The chaos we have sown: American history shows eras of democratic expansion — and also backlash
My father, Athan G. Theoharis, passed away on July 3rd. A leading expert on the FBI, he was responsible for exposing the bureau's widespread abuses of power. He was a loyal husband, dedicated father, scholar, civil libertarian, and voting-rights advocate with an indefatigable commitment to defending democracy. He schooled his children (and anyone who would listen, including scholars, journalists, and activists from a striking variety of political perspectives) to understand one thing above all: how hard the powers-that-be will work to maintain that power and how willing they are to subvert democracy in the process. His life is a reminder that much of American politics in 2021 is, in so many ways, nothing new.
He grew up poor in Milwaukee, the son of an undocumented Greek immigrant who ran a diner out of the first floor of his home. He returned to his hometown in 1969 as a professor of American history at Marquette University. There, he would take part in political campaigns and local democratic efforts and, of course, raise my siblings and me. After he retired as a professor — committed as he was to opening up space for new scholars and researchers — he remained involved with the Wisconsin ACLU and its campaigns to protect democracy and civil liberties. He became the chair of the board and (how appropriate given this moment of voter-suppression laws) worked to oppose the 2011 Wisconsin voter ID law, while aiding the recall campaign against then-Governor Scott Walker.
Although it seems long ago, in many ways that battle over democracy in America's Dairyland set the scene for the Trump years and the national crisis unfolding around us now. In 2010, Wisconsin Republicans, fueled in part by a rising Tea Party Movement and having gained control of the state legislature and governorship, immediately passed a host of anti-democratic laws, while instituting regressive economic policies. This in a state that had once been a beacon of American democratic experimentation.
As anyone who visited our family would have learned on a driving tour my parents loved to offer, Milwaukee had a first-class park system because of its (rare) history of socialist mayors. Although Wisconsin was also home to that notorious anti-communist of the 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy, and also the John Birch Society, it had striking progressive roots. However, in 2011, at a hearing on the state Senate's version of that voter ID law, one political-science expert testified that "this version of the bill is more restrictive than any bill we've had in the past… Indeed, if this bill passes, it would be the most restrictive in the United States."
That same year, a major campaign to recall Governor Walker began, partially in response to an "austerity budget" aimed at poor Wisconsinites. It would slash pensions and health benefits for public-sector workers and impose new statewide restrictions on union collective bargaining. When that budget was first introduced, Democratic legislators — and this should sound familiar, given recent events in Texas — fled the state to stave off a vote in its senate, while thousands of protestors besieged the capitol building in Madison. For a moment, Wisconsin commanded the attention of the nation.
That recall campaign unfolded over 18 long, bitter months, with Walker eventually holding onto his governorship. Mitt Romney, then on the presidential campaign trail, lauded him for his "sound fiscal policies" and swore that his victory over the recall would "echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin." And he was right.
More than just a win for a beleaguered politician, the Wisconsin experience signaled a growing anti-democratic strain within the Republican Party and American politics coupled with an extreme economic ideology that benefited the rich and powerful. Even then — in the years when Donald Trump was no more than a businessman and TV show host — that ideology was already masquerading as populism. And in doing so, it echoed the development of so-called welfare reform more than a decade earlier, when former Governor Tommy Thompson's "Wisconsin model" laid the basis for ending welfare as Americans knew it.
My father watched the fallout from these events with grave concern. For more than 50 years, he had researched and exposed how the FBI's surveillance programs threatened civil liberties and weakened democratic expression. He knew what was possible when the levers of government power were in the wrong hands and recognized the emergence of the attack on democracy earlier than most. He taught us that wherever you were was ground zero when it came to voting rights and, sadly enough, the truth of this has only become clearer since his passing. Indeed, right now, amid a wave of voter suppression laws unseen since Reconstruction and the continued obstructionism in Congress, the fight for democracy is everywhere and, whether we like it or not, we're all on the frontlines now.
