice. Anderson calls out the tactics of voter suppression warriors like Brian Kemp in Georgia and Kris Kobach in Kansas.
In the end, she sees progress but understands that the road to equal representation is long and success is not guaranteed. At the book’s conclusion she writes of where things stand in 2018:
Voter suppression has made the U.S. House of Representatives wholly unrepresentative. It has placed in the presidency a man who is anything but presidential. It has already reshaped the U.S. Supreme Court . . . and as a slew of Trump’s unqualified nominees to the federal bench get greenlighted by a compromised Senate, it threatens to undermine the judiciary for decades to come.”
“In short, we’re in trouble.”
If you are puzzled about how a country with a growing minority population can continue to move down a path of white supremacy with drop-offs in the number of Black and Brown voters, you are in good company. Polling expert Nate Silver had the same reaction in 2016. But Anderson, notes:
It’s puzzling only if you don’t understand how the various methods of voter suppression actually work.
Anderson has written an important work for our time and a wake-up call for all who care about democracy.
Other writers are showing that the threat to democracy brought about by John Roberts’ 2010 Citizens United decision was front and center in this week’s news
In her August 22, 2022, Letters from an American newsletter, Heather Cox Richardson leads with the eye-popping $1.6 billion donation to a right-wing nonprofit organized in May 2020. The largest known single donation made to a political influence organization, this is …
… an example of so-called “dark money”: funds donated for political advocacy to nonprofits that do not have to disclose their donors. In the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision, the Supreme Court said that limiting the ability of corporations and other entities to advertise their political preferences violates their First Amendment right to free speech. This was a new interpretation: until the 1970s, the Supreme Court did not agree that companies had free speech protections.
And on August 23rd, Robert Reich wrote on his Substack newsletter, Why CNN Cancelled Brian Stelter. Stelter was a fierce critic of Donald Trump and his enablers at Fox News. As Reich shows, the CEO of CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. is David Zaslav who was motivated to act by his billionaire owner.
The leading shareholder in Warner Bros. Discovery is John Malone, a multi-billionaire cable magnate. (Malone was a chief architect in the merger of Discovery and CNN.) Malone describes himself as a “libertarian” although he travels in rightwing Republican circles. In 2005, he held 32 percent of the shares of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. He is on the board of directors of the Cato Institute. In 2017, he donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration. (**)
Follow the money. Since the country’s founding, it leads to not just the disruption, but the destruction of democracy. We will all have to “Warrior Up” to keep it.
More to come…
*The Visigoths also sacked Rome on this date in 410, a historical disruption of the first order.
**The CEO of CNN called Reich the next day to dispute the allegations. Reich reports on this in a follow-up newsletter.
This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Image of polling station from Pixabay.