The Georgia governor’s race is balanced on a knife’s edge. Local polls have the Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams and her GOP opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, virtually tied. Abrams’s team in particular will scramble to make sure every provisional ballot is completed, that every person who faced challenges to registration is able to participate, that all absentee and vote-by-mail ballots are counted, and that every allegation of intimidation or unfair practices on Election Day is investigated. In a race in which a December runoff is a distinct possibility if neither candidate can secure 50 percent support, every single vote matters.
But no matter the outcome, it’s clear that voter rights and suppression will be one of the major stories of the 2018 election in Georgia. The state has become the battleground for something deeper than the ideas of the candidates themselves; it’s now emblematic of a larger struggle over voting rights that has changed party politics markedly over the past five years. The true nature of voter suppression as an accumulation of everyday annoyances, legal barriers, and confusion has come into full view. Today, voter suppression is a labyrinth, not a wall.
That labyrinth has been under construction for years. Kemp has embarked on what his opponents and critics say is a series of naked attempts to constrict the electorate. Since 2010, his office reports that it has purged upwards of 1.4 million voters from the rolls, including more than 660,000 Georgians in 2017 and almost 90,000 this year. Many of those voters found their registration canceled because they had not voted in the previous election. Additionally, under an “exact match” law passed by the state legislature that requires handwritten voter registrations to be identical to personal documents, 53,000 people had their registrations moved to “pending” status because of typos or other errors before a district court enjoined the policy. More than 80 percent of those registrations belonged to black voters.
Most of these maneuvers have rather small effects in a vacuum, and it’s difficult to track the effects of any one policy on the outcomes of elections. For example, Georgia’s early-voting period featured a record-shattering 2 million votes cast, a number that dwarfs the thousands of people who could have faced disenfranchisement under the exact-match law. But much of the research on elections law and voter turnout shows that it’s the combination of major policies and minor barriers—like polling-place changes, long lines at the polls, and small bureaucratic hurdles—that have real and measurable impacts on turnout.
According to a new working paper from the Harvard University professor Desmond Ang, protections against those accumulative assaults against democracy have all but been erased in the past five years. Ang studied the effects of a provision in the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that required the federal preclearance of elections laws in places where Jim Crow had kept black people from voting, a requirement that was expanded in 1975 to some states and districts outside of the Deep South. As originally envisioned, preclearance forced districts with significant proportions of minority voters and low minority turnout to submit all changes to elections laws for federal approval. The federal litmus test only approved new provisions if they were found not to decrease minority turnout relative to the status quo. Thus, the VRA was not only a protective shield against scorched-earth Jim Crow policies—it was also intended to guard against more subtle restrictions, all while promoting higher minority turnout as an explicit goal.
Ang found that in the districts covered by preclearance from 1975 to 2013, federal oversight was a major factor in sustained increases in minority turnout relative to counties not covered by the VRA. And that doesn’t include counties and states that had more explicit anti-black laws, like poll taxes, that the VRA outlawed. Ang’s findings indicate that the act of continued federal monitoring alone was responsible for a good deal of minority turnout across the country. “The estimated gains in voter turnout are large—ranging from 4 to 8 percentage points—and lasting—having persisted for 40 years,” Ang writes.
“The fact that the VRA was successful means that these places couldn’t have been putting in discriminatory measures all the way from when they fell under coverage all the way until 2013,” Ang told me. “I think that the whole rationale behind preclearance was this idea that there are essentially infinite margins on which you can discriminate.”
The Justice Department and the U.S. Congress in the 1960s and ’70s predicted that Southern elections officials would employ clever incremental policies that, over time, would bring back Jim Crow—and cloak it in an even thicker aura of legitimacy than it existed under before. Ang cites a Jim Crow–era official in Mississippi who said: “What those smart fellows [at the Justice Department] don’t realize is that we can still get to these darkies in a whole lot of subtle ways.”