A Multi-Racial Democracy from Below
American history is punctuated by eras of dramatic democratic expansion but also of backlash, especially in response to any encouragement of a multiracial electorate coming together to lift society from the bottom up. In the wake of the Civil War, Reconstruction was a first great elaboration of American democracy. To this day, it remains the most radical experiment in popular government since the founding of the republic. After 250 years of slavery, the share of Black men eligible to vote across the South jumped from 0.5% in 1866 to 80.5% just two years later. In many of the former Confederate states, this, in turn, at least briefly inaugurated a sea change in political representation. In 1868, for instance, 33 Black state legislators were elected in Georgia.
Alongside those newly emancipated and enfranchised voters were many poor white sharecroppers and tenant farmers who, in the rubble of the slavocracy, were ready to exercise real political power for the first time. In a number of state legislatures, fusion coalitions of Blacks and poor whites advanced visionary new policies from the expansion of labor and healthcare rights to education reform. The development of public education was particularly significant for the four million Blacks just then emerging from slavery, as well as for poor whites who had been all but barred from school by the former white ruling elite.
If Reconstruction could be called a second American revolution, the Southern aristocracy and the Democratic Party of that era would soon enough set off a vicious counterrevolution, bloody in both word and deed. A violent divide-and-conquer campaign led by informally state-sanctioned paramilitary groups, especially the newly created Ku Klux Klan (headed by a former Confederate general) terrorized Blacks and whites. Meanwhile, those fusion state governments were broken up and, even though the 15th Amendment couldn't be repealed, new voter suppression laws were implemented, including poll taxes, lengthened residency requirements, and literacy tests.
What's often left out of this story is that many of those tactics had first been perfected in the North in response to waves of immigrants from Europe and beyond. Between the Civil War and World War I, 25 million people emigrated to this country. In many Northern states, this rising population of foreign-born, urban poor seemed to threaten the political status quo. As a result, nativist and anti-poor voter suppression laws, including new registration requirements, property stipulations, and voter-roll purges spread widely across the North. For years, white Southern reactionaries studied and borrowed from such anti-democratic trailblazing in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Reflecting on this record, historian Gregory Downs has written that "when Americans treat voter disfranchisement as a regional, racial exception, they sustain their faith that the true national story is one of progressive expansion of voter rights. But turn-of-the-20th-century disfranchisement was not a regional or a racial story; it was a national one." Then as now, it was about protecting the power of a class of wealthy, white Americans in the face of an urge from below for a multiracial democracy.
Echoes from that era could be heard half a century later in the reaction of Republicans and Southern Democrats to the Civil Rights Movement. In the South, since Jim Crow voter suppression had disenfranchised entire generations of Blacks, disproportionately living in poverty, civil-rights reforms threatened what some saw as a "natural social order." Elsewhere across the country, fears arose that legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would empower poor people across the board. Two Republican congressmen from Michigan and Indiana, for instance, introduced a sham alternative to it that would have allowed states to use literacy tests in election season, a time-honored proxy for restricting the votes of the poor.
Such extremist politicians typically — and it should still sound all too familiar today — couched their opposition to the Voting Rights Act in terms of ensuring "voter integrity" and preventing "voter fraud." Beneath such rhetoric, of course, lay an underlying fear of what broad democratic participation could mean for their political and economic interests. During his governorship of California in the late 1960s, Ronald Reagan first began connecting mass enfranchisement and welfare with the specter of poor people destroying American democracy. His future staffer Pat Buchanan highlighted a growing consensus in the Republican Party when he said, "The saving grace of the GOP in national elections has been the political apathy, the lethargy, of the welfare class. It simply does not bother to register to vote."
