Call Ari Berman the Paul Revere of voting rights.
“In 2011 and 2012, 180 new voting restrictions were introduced in forty-one states, with twenty-seven new laws taking effect in nineteen states, nearly all of them controlled by Republicans,” Berman writes in his new book Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
This wasn’t some freak coincidence or hot new trend, as you know. It certainly wasn’t based on any evidence. Republicans had just won an unprecedented landslide as the embers of the disaster their last president were still sparking. Was that evidence of massive voter fraud?
Nope. This was a coordinated campaign built on legislation forged from ALEC templates all with a singular goal: to prevent minorities, poor people, and college students from re-electing Barack Obama.
His election was the only evidence the right needed that too many people were voting. The dopiest Republicans even admitted this aloud.
Civil rights organizations efforts to wake liberal America up to the most coordinated attack on the right to vote since the 1960s were raised above the din by Berman’s article “The GOP War on Voting” in the August 30, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The article was shared over 47,000 times on social media. With the right’s effort named and shamed, a backlash grew that soon saw the Department of Justice use all the voltage of the Voting Rights Act to prevent the worst abuses from going into effect. And the ensuing media coverage helped spur higher minority turnout in 2012 than 2008. For the first time ever, a higher percentage of black voters showed up at the polls than white.
The GOP didn’t steal the 2012 presidential election, but they sure tried. And with Section 5 of the VRA now gutted, Republicans will have the chance to steamroll new restrictions into effect, possibly even just weeks before the 2016 election.
If you read Berman’s new book, and you should, I guarantee you will come away with two realizations: (a) John Lewis is enormous bad ass, a living monument to the incredible legacy of the civil rights movements whose biography is a timeline of modern America’s worst and finest moments, and (b) Republicans are undeniably better at politics than Democrats.
Thanks to George Lakoff, we’ve known for years how much better the right is at framing and selling policies that should have no popular support whatsoever. Perhaps the best example of this being the so-called “Death Tax,” which only affects the richest 0.02 percent of Americans, who have never been richer.
“Why would someone use the phrase ‘death tax’ when more than 99 percent of deaths don’t result in a tax?” Bloomberg‘s Barry Ritholtz wrote in April, when Republicans voted to abolish this tax again. “Because he is either (a) innumerate, (b) ignorant, or (c) trying to deceive you. There are no other possibilities.”
The answer is obviously “(c)” except “trying” isn’t accurate.
Eliminating this tax is supported by as much as 60 percent of Americans, 59 percent of whom will be hurt by subsiding a break that will ensure their boss’ boss’ boss’ kids’ kids’ kids will never have to fly coach.
The right has built an infrastructure of marketing experts who operate in the guise of think tanks, academia, and right wing publications. When Barry Goldwater lost, he was considered a fringe candidate with policies the majority of the public would never back. Ronald Reagan supported nearly every Goldwater policy in 1964. By 1980 he had moderated some of his beliefs on the surface, largely because the right had a new strategy more extreme than conservatives from Goldwater era: destruction of the government and middle class by a million tax cuts.
Reagan didn’t need to baldly call for the death of Medicare. By cutting the top tax rate from 70 to 28 percent, he guaranteed that enough wealth would be sucked to the rich that funding anything the government did except the military would eventually be impossible.
Berman’s book reveals how Nixon used the greatest expansion of voting rights in American history to turn the white working class against Democrats and eventually the New Deal. It shows how Reagan renewed this strategy with little subtlety then used his Department of Justice to launch a counterrevolution against the VRA, championed by a young John Roberts who would go to be the fifth vote in the Supreme Court to gut Section 5. And you’ll see why Section 2 of the law, Roberts’ most hated foe, is bound to fall next.
You’ll be amazed by the cunning of the right, their ability to manipulate the levers of electoral procedure, their adeptness at swaying the waning white majority to consolidate their control. From every humiliating defeat, disaster and resignation, Republicans soon reemerge stronger, ready to reclaim and expand power.
See how Lee Atwater, the right’s Mozart, elevated the right’s Southern Strategy to a high art form by working with black Democrats in an effort to increase minority representation in Congress that saw the South captured by conservatives facing whiter and less contested districts. Be awed how Republicans used the 2000 election, which was stolen through nefarious voter purges and multifarious manipulations of the electoral system, as justifications for more limitations on voting. Watch how they struggle with a demographic tidal wave that almost seems like karma itself swelling in the distance ready to seek revenge on a movement that has engineered the greatest transfer of wealth to the richest in human history.
As we face the most important election of our lifetime, have no confidence that poetic justice or Trump or any kind of justice will undo the “gains” of conservatism alone.
The warning that Berman issued 2011 is truer now than it was then. The conservative will to win by any scheme necessary is not abating as their electoral advantages are. And underestimating them will only guarantee more doom for the middle class.