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Guest Opinion: Suffering Suffrage!

Suffering Suffrage!

By Daniel Patrick Welch

Take a deep breath-or better yet, a stiff drink. Don't watch any news if it makes you too sick, and try to get plenty of fluids (hopefully of the aforementioned variety). But before succumbing to the war fever that is supposedly gripping the nation, take time to think a bit. I just read a piece on vote suppression by Joe Conason, and even though I feel sick I must admit it struck a chord. I've been mulling over some thoughts about this particular election, its ancestors and its progeny, and the GOP's penchant for vote suppression is as good a place to start as any.

'Challenging voters' under the guise of 'preventing fraud' is an old White Supremacy trick--and until Florida 2000, it was widely acknowledged as such. What the Democrats' cynical reaction to 2000 did was far worse than their short-term mindset could have imagined. It allowed the right wing to dress up this old racist scam just like David Duke tried to do with the Klan in Louisiana. The measured, lawyerly response allowed the slick, 'modern' argument about accuracy to become the new republican mantra--which hampers progressive efforts for years to come. What we rightly tried to do--and were discouraged from--is to make Jim Baker look like Bull Connor. God knows he fit the bill enough, with his puffy red face screaming into the cameras. Without exaggeration, he was basically 'Keepin the niggers down,' as Randy Newman might say.

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The poster boy and the poster moment for reactionary resistance to voter reform was always Strom Thurmond's historic filibuster against the Voting Rights Act. Instead, it has been allowed to transform itself into a sort of Klansmanship Without Robes. Imagine John Ashcroft, basically a klansman himself, sending out monitors to 'make sure that every vote counts!' It is Bizarro World stuff, the The Big Lie run amok.

No, I'm not ranting here. I'm convinced this really is the crux of the matter. Those of us on the left all believe, more or less and to varying degrees, in some version of what we might call the SPM: Suppressed Progressive Majority. It's not a pipe dream or wishful thinking--common sense also dictates that the people shouldn't collectively vote consistently against their own interest. And yet elections yield far worse calamities than our failure to see this majority emerge in the U.S. Across Latin America, people have voted for their own killers time after time, in the grip of fear, bribery and the Big Lie. One of many nagging problems is that broader participation is anathema to incumbency on both the right and left. New voters, more work, uncertainty, and more money. Basically, it's just a big pain in the ass.

This is why no mainstream political force has pursued it aggressively with the exception of the Democrats in the Civil Rights era. White politicians, for the most part, were dragged to it kicking and screaming, but it was one of the party's finest hours. And the modern Knights of Reaction believe fervently that vote suppression is cheaper and more effective than expansion (as Joe Conason's insights show). Basically, reactionary forces have put up barriers to voting as quickly as others fall, from the Black Codes to Klan intimidation to Jim Crow to poll taxes to reading tests to loyalty oaths and Byzantine registration processes.

There is an unbroken historical link from slavery to the scrubbing of voter rolls in the name of accuracy and fraud prevention. Across the country, but most pervasively in the old Jim Crow South, restrictions on felons voting have continued this trend, with the more insidious form being a permanent loss of suffrage, even after convicts have served their time. A demographic footnote? Hardly. What this means is that, notably in something like nine states of the old Confederacy, upwards of 20% of black men are temporarily or permanently disenfranchised. Now, we may be accused of arrogance simply to assume that these potential souls 'belong' to the left or progressive majority. But the consistent targeting of this and other constituencies by the right certainly implies that they think so (such as those targeted by Bill Rehnquist in the nefarious Operation Eagle Eye in Arizona in the early 60's-and no, it didn't hurt his appointment as Chief Justice).

Playing off the poor white against black has of course also been an insidious historical trick, and another of slavery's distorting legacies. It is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the U.S. is the only major industrial democracy without a worker's party (why the hell not??) or serious popular front coalition, where racism hampered efforts time and again. But my point here is about structural barriers, and how the well funded right wing electoral project is able to magnify its perceived majority. Taking Tuesday's vote, for example, it would be unwise not to concede a victory for reaction. But perspective is always an important antidote to despair. The electorate, and more importantly a slim majority of that subelectorate that could be coaxed to vote, was scared to death, pure and simple.