But the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 reversed the federal doctrine of proactiveness when it effectively ended preclearance. Since that decision, Ang has tracked what appears to be the beginning of a troubling trend. Minority turnout in the past two federal elections has plummeted, specifically in the counties in which preclearance was once a first step for creating new elections laws. The data don’t yet exist to confirm causality between Shelby County and the recent dips in turnout, but Ang writes that the numbers imply that “recently enacted election laws may have negated many of the gains made under preclearance.”
Included in those recently enacted laws are most of Kemp’s most controversial policies. In late October, U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May enjoined the exact-match law, a policy that allowed elections officials to reject absentee ballots because of signature mismatches. On Kemp’s watch, Georgia has lost almost a tenth of its polling places since 2012, with the majority of closings occurring in poor counties and those with significant African American populations. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice finds that Georgia—along with Florida and North Carolina—has increased its voter-purge rates since the Shelby County decision.
“Because it looks clinical and bureaucratic, we don’t pay attention to it,” says Carol Anderson, an African American studies professor at Emory University and the author of One Person, No Vote, an exhaustive review of modern voter-suppression efforts.
“These states have been really good about making Jim Crow 2.0 seem reasonable,” Anderson told me. “This is massive disenfranchisement that is slow and corrosive. We don’t see it the way we see cross burnings and riots and beatings. What instead happens is you frustrate people out of their basic right.”
As Anderson told me, the thing about the suppression-by-frustration regime is that it provides dozens of potential exit points for voters burdened by bureaucracy. “You have to punch a clock to go to work,” she said. “If you go to the polls on Tuesday and your name’s not on the rolls, now what are you going to do? So you’re either going to go to work anyway because you can’t afford to lose pay, or you’re going to have to take some vacation leave.” Include in that calculus the process of obtaining identification in the first place, the potentially long lines on Election Day, and the fact that provisional ballots for people with discrepancies can require even more paperwork and time off, and the true costs of voting become clear.
On Election Day, it’s worth remembering just how Jim Crow elections worked. Yes, black people were lynched for attempting to vote—a history particularly salient in Georgia. The extralegal components of the system were real and dangerous, and they claimed countless lives.
But Jim Crow states were also administrative states, and the bureaucracies they developed came about as a result of a drive among powerful white politicians to discriminate within the bounds of federal law. That meant poll taxes and literacy tests, which were originally perfectly legal. It also meant recitations of preambles, long walks to county registrars, and frustration even among black people who somehow managed to register and vote. It meant all-white primaries and at-large districts and intense gerrymandering. It relied on obsessive tinkering along the margins to come up with a system that was de jure passable under the Constitution, but in the aggregate became a de facto impossible impediment for black people voting in any real numbers. In order to build their regime, Southern officials needed to build mazes.
Those are important considerations for this election, and for elections to come. Regardless of the outcomes of individual races—and even perhaps because of them, if Republicans face major losses—the incentives for disenfranchising black and Latino voters may only be increasing as their share of the electorate increases, and as they steadily back Democratic candidates. And that’s as the main tool for protecting voters, the VRA, has been rendered partially inert. In places like Georgia, the rudiments of a labyrinth appear to already be in place.
It is difficult to imagine a more remarkable story of self-determination and advancement than the life of Frederick Douglass. Emblematic of the depths from which he rose is the pall of uncertainty that shrouded his origins. For a long time he believed that he had been born in 1817. Then, in 1877, during a visit to a former master in Maryland, Douglass was told that he had actually been born in 1818. Douglass could barely recall his mother, who had been consigned to different households from the one where her baby lived. And he never discovered the identity of his father, who was likely a white man. “Genealogical trees,” Douglass mordantly observed, “do not flourish among slaves.”
Douglass fled enslavement in 1838, and with the assistance of abolitionists, he cultivated his prodigious talents as an orator and a writer. He produced a score of extraordinary speeches. The widely anthologized “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” delivered in 1852, is the most damning critique of American hypocrisy ever uttered:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? … a day that reveals to him … the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery … There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
He wrote analyses of court opinions that deservedly appear in constitutional-law casebooks. He published many arresting columns in magazines and newspapers, including several that he started. He also wrote three exceptional memoirs, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom(1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass(1881). The most celebrated black man of his era, Douglass became the most photographed American of any race in the 19th century. He was the first black person appointed to an office requiring senatorial confirmation; in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes nominated him to be the marshal of the District of Columbia.
