It is 1868 in North Carolina. Imbued with the right to vote bestowed by the 14th amendment and enthusiasm exploding from the rush of new freedom, African-Americans participate in the state constitutional convention, run for and hold public office, and turn out in droves to vote. Many white citizens refuse to accept the outcome of these legitimate elections. They turn to violence and intimidation to thwart freedmen and their supporters. They lynch Wyatt Outlaw, the first African-American to serve as a town commissioner and the town constable of Graham. They assassinate John Stephens, a state senator who supports the rights of freedmen. But violence ultimately doesn’t work.
What works, in the end, is seizing power through the judiciary, then crafting laws to limit the right of their opponents vote. They gerrymander their districts to reduce the power of African-Americans who do manage to vote. They craft laws designed to entrap poor Blacks then make it illegal for felons to vote. They create poll taxes and literacy tests. Anything and everything to limit the political power of those who might vote against them.
It is January 6, 2021 a group of thugs (Mitch McConnell’s words, not mine) besiege the U.S. Capitol at the behest of the outgoing head of state to attempt to thwart the peaceful transfer of power. A day-long struggle results in five deaths, hundreds of injuries, and a stain on American history. Ultimately, the violence doesn’t work.
Throughout the country now, in state legislatures they control in blue states (often via the gerrymander), the Republican Party is seeking to institutionalize the insurrection with more than 400 separate bills to curtail voting rights. Where chaos and violence failed to steal the vote on January 6th, quiet undermining may prevail in 2024. The worst of it is that what they are doing is completely within the bounds of the Constitution, which gave legislatures the ability to choose electors to the Electoral College, itself a compromise to slave-owning states. Our history threatens to undo our democracy.
Facing down demographic shifts that threaten their political fortunes and fresh off a political loss many won’t accept, the conservative* party once again strives to limit the political power of its opponents rather than adopting policies that might legitimately attract more voters.
The question is what will we do about this? The system has long depended on the righteousness and fair-mindedness of its leaders to function smoothly. Over the past 5 years, we’ve witnessed what happens when those qualities are absent at the highest level. Last time it took an entire lifetime for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to unclench the fists of white supremacy from the throat of democracy. We don’t have a lifetime to get this right.
We, the majority of Americans who put country over party and still believe, perhaps naively, in fair representation and the power of democracy, need to institutionalize our values. Congress has the power to adopt federal standards to thwart these anti-democratic assaults on voting rights. We must raise holy hell until they do.
*There is little actually conservative about the modern Republican Party. Their obeisance to a thin-skinned, sore-loser, wannabe autocrat requires that they embrace a radical, anti-American agenda the likes of which would cause true conservatives to recoil in horror.