Bucking demographic, historic and economic trends, this election result is an anomaly, an obvious, logical reaction to the fear instilled by the events of last September. It needn't have been so, and quite arguably wouldn't be without the fomenting of Bush and his henchmen storming the country shouting 'boo' at every turn, flat out lying about Iraq and al-Qaeda and bashing the U.N. It has been Halloween all year for this cabal, and it's only getting scarier. Before moving to Canada, consider that more sophisticated polling reveals that-surprise!--when people know the truth they are less stupid (not such an obvious fact for many of us on Wednesday morning). But a poll on Iraq which correlated people's awareness that there is no reliable evidence of a connection with al-Qaeda revealed that those who caught the lie oppose the war by a massive margin.

Feel just a little bit better? I thought you might. For a sweetener, add in the fact that Missouri was decided by 22,500 votes in a special election that wasn't even supposed to take place but for a plane crash that killed Jean Carnahan's husband two years ago. Speculating yet again, though the 2000 voting trends seem to give us ample room for it, Mel today would be serving out the last four years in a seat he wrested from John Ashcroft, not fighting for his political life in the wake of September 11 war fever.

Likewise, another plane crash might have altered the course of history, with the 55,000-vote margin that sank Mondale's seat in Minnesota (it's around 40,000 if you count the absentee votes for Wellstone. They were thrown out because no one can really be sure if those who bothered to vote early for Paul Wellstone wouldn't really have supported the republicans and their right wing agenda). Speculating yet again-isn't this fun?-we saw Wellstone pulling ahead before his untimely death. The obscenity of republicans in Minnesota spitting on his grave (repulsive, but effective) with their mock 'outrage' over his memorial service (which they charged was repulsive, but secretly envied as effective) was just the chest beating they needed to reenergize their base in the final days. [For the record, I told a Catholic priest to go to hell when he tried to tell me what I could say at my father's funeral, but maybe that's just me.] So what? No one can predict the weather, right? Well, okay, but I'm just saying….

Besides, I'm talking about structure, not climate. This isn't sour grapes, and I'm not just venting either. My point isn't that WE WUZ ROBBED. We IZ robbed, but in a much greater way than some touch screen fiasco in Florida. By the way, isn't anyone alarmed at the abolition of the paper ballot? My head almost exploded when I heard about this. But back to our friend, the Senate. The point is not just about vote counting, but the magnification of the result through the structural prism of our electoral system. All told, the republicans garnered about 1.6 million more votes for Senate candidates than Democrats. A three or four percent split. Hardly a whisper, I know-hey, I already admitted it was a reactionary night. But with those votes they scooped up 23 Senate seats to the Democrats' 10 (and I'm cutting Landrieu and Johnson some serious slack here).

And, since it's structural, this phenomenon is not unique to this election. The Senate, itself a throwback to the belief that a barrier to direct democracy was necessary to calm the rabble-a sort of modified House-of-Lords type bulwark-is endemically prone to this thwarting of popular will. The very institution was conceived, in part, as a hedge by the slaveholding Southern states of the new republic against being overrun by the more populous north. This form of super-representation spread like a virus as new states entered the Union, compounded by the win/win compromise that allowed slavery's proponents to pimp off their chattel for representation without giving them the franchise.

And so it goes: everyone gets their two cents-or in this case, two Senators, from Wyoming to California. Except, of course, for the good people of DC, who perversely don't merit representation in this ponzi scheme because they allegedly have 50 Senators-and right in their own backyard, too! Ironically, in their attempt to fend off the potential bogeyman of Tyranny of the Majority, the (Slaveholding) Founding Fathers virtually ensured that this tyranny would be magnified beyond recognition, and that minority voices would never be heard.

The winner take all arrangement when the Senate moved to direct election, as well as the Electoral College, gives these overrepresented constituencies a Supervote that has ballooned with the growth of the republic. Again, who am I to deny this stacked deck advantage to the oppressed poor progressives of Montana and Wyoming? And how dare I automatically assume that our beloved SPM is concentrated in the underrepresented constituencies? Sue me-or consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Your choice. But whatever you do, don't grant true voting rights for DC. That would apparently just compound the problem (not to mention give the left two progressive black Senators).