Throughout his life, however, Douglass repeatedly fell victim to the brutalizations and insults commonly experienced by African Americans of his time. As a slave, he suffered at the hands of a vicious “nigger breaker” to whom he was rented. He fled to the “free” North, only to have his work as a maritime caulker thwarted by racist white competitors. As a traveling evangelist for abolitionism, he was repeatedly ejected from whites-only railroad cars, restaurants, and lodgings. When he died, an admiring obituary in The New York Times suggested that Douglass’s “white blood” accounted for his “superior intelligence.” After his death, his reputation declined precipitously alongside the general standing of African Americans in the age of Jim Crow.
Now everyone wants a piece of Frederick Douglass. When a statue memorializing him was unveiled at the United States Capitol in 2013, members of the party of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell sported buttons that read frederick douglass was a republican. More recently, the Republican National Committee issued a statement joining President Donald Trump “in honoring Douglass’ lifelong dedication to the principles that define [the Republican] Party and enrich our nation.” Across the ideological divide, former President Barack Obama has lauded Douglass, as has the leftist intellectual Cornel West. New books about Douglass have appeared with regularity of late, and are now joined by David W. Blight’s magnificently expansive and detailed Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
A history professor at Yale who has long been a major contributor to scholarship on Douglass, slavery, and the Civil War, Blight portrays Douglass unequivocally as a hero while also revealing his weaknesses. Blight illuminates important facets of 19th-century political, social, and cultural life in America, including the often overlooked burdens borne by black women. At the same time, he speaks to urgent, contemporary concerns such as Black Lives Matter. Given the salience of charges of cultural misappropriation, griping about his achievement would be unsurprising: Blight is a white man who has written the leading biography of the most outstanding African American of the 19th century. His sensitive, careful, learned, creative, soulful exploration of Douglass’s grand life, however, transcends his own identity.
In the wake of Douglass’s death in 1895, it was African Americans who kept his memory alive. Booker T. Washington wrote a biography in 1906. The historian Benjamin Quarles wrote an excellent study in 1948. White historians on the left also played a key role in protecting Douglass from oblivion, none more usefully than Philip Foner, a blacklisted Marxist scholar (and uncle of the great historian Eric Foner), whose carefully edited collection of Douglass’s writings remains essential reading. But in “mainstream”—white, socially and politically conventional—circles, Douglass was widely overlooked. In 1962, the esteemed literary critic Edmund Wilson published Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, a sprawling (and lavishly praised) commentary on writings famous and obscure that omitted Douglass, and virtually all the other black literary figures of the period.
Keenly attuned to the politics of public memory, Blight shows that the current profusion of claims on Douglass’s legacy bears close scrutiny: Claimants have a way of overlooking features of his complex persona that would be embarrassing for them to acknowledge. Conservatives praise his individualism, which sometimes verged on social Darwinism. They also herald Douglass’s stress on black communal self-help, his antagonism toward labor unions, and his strident defense of men’s right to bear arms. They tiptoe past his revolutionary rage against the United States during his early years as an abolitionist. “I have no patriotism,” he thundered in 1847. “I cannot have any love for this country … or for its Constitution. I desire to see it overthrown as speedily as possible.” Radical as to ends, he was also radical as to means. He justified the violence deployed when a group of abolitionists tried to liberate a fugitive slave from a Boston jail and killed a deputy U.S. marshal in the process. Similarly, he assisted and praised John Brown, the insurrectionist executed for murder and treason in Virginia in 1859.
