Tag Archives: voting

Don’t (Want To) Know Much About History…

I always liked that old Sam Cooke song, “Don’t know much about history…” it seems especially relevant on this Election Day.

A sizable portion of the American public has evidently taken that title as both a motto and a goal, as my friend Pierre Atlas recently wrote in a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. As he explained in his opening paragraph,

Numerous candidates at all levels of government, from school boards to federal office, want to regulate school curriculum to constrict what kids can learn about the past. Meanwhile, a Zionsville school board candidate has upended the past by sympathetically minimizing the intent of Nazis during World War II. In this hyper-partisan era, even education has become politicized. History is on the ballot in 2022.

Pierre is currently a Senior Lecturer at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University–having decamped from a full professorship at Marian University, a small Catholic institution in our city. He was originally from “out west,” and his observations about the teaching of history are grounded in his own early education and  later correctives.

This particular column was prompted by a recent trip to a Santa Fe museum, and its exhibit on the subject of “manifest destiny.”

As Pierre relates, when he was a child growing up in Texas and California, “Manifest Destiny was taught as a positive attribute of American nation-building. But that wasn’t even half the story.”

The Santa Fe museum’s interpretive panel first provides the historical source of the term, quoting John L. O’Sullivan, who said in an 1845 newspaper article that the United States had received from providence a “manifest destiny” to spread across the whole continent.

The panel then offers the museum’s interpretive explanation: “Manifest destiny was an idea that the people of the United States would inevitably settle the continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. This concept encompassed the belief that white Anglo-Saxons were a special race and rightfully the superiors of other peoples. Their expansion would also spread the ‘blessings’ of Protestant faiths and democracy. Fulfilling this destiny was all-important—and it could be accomplished by force, if necessary.”

As a political scientist who has studied and written about American history, including the government’s Indian policies in the American West, I can confirm that the museum’s interpretation is an important and factually accurate corrective to earlier, celebratory pronouncements about Manifest Destiny.

I’m a good deal older than Pierre, but I too was taught that “manifest destiny” was a good thing– a glorious example of America’s inevitable domination of…well, everything.

Today–Election Day–Manifest Destiny is on our ballots, along with multiple other distortions of American history. As Pierre noted in his column, the duty of a mature democracy is to teach accurate history.

The exhibit in the museum Pierre visited was on the Mexican-American War. That war isn’t taught much, if at all, in high school history classes, because it was a “war launched by the United States for the purpose of territorial expansion, leading to the capture from Mexico of what is today New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. It was a war of aggression.”

Historian Jon Meacham, discussing his new book about Abraham Lincoln and slavery, recently remarked that, “History is not a fairy tale. It does not begin with ‘Once upon a time,’ and it doesn’t end with ‘Happily ever after.’”

The United States was founded as a republic, with slavery. Its expansion across the continent came at the expense of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous lands. White supremacy was embedded in colonial America and written into the Constitution, and it influenced local and national policy and even foreign policy for much of this country’s history.

While America offers much to be proud of, the purpose of teaching history is not to make people feel good, nor to mythologize the past. History should be taught honestly with all its nuances—not to make people feel guilty, but to own up to and explain what really happened. Our present is not fully comprehensible without an accurate accounting of the past. Of course, like any other subject, history should be taught in an age-appropriate manner.

Make no mistake: when “angry parents”–high on propaganda from Fox News and other White Supremicist sources–descend on school board meetings to demand that “CRT” not be taught (not that they could define Critical Race Theory–which is taught exclusively in graduate legal education if at all– if their lives depended upon it), what they are really demanding is an a-historical fantasy in which White Americans were always the good guys.

One of the multiple things you are voting for today is whether to teach history– or fairy tales.

It Isn’t Just The Crackpot Caucus…

In one of those daily multiple fundraising emails that fill our inboxes, Adam Schiff coined a perfect phrase. Referring to the numerous GOP nominees who are proponents of the “Big Lie” and various other conspiracy theories, he warned that many of them are poised to join “performance artists” like Marjorie Taylor Greene in the “Crackpot Caucus.”

Schiff’s point was that the growing presence of crackpots in Congress has diminished the ability of the federal legislature to do the necessary–albeit less entertaining– work of governance.

He’s right–but our current problems go far beyond the crackpots. People like Greene are embarrassments, but by and large, they are too incompetent–and too busy mugging for the cameras–to devise or pass legislation. They can and do “gum up the works,” but  getting bills passed is evidently beyond them.

