Sunday, April 12, 2020

That Train Is Never Late

David W. Blight, a professor of history at Yale and the author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for history), writes:
Americans are about to see how fragile our right to vote really is. Among our many fears is the widespread concern over whether we will have an open and legitimate general election in November. ...

With customary ignorance, Mr. Trump has also stumbled unknowingly into history, our long tale of trickery, laws, Orwellian propaganda and violence as ways of keeping the mass of voters from casting ballots. Since the beginning of our Republic, and especially since Emancipation and the stirrings of black suffrage established in the 14th and 15th Amendments, restricting the franchise has been a frighteningly effective tool of conservatism and entrenched interests.

America has a long history of attempts to restrict the right to vote to people with property, with sufficient formal education and, too often, those privileged by gender or race. Political minorities — today's Republican Party, antebellum slaveholders, Gilded Age oligarchs or rural states empowered disproportionately by the Electoral College — have always feared and suppressed the expansion of both the right and the access to the right to vote. ...

Mr. Trump's rhetorical stumble into truth joins a litany of similar expressions in American history. ... Benjamin F. Perry believed [in 1865] that black suffrage would give political power over to "ignorant, stupid, demi-savage paupers." In North Carolina, the politician William A. Graham believed enfranchising blacks would "roll back the tide of civilization two centuries at least."

In Southern history, when the law wasn't on the side of voter suppression, intimidation, fraud and murderous violence served as ready alternatives. As the historian Carol Anderson writes in her brilliant book "One Person, No Vote," the techniques of voter suppression in the 19th century were conducted with "warped brilliance" and were "simultaneously mundane and pernicious," whether by requiring voters to interpret bizarrely complex written passages to prove literacy, in fail-safe grandfather clauses or through allegedly race-neutral poll taxes. Today's vote suppressors are no less pernicious, sporting earnest outrage at the fraud they cannot find. ...

When Trump stumbled into this history, he linked the crisis of his profound failure to manage a pandemic with the recurring challenge of how to conduct fair elections with the ballot truly free. We have many diseases to conquer. Lies and cunning sustain voter suppression in its many forms. Only truth and fierce political action can reveal and defeat it.

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