Many conservatives who claim posthumous alliance with Douglass would abandon him if they faced the prospect of being publicly associated with the central features of his ideology. After all, he championed the creation of a strong post–Civil War federal government that would extend civil and political rights to the formerly enslaved; protect those rights judicially and, if necessary, militarily; and undergird the former slaves’ new status with education, employment, land, and other resources, to be supplied by experimental government agencies. Douglass objected to what he considered an unseemly willingness to reconcile with former Confederates who failed to sincerely repudiate secession and slavery. He expressed disgust, for example, at the “bombastic laudation” accorded to Robert E. Lee upon the general’s death in 1870. Blight calls attention to a speech resonant with current controversies:
We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to forget the merits of [the Civil War], and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life, and those who struck to save it—those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty … May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between the parties to that … bloody conflict.
The progressive tradition of championing Douglass runs deeper, not surprisingly, than the conservative adoption of him. As an abolitionist, a militant antislavery Republican, and an advocate for women’s rights, he allied himself with three of the greatest dissident progressive formations in American history. Activists on the left should feel comfortable seeking to appropriate the luster of his authority for many of their projects—solicitude for refugees, the elevation of women, the advancement of unfairly marginalized racial minorities. No dictum has been more ardently repeated by progressive dissidents than his assertion that “if there is no struggle there is no progress … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
But certain aspects of Douglass’s life would, if more widely known, cause problems for many of his contemporary admirers on the left, a point nicely made in Blight’s biography as well as in Waldo E. Martin Jr.’s The Mind of Frederick Douglass. A Republican intra-party contest in an 1888 congressional election in Virginia pitted John Mercer Langston, a progressive black jurist (who had served as the first dean of Howard University Law School), against R. W. Arnold, a white conservative sponsored by a white party boss (who was a former Confederate general). Douglass supported Arnold, and portrayed his decision as high-minded. “The question of color,” he said, “should be entirely subordinated to the greater questions of principles and party expediency.” In fact, what had mainly moved Douglass was personal animosity; he and Langston had long been bitter rivals. Langston was hardly a paragon, but neither was Douglass. Sometimes he could be a vain, selfish, opportunistic jerk, capable of subordinating political good to personal pique.
Douglass promised that he would never permit his desire for a government post to mute his anti-racism. He broke that promise. When Hayes nominated him to be D.C. marshal, the duties of the job were trimmed. Previously the marshal had introduced dignitaries on state occasions. Douglass was relieved of that responsibility. Racism was the obvious reason for the change, but Douglass disregarded the slight and raised no objection. Some observers derided him for his acquiescence. He seemed to think that the benefit to the public of seeing a black man occupy the post outweighed the benefit that might be derived from staging yet another protest. But especially as he aged, Douglass lapsed into the unattractive habit of conflating what would be good for him with what would be good for blacks, the nation, or humanity. In this instance, his detractors were correct: He had permitted himself to be gagged by the prospect of obtaining a sinecure.
Douglass was also something of an imperialist. He accepted diplomatic positions under Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, in 1871, and Benjamin Harrison, in 1889, that entailed assisting the United States in pressuring Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) to allow itself to become annexed and Haiti to cede territory. Douglass acted with good intentions, aiming to stabilize and elevate these black Caribbean countries by tying them to the United States in its slavery-free, post–Civil War incarnation. He liked the idea of Santo Domingo becoming a new state, thereby adding to the political muscle in America of people of African descent, a prospect that frightened or disgusted some white supremacists. When Douglass felt that his solicitude for people of color in the Caribbean was being decisively subordinated to exploitative business and militaristic imperatives, he resigned. But here again, Douglass demonstrated (along with a sometimes condescending attitude toward his Caribbean hosts) a yearning for power, prestige, and recognition from high political authorities that confused and diluted his more characteristic ideological impulses.
Douglass is entitled to and typically receives an honored place in any pantheon dedicated to heroes of black liberation. He also poses problems, however, for devotees of certain brands of black solidarity. White abolitionists were key figures in his remarkable journey to national and international prominence. Without their assistance, he would not have become the symbol of oppressed blackness in the minds of antislavery whites, and without the prestige he received from his white following, he would not have become black America’s preeminent spokesman. That whites were so instrumental in furthering Douglass’s career bothers black nationalists who are haunted by the specter of white folks controlling or unduly influencing putative black leaders.