America’s most serious problem right now resides in other branches of government: in courts packed with partisan Trumpian know-nothings, and state administrations headed by dangerous and ambitious governors. One of the most dangerous of those governors is  Trump wanna-be Ron DeSantis of Florida.

I generally try not to label unpleasant and unprincipled people “evil,” but that word does come to mind when thinking about DeSantis. His assaults on LGBTQ citizens and public school teachers,  and his persistent efforts to suppress the votes of those likely to vote Democrat are egregious–and unsettlingly effective.

DeSantis most recent attack on voting rights really does merit the “evil” label.

As the Brennan Center explains:

In 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis bragged that Florida’s elections were the “gold standard.” That was an exaggeration, but he was right in one sense: the elections there, as in the rest of the country, were secure and not marred by fraud.

That left DeSantis with a dilemma in his shadow race against Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination. How to prove that he, too, could recklessly undermine democracy? His answer was an election crimes police squad, announced last year to great fanfare.Did it discover Italian spy satellites switching votes? Dominion machines using ballots made in China? Bushels of ballots?

No — it discovered voters caught in the act of voting.

Rather than identifying some shadowy network of deep state operatives, state election police have found a tiny handful of people, many of whom were themselves victims of government incompetence.

Here’s the story:

As many of you probably read at the time,  in 2018, by a very substantial margin, Florida voters amended the state’s Constitution. They ended a  felony disenfranchisement system that had been characterized as a notorious remnant of Jim Crow. That system  barred people who had a felony conviction from voting for the rest of  their lives. The system had kept 1.7 million otherwise eligible people from voting.

Then the Florida Legislature stepped in. It undermined the law, requiring citizens who had just had their rights restored to pay off fines and fees before voting.

The Brennan Center sued, warning that the new requirement would lead to chaos, because the state provided no way for people to check to see if they had unpaid fees and so were eligible to vote.

The experience of Kelvin Bolton illustrates the consequences.

In 2018, after Floridians overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to most people with past convictions, the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections sent officials to county jail to help inmates register for the next election. Kelvin Bolton proudly signed up along with other people in exactly the same situation. According to Bolton, the officials failed to tell him about the requirement that he pay outstanding fines and fees.

Even if Bolton had known, there was very little he could have done. There is no centralized database you can use, no number you can call, to find out whether there are outstanding fees. Here’s an indication of how maddening the process is: When the Brennan Center was developing a resource for people attempting to restore their voting rights, we quickly determined that it had to be aimed at lawyers. No layperson could reliably navigate this Kafkaesque labyrinth. And yet, DeSantis and his election police apparently take the position that formerly incarcerated Floridians vote at their own risk.

Under DeSantis,  Florida adamantly refuses to help these ex-offenders. The state  allows people with felony convictions to register, then prosecutes them if it finds outstanding court debts.

Worse, Florida once again imprisons people –at considerable taxpayer expense– who were only attempting to cast a vote, a practice  that intimidates and deters eligible voters who fear that the election police will come for them, too.

“All in the name of proving that there is in fact fraud happening, to give credibility to those who have staked their political careers on its existence.”

Florida under DeSantis: Even worse than the crackpot caucus.

 

Two Possibilities….

A few days ago, a clearly exasperated reader of this blog asked “the” question–the question I ask myself daily and am unable to answer. He agreed with my “diagnoses” of the myriad  problems we face, but wanted to know what we can do about them. We know what the problems are–what can individuals do to solve them?

If only I had an answer! We’d both feel better.

Not only do I not have a solution to “the question,” I vacillate between two competing analyses of the problems we face. As I have previously noted, I’ve been reading a lot more history lately, in an effort to determine whether we’ve been here before, or whether the severity of America’s divisions is something unprecedented. (That’s another question to which I have no answer…).

As I used to tell my students, it depends–and it’s complicated.

Like many of the people who read this blog, I take the daily letter from historian Heather Cox Richardson, who provides helpful historic context to the issues of the day. Recently, she addressed the question of Trump’s stolen documents, and Senator Lindsey Graham’s threat that holding Trump accountable would be met with violence in the streets.

Richardson pointed out that arguments about the theft of those documents  are arguments about the rule of law–not about contending political opinions. Graham’s threats about gangs taking to the streets is an authoritarian’s argument for the use of violence to overturn the rule of law. Richardson then provided valuable context, noting that resort to violence is not new to this country, citing to  the Reconstruction South–a period during which “white gangs terrorized their Black neighbors and the white men who voted as they did, suppressed labor organization at the turn of the last century, and fed rising fascism in the 1930s”.