President Reagan's hyper-racialized caricature of the "welfare queen" has endured all these decades later, cementing the lie that the poor don't care about democracy and stoking fears of a changing multiracial electorate. And while it may be true that a sizable portion of eligible poor and low-income voters don't vote, it's not because of indifference. Indeed, a recent report from the Poor People's Campaign, which I co-chair, shows that typical reasons for lower voter participation among the poor are illness, disability, time and transportation issues, and a basic belief that too few politicians speak to their needs, ensuring that their votes simply don't matter. This last point is especially important because, as the voter suppression tactics of the previous century have evolved into present-day full-scale attacks on voting rights, their concerns have proven anything but unfounded.
The Chaos We Have Sown
In 2013, in Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the Section 5 preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act. That section had placed certain districts with histories of racist voter suppression under federal jurisdiction, requiring them to submit to the Department of Justice any planned changes in their voting laws. Since then, there's been a deluge of voter-suppression laws across the country.
After a multi-racial coalition of voters elected America's first Black president, 2011 stood as the modern watershed for voter suppression with 19 restrictive laws passed in 14 states. (Barack Obama would nevertheless be reelected the next year.) Today, we're at a new low point. Six months into 2021, a total of nearly 400 laws meant to obstruct the right to vote have been introduced across the country. So far, 18 states, ranging from Alabama and Arkansas to Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, have passed 30 of them, including an omnibus bill signed into law in Georgia in March. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, it "targets Black voters with uncanny accuracy."
At this very moment, one major front in the battle over voting rights is still unfolding in Texas. There, the state Senate recently passed a massive "voter integrity" bill that would, among other things, ban 24-hour and drive-through voting, add new ID requirements, and criminalize election workers who don't follow the onerous new rules. The bill would also grant new powers to partisan poll watchers, raising the possibility of far-right militia groups legally monitoring polling stations. Texas House Democrats fled the state before a vote could be introduced and now remain in Washington, D.C., in exile, awaiting the end of the special session called by Republican Governor Greg Abbott and possible federal action.
Those state legislators arrived in D.C. the same day President Biden gave a national address in Philadelphia on voting rights. His rhetoric was certainly impassioned, and he has since affirmed his support for both the For the People Act and for restoring the full power of the Voting Rights Act, which would indeed expand access to the ballot, while placing more political power in the hands of people of color and the poor. And yet he has offered little when it comes to developing an actual strategy for getting that done. Instead, he continues to insist that he is not in favor of ending the filibuster in the Senate, even though it's the chief impediment to federal action on the subject. He argues instead that such a move would only throw Congress "into chaos."
Reverend William Barber, my co-chair in the Poor People's Campaign, recently laid out the hypocrisy of the president's "support" for voting rights, even as he justifies inaction on the filibuster:
"President Biden, I have no doubt you care and desire to do right, but, as a clergy person, let me say pastorally, when you say ending the filibuster will create chaos that obscures the fact that the filibuster is facilitating chaos. The filibuster caused chaos with anti-slavery legislation, labor rights, women's rights, civil rights, voting rights, and it once again is causing policy chaos by allowing a minority to obstruct justice. The filibuster has already been used to stop your goal of $15/hr. living wage. We believe the filibuster should end. But, at the very least, no one should ever say the filibuster is preventing chaos."
As Barber notes, the filibuster is also obstructing urgent policy struggles around better wages and healthcare, immigration reform, and the large-scale infrastructure plan that the Biden administration has worked so hard to create. Action on these issues would dramatically improve the lives of millions of poor and low-income Americans and is precisely what a majority of voters support and extremists are so eager to block through voter suppression. That's why there's been a recent upsurge of grassroots actions meant to connect the fight for democracy, including voting rights, with economic justice and the abolition of the filibuster. This includes a season of non-violent moral direct action, including a March for Democracy and a Rally in Texas organized by the Poor People's Campaign, because its members understand that what's really underway in this country is a struggle between democracy and potential autocracy or, as Martin Luther King once put it, between community and chaos.
Our own choice is the sort of community where everyone has an equal voice in our democracy and, honestly, in that I believe I am simply following in my father's footsteps.
Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis Featured image: Voting Rights Act by Victoria Pickering is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr
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Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.
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