Douglass’s romantic life has stirred related unease, a subject Blight touches on delicately, exhibiting notable interest in and sympathy for his hero’s first wife. A freeborn black woman, Anna Murray helped her future husband escape enslavement and, after they married, raised five children with him and dutifully maintained households that offered respite between his frequent, exhausting bouts of travel. Their marriage seemed to nourish them both in certain respects, but was profoundly lacking in others. Anna never learned to read or write, which severely limited the range of experience that the two of them could share. Two years after Anna died in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a Mount Holyoke College–educated white former abolitionist 20 years his junior. They tried to keep the marriage quiet; even his children were unaware of it until the union was a done deal. But soon news of it emerged and controversy ensued. The marriage scandalized many whites, including Helen’s father, who rejected his daughter completely. But the marriage outraged many blacks as well. The journalist T. Thomas Fortune noted that “the colored ladies take [Douglass’s marriage] as a slight, if not an insult, to their race and their beauty.” Many black men were angered, too. As one put it, “We have no further use for [Douglass] as a leader. His picture hangs in our parlor, we will hang it in the stable.” For knowledgeable black nationalists, Douglass’s second marriage continues to vex his legacy. Some give him a pass for what they perceive as an instance of apostasy, while others remain unforgiving.
That Douglass is celebrated so widely is a tribute most of all to the caliber and courage of his work as an activist, a journalist, a memoirist, and an orator. It is a testament as well to those, like Blight, who have labored diligently to preserve the memory of his extraordinary accomplishments. Ironically, his popularity is also due to ignorance. Some who commend him would probably cease doing so if they knew more about him. Frederick Douglass was a whirlwind of eloquence, imagination, and desperate striving as he sought to expose injustice and remedy its harms. All who praise him should know that part of what made him so distinctive are the tensions—indeed the contradictions—that he embraced.
This article appears in the December 2018 print edition with the headline “The Confounding Truth About Frederick Douglass.”
Maine voters had the opportunity to rank their ballots for U.S. Senate and U.S House. The votes are still being counted, but here is what’s happening so far.
Memphis voted to keep ranked choice voting, rejecting referendums the city council proposed that would have repealed the reform. It was passed by 71 percent of voters in 2008 but has not yet been implemented, though that will change in 2019.
When you’re talking to your friends, here are some key points to make:
1. Ranked choice voting is an electoral reform to fix our broken democracy. It provides a way out of gridlock and it gives new candidates a chance to offer their ideas without being called “spoilers.”
2. Ranked choice voting is a proven system, successfully used in cities across the country including: Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN; San Francisco, CA; Santa Fe, NM and Cambridge, Mass., to name a few.
3. Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race shows why ranked choice voting works. The outcome will be close, but the winner will be whoever earns the broadest support of the voters.
4. In the race to represent Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, two independents received 8 percent of vote - suggesting voters felt free to vote their conscience without fear of vote-splitting or spoilers.
5. Memphis voters saved ranked choice voting (referred to there as instant runoff voting) from repeal, re-affirming their support for a more fair and democratic voting method. The debate is over and it’s time to start preparing for RCV in 2019.
Working-class voters tried to send a message in 2016, and they are still trying to send it. The crucial question is whether America’s leaders will listen and respond.
One way to start doing that is to read Oren Cass’s absolutely brilliant new book, “The Once and Future Worker.” The first part of the book is about how we in the educated class have screwed up labor markets in ways that devalued work and made it harder for people in the working class to find a satisfying job.
Part of the problem is misplaced priorities. For the last several decades, American economic policy has been pinioned on one goal: expanding G.D.P. We measure G.D.P. We talk incessantly about economic growth. Between 1975 and 2015, American G.D.P. increased threefold. But what good is that growth if it means that a thick slice of America is discarded for efficiency reasons?
No. It was not “working-class voters” who sent a message in 2016. It was white working-class voters.
It was not the “educated class” that screwed up the labor market for the non-rich. It was the Reagan/Gingrich/GOP establishment.