Right-wing activists have been an ever-growing threat since the 1990s. Under Trump, rightwing gangs became his troops. But as Richardson reminded us,  even the incidents of domestic terrorism aren’t new.

Such gangs have always operated in the U.S., and they gain power and momentum when they engage in violence and are unchecked. After several years in which they have seemed invulnerable, we are now in a period when, as we learned on Saturday, an armed man in a truck chased Independent Utah senatorial candidate Evan McMullin with a gun after an event in April and forced the vehicle carrying McMullin and his wife into oncoming traffic. That incident echoes one from October 2020, when a bus carrying Biden staffers and volunteers through Texas was harassed by Trump supporters, some of whom appeared to be trying to force it off the road. When the terrified Biden workers called the police, officers allegedly refused to help.

What I take from Richardson and other historians–as well as the upheavals most of us personally experienced in the 1960s and 70s– is the lesson that the times we are living through are not unique. We can take some comfort in the fact that we got through those ugly episodes, and reassure ourselves that we can make it through these times as well.

Or–as a part of my brain whispers–maybe this time really is different.

Previous periods of unrest didn’t occur in the face of the existential threats posed by climate change, and new technologies that facilitate mass murder and Orwellian surveillance. Obsolescent rules weren’t bringing federal governance to a grinding halt…

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which of these analyses is accurate. Whether we’ve been here before or we really haven’t–we need to find a way out. But the solutions available to us will ultimately depend upon understanding what is happening now, and how unprecedented (or not) our challenges are.

Choose your preferred diagnosis–but neither sparks an epiphany pointing to a cure.

The single thing that each of us can do is to vote, and work to ensure that other rational Americans do likewise. Gerrymandering and vote suppression tactics may win the day– but a truly overwhelming Blue turnout would keep the GOP from furthering its march to fascism, and would begin the long and difficult job of mending American government.

Voting Blue in November won’t be an endorsement of whatever Democrats stand for. The party certainly isn’t above criticism. It is, however, largely sane and pro-democracy.

Conservative Republican Adam Kitzinger recently made the same point.

A Blue vote is a vote for women’s reproductive autonomy, for the civil rights of LGBTQ citizens,   for sensible restrictions on firearms, and for prioritizing the interests of working and middle class Americans. We can–and will– argue about the details of those basic commitments, but only if we defeat the unAmerican cult that stands firmly against them all.

This November, we must vote Blue for America.

 

 

 

The Beginning Of The End?

These days, optimism comes hard. But there are reasons for hope.

For one thing, despite the incredibly discouraging fact that upwards of seventy million Americans voted for a racist incompetent who posed an obvious danger to the stability of the entire world, eighty-one million voted otherwise.

And despite the fact that we are seeing something akin to a civil war between Americans who take the country’s aspirations for equality seriously and the White nationalists and their fellow-travelers who fear loss of unearned privilege, Georgia has elected a Black Senator. (It is equally notable that Georgia also elected a Jewish one, since–as the photos coming out of the insurrection at the Capitol illustrated–racism and anti-Semitism are inextricably entwined.)

An article in Time Magazine, published a mere two days after the assault on the Capitol, insisted that Southern resistance to Black equality is on the wane–that the South deserves a “New Political Story.”

The author referenced the fact that Ted Cruz–aka “Mr. Despicable”– had modeled his performative “objections” to the receipt of Electoral College votes on the “infamous and racist” Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1876.  That “compromise” ended Reconstruction; it gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in exchange for the removal of federal troops protecting Black citizens in the South.

That agreement led to a nearly century-long reign of racial terror that reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan, subjected Black people to quotidian forms of racial terror and mob violence, violently ejected Black men from both government office and the public sphere through lynching and the threat of it, and subjected Black women to rape at the hands of ravenous white men.

The author says that it is this violent racial past–a past that I’m pretty confident is not taught in our nation’s history classes–  makes the Georgia Senate elections of Warnock and Ossoff so significant, and she counsels against accepting “the narrative that retrograde 19th and mid-20th century racial politics are winning.”

They are not. Do not mistake the death rattle for a victory cry. And do not let the war cries of angry white people drown out the resounding and clarion calls from Black women organizers and strategists and voters of color who have made clear that Trump’s America is not their America.

The article surveys other deep-south states and finds Black elected officials in previously unlikely places. And while she concedes that White backlash has often won the day, she insists that grassroots organizing and GOTV campaigns can prevent that result this time around.

The article made me think about the Darren Walker observation I shared previously, to the effect that democracy is the antidote to inequality. I truly believe that if every citizen who is entitled to cast a ballot is allowed to do so, White nationalists will lose. It isn’t simply because the ranks of Americans of color are growing, it’s because Americans of good will–Americans who embrace the unrealized aspirations of our constituent documents–outnumber those who are desperately clinging to their privileged status.