What bears repeating is that Eleanor Holmes Norton garnered 113,000 votes, more than most of her (voting) House counterparts. Pundits who decry low black turnout have it backwards: the real story is why they bother to vote at all. The late Stephen Jay Gould, eminent natural historian, crusader against creationism, and spellbinding lecturer and writer, fascinated me with his penchant for explaining just about any phenomenon with a baseball analogy. Though an avid Red Sox fan as a kid, I have never taken sports that seriously as an adult. It's just a sport-you know? That's why it always surprises me that, in one realm, people would instinctively laugh you out of the room at the suggestion that Sox fans would pay just as close attention if their team isn't playing. Or root for the Yankees to win the World Series (hey, it's still OUR league, isn't it?) And yet black voters are supposed to be imbued with a sort of superhuman altruism in the voting game.

The amazing thing is that they still answer the call. In this game, without proportional representation (or in DC's case without any at all) it is completely impossible for minorities to get their cut without piggybacking off a majority winner. Not in a negotiated coalition for a share of control, of course, but only for the table scraps-which are getting less appetizing under the tyranny of the DLC. Maybe this explains why black voters are less prone to being picked off by third party candidacies than their liberal white counterparts. Being junior partners in a coalition is all they can ever squeeze out of this system. It's the same for other constituencies on the left, of course, but most don't quite realize how the winner-take-all scheme nullifies their vote.

And it is only by the bizarre gerrymandering of districts than any semblance of representation is maintained in the House-but of course this is neatly countered by the Supervotes already discussed. It seems like we've been here before, but the whole nut seems to come back to the fact that the Civil War is still unfinished business. Hey-don't blame me-I'm just a spectator. The undocumented aliens I descend from weren't in the country yet-and we weren't even considered white back then.

Yes, I've hear the reverent arguments about the wisdom of Tom Jefferson and his friends (though Sally Hemming might disagree, in hindsight). In a federated republic, the supermajority prevents fragmentation by giving a mandate to the True Majority. The one small problem is that True Majority only equals the true majority in times of enormous crisis, like the 1930's. And possibly the Great Opportunity of 1964 (later squandered on Johnson's War). At least those are the only times our SPM is able to punch through the Class Ceiling of American politics. The sad fact is that without structural change, the victories we long for will elude us.

Take your pick from a laundry list of options: statehood for DC, proportional voting, apportionment of seats, instant runoff voting, abolition of the electoral college, replacement of the Senate (sorry, Ted, sorry Strom)-not to mention sincere, rigorous enforcement and expansion of the Voting Rights Act. I'm not stupid or pie-eyed enough to suggest that this guarantees victory. But you just can't win without unrigging the game. These structural changes should be the among the top priorities of every progressive campaign from now until victory, first, because it's right (whew-glad we got that out of the way-and secondly, because it's a winning electoral strategy for the long term).

This is not the place to brag-well hey, screw it, why not brag? I'm proud of (most of) the political work I've done: from organizing, demonstrating, work in progressive campaigns, in Nicaragua, support for left causes, strikes, and so on.... But of all of it, I think one of my most radical accomplishments was a tiny little campaign a roommate and I ran on a dorm council in college. The council, whose meetings we almost never attended, was a direct democracy. There was no representation, and yet over the years the clique of members (whom we nastily and somewhat unfairly dubbed the Politburo) had instituted bylaws tying voting rights to various attendance requirements. 'What if the jocks brought a bunch of friends and raided the till by voting all the money for a party in their suite?' was a standard argument. Tough shit-bring your own clique-was our retort. Hey-it's either a direct democracy or a representative one. It can't be both a council and a club.

I know, it might be a silly anecdote. Voting is supposed to be serious business (like baseball). But the practice of democracy is simply not something people are exposed to-despite our lofty rhetoric-in their workplaces, homes, schools and institutions. People can call me a cockeyed optimist or romantic fool (for believing the SPM exists at all) or an insufferable downer (for believing that it will never emerge without structural change). But I still have a populist streak in me, and I do believe in the SPM. And I do believe that it will never emerge without structural change. Please-call me a cockeyed optimist.


- © 2002 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted. Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The Greenhouse School.

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