It was not “we” who decided that GDP was the only thing that mattered and low incomes at the bottom didn’t. It was right-wing Republicans.
So, so tired. I get so very tired of conservatives or centrists or bobos—or whatever it is that David Brooks calls himself these days—refusing to acknowledge this stuff. Progressives have been fighting all along for the working class; for equitable labor markets; for higher wages; for labor unions; for taxing the rich; for job training; for workplace regulations; for universal medical care; for equal treatment regardless of race or sex; and a million other things. Have we accomplished much? Not nearly as much as we should. Brooks is sure right about that.
But it’s not because of some amorphous “we.” It’s because Republicans have spent the past four decades fighting all these things hammer and tongs and then telling working class whites to vote for them because Democrats won’t let them tell ethnic jokes anymore.
When I said that Corey Lewandowski, then Trump's campaign manager, had grabbed and bruised me at a rally in 2016, Trump World called me a liar.
"It's a hoax," pro-Trump voices on Twitter and in parts of rightwing media claimed. They reasoned that I, a Breitbart reporter sent to cover the rally, had teamed up with the Washington Post’s Ben Terris, who witnessed the incident and wrote about it, to bring down the Trump campaign. I had faked the bruises on my arm and manufactured the audio recording of the incident.
It was all a crazy conspiracy theory. At the time, I assumed that many Trump supporters didn’t actually believe it; they just latched onto it because of partisan zealotry. But I'm starting to think that I was wrong. Perhaps they really did believe that I made up the story, because they themselves were capable of such a thing.
On Wednesday, the White House revoked the press pass of CNN reporter Jim Acosta for "placing his hands on a young woman," according to a tweet by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Sanders was referring to an incident at the post-midterm election White House press conference. An intern went to take a microphone away from Acosta during a testy exchange he was having with the president, and Acosta refused to give up the mic.
You can watch the video for yourself. If you do, I’m sure you’ll agree that if there was any contact, it was purely incidental and Acosta didn't initiate it. You can accuse Acosta of grandstanding, but he didn't come close to assaulting a young female intern.
But observable reality doesn't seem to be causing any concern in the White House press shop. On Thursday, Sanders doubled down, tweeting out a new video, which appears to have been doctored, to try to prove that Acosta karate chopped the young intern. Later still, she again tried to justify the administration’s decision: “The question is: did the reporter make contact or not? The video is clear, he did. We stand by our statement.”
And now the same people who claimed I was lying about what happened to me in 2016 are standing behind these ludicrous White House accusations.
In fact, some of the exact same people. The seemingly doctored video was first shared by Paul Joseph Watson, a contributor to the far-right site Infowars who in 2016 repeatedly claimed that I was nothing more than a hoaxer.
I'm not a psychologist, but I'm pretty sure the term used for this phenomenon is projection. I was accused of doing something I would never even think of doing by people who thought I might have done it precisely because they themselves were capable of doing it. Acosta-gate is the perfect example of this.
But it isn’t the only example. The president labels the media “fake news” but is happy to promote fake news for political purposes. Just look at his Twitter feed.
Even if the president’s team really believed that Acosta had assaulted a White House intern, their outrage would be hypocritical at best; just weeks ago at a rally in Montana, the president joked about the time the state’s congressman had body slammed a reporter.
If you go to the White House press shop expecting sincerity, you haven’t been paying attention.
The president has been wanting to escalate his war with the media for some time by revoking a journalist's press pass, according to news reports. This was a political move by a president who sees the press as a useful political foil.
But it is also a dangerous move. It's dangerous because it is a further assault on objective truth. It is dangerous because we live at a time when political radicals on all sides seem willing to act violently, whether it is by sending pipe bombs to the president's perceived enemies, including CNN, or threatening to break into Tucker Carlson's house.
What's more, it's unfair to the young female intern who is being thrust into this political maelstrom. As far we know, she hasn't accused anybody of anything. It appears the White House is using her for its own political ends.
Like I said, I’m no psychologist. But it seems to me that none of this leads anywhere healthy.