I want to believe that the ugliness we are seeing truly is a “death rattle” of a tribalism based on skin color, gender and religion. But I also know that people who fear a loss of status will not be defeated by warm thoughts, by sermons from authentic Christians, or by appeals to their own material self-interest. (Most of them define self-interest culturally, not economically.)

Stacey Abrams and other Black women in Georgia have demonstrated the way forward. Those of us who live in other “Southern” states (I would include Indiana in that cohort) need to take a page from her book. We need to identify the people of good will–of every color, gender and religion/non-religion–and get them to the polls. But we also need to abolish all of the structural impediments that have been erected to prevent or discourage people from voting–starting with gerrymandering.

As I keep saying, we have our work cut out for us.

 

For And Against

It’s a political truism that turnout improves when voters are motivated by negativity. In other words, the impulse to vote against a candidate, party or issue is stronger than the desire to register support for those of whom we approve.

We’ve certainly seen that play out in the Presidential election. I happen to be one of those people who really, really likes Joe Biden, for reasons not relevant to this post, but it has been clear for some time that hostility to Donald Trump and his enablers is driving many more people to the polls than warm feelings for Joe.

Anger and disgust are also playing a major role in contests for the Senate, and  eye-popping fundraising totals have been one result. Friends of mine who never appear on lists of big donors–and who rarely give financial support to candidates outside their own districts–have been sending multiple small-dollar donations to Democrats around the country who are running against Republicans they find particularly odious.

I doubt that all the money going to Amy McGrath will allow her to edge out Mitch McConnell–it is, after all, Kentucky. I hope I’m wrong. I can think of no individual who has done more harm to America than “the turtle,” and I would love to see McGrath wipe that smarmy smirk off McConnell’s face. Whatever the result, the enormous success of McGrath’s fundraising testifies to the extent to which McConnell is a hated figure.

I do have hopes for Jaime Harrison, who is polling dead even with “Miss Lindsey” Graham. Harrison is a truly impressive candidate, but the astonishing success of his fundraising  is more attributable to the number of Americans who detest Graham than it is to his considerable virtues.

Frank Bruni recently wrote that the Harrison-Graham contest has become a “national obsession.”

It was a bit of news that came and went quickly amid the fury of political developments these days, but last weekend Jaime Harrison, the South Carolina Democrat who is fighting to unseat Lindsey Graham, announced that he had not merely broken the record for fund-raising for a Senate candidate in a single quarter. He had shattered it.

From July through September, Harrison took in about $57 million. That was nearly $20 million more than Beto O’Rourke, the previous record-holder, collected during the same span two years ago, when he waged his ultimately unsuccessful battle against Ted Cruz in Texas.

As Bruni observed, Harrison is the recipient of so much money because he’s the vessel of so much hope.

No other political contest in 2020 offers quite the same referendum on the ugliness of Donald Trump’s presidency. No victory would rebut Trump’s vision of America as emphatically and powerfully as Harrison’s would.

Remember the time before Trump’s Electoral College win, when Graham said the way to make America great again was to “tell Donald Trump to go to hell”? Now he’s not only Trump’s adoring golf buddy, he’s his obedient factotum. (His U-Turn on Trump was so dramatic, it raises speculation that Trump has something on him and is blackmailing him.)

Graham’s most odious, most despicable “U Turn,” of course, has been on vivid display in the frantic and unseemly haste to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

When he assisted Mitch McConnell in stealing Merrick Garland’s seat on the Supreme Court, Graham claimed that he’d never consider, let alone promote, a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of a president’s term. We’ve all seen the footage of him telling journalists to “mark his words and use them against him if the need ever arose.”

Somehow, the word “shameless” seems inadequate…

As Bruni wrote,

One of the main story lines of the Trump years has been the spectacular moral capitulation of most Republican lawmakers, who junked supposedly cherished principles to placate a president whose hold on his base and capacity for vengeance mattered more to them than honor, than patriotism, than basic decency. Graham is the poster boy of that surrender, Complicitus Maximus, in part because his 180-degree turn to Trump required that he show his back to his close friend and onetime hero John McCain.

It’s nice that Jaime Harrison is so admirable and qualified, but that $57 million dollars is a measure of how detestable most honorable Americans find Graham.

The massive early voting turnouts we are seeing would appear to confirm the political premise that more people turn out to express disgust than approval. Let’s hope that holds true even in the deep red states…