The Heirs of Neshoba

Picture by Hilary Ginsberg

On June 21, 1964, civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were beaten and shot, then buried in an earthen Mississippi dam. The three young men were attempting to register Black voters in Neshoba County as part of the Freedom Summer. This atrocity — and many others during the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement — occurred during the lifetimes of many Americans who are still alive. And, apparently, judging by the actions of the Georgia state legislature — and a majority of other states — the battle to prevent some Americans from voting is not over.

Republicans, who understand that they represent a shrinking minority of Americans while advocating increasingly unpopular policy positions, are the heirs of those Mississippians who murdered Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. The perpetrators then, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Neshoba Country Sheriff’s Office, wanted to bolster the local White power structure by preventing Blacks from voting. Today’s advocates of voting restrictions are not as crass as Mississippians in the 1960s, but their goal is the same: To bolster the White power structure by preventing Blacks from voting.

Voting restrictionists in 2021 say their measures are aimed at enhancing voters’ perception of the “integrity” of American elections. A Georgia Republican state representative says the intent of the Georgia bill is “to begin to bring back confidence of our voters back into our election system.” The Republican rationale operates under the false premise — also known as the Big Lie — that former president Donald Trump lost the last election because of massive election fraud. This is demonstrably not true, but it is a handy myth for Republicans who can see a future in which their party is a minority doomed to forever losing national elections.

Myths have resonance, of course. Millions of Trumpistas believe their candidate was a victim of electoral fraud. Their misplaced conviction ought not to be the reason millions of other Americans are once again denied access to the ballot box. It is faulty logic and manifestly unfair to argue that because (mostly) old (mostly) White (mostly) men are so gullible as to believe an obvious lie and too lazy to check out an evident fabrication, then other Americans, whose forebears fought and died for the right to vote, should be denied the franchise.

The Georgia voting restriction bill has drawn the ire of Major League Baseball (MLB), which has switched the All-Star game from Atlanta to a yet-to-be-decided locale, and some of the nation’s major corporations, several of which have their corporate headquarters in Georgia. These corporations are not driven by a commitment to justice (though many of their officers may be personally offended by modern attempts to restrict the vote).  MLB is not known as a progressive league, certainly not as forward-looking as the National Basketball Association. But, capitalist America is betting on consumers with buying power. Those corporations taking a stand against the Georgia bill — and other restrictive measures — are convinced most Americans believe the nation’s future is moving away from the kinds of exclusivity evident in Republican ideology to a more inclusive society.

Republicans label corporate actions as another example of the culture war in which left-wing Democrats “cancel” anything with which they disagree. Trump echoed this view in a statement accusing MLB of being “afraid of the Radical Left Democrats.” He added, “Boycott baseball and all of the woke companies that are interfering with Free and Fair elections. Are you listening Coke, Delta, and all!”

“Cancel culture” is, in this instance, a euphemism for maintaining a system in which a minority continues to exert control disproportionate to its numbers. Those invoking the term — Trump and Republican lawmakers — know most Americans disagree with them on a majority of issues. Polls show the overwhelming popularity of the Biden administration’s stimulus package, background checks for guns, a bold infrastructure plan, and an increase in taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Even most rank-and-file Republicans favor these propositions. Yet, many of these popular measures will fail because of Republican lawmakers’ opposition.

The American political system magnifies obstructionist Republican policy. Democrats routinely outpoll Republicans in the cumulative totals of votes cast in House races, yet the number of Democrats in the lower chamber rarely reflects Democratic popularity because of gerrymandering. The Senate is even more outrageously unrepresentative. In the current evenly divided upper chamber, 50 Democrats represent 41.5 million more people than the 50 Republicans because sparsely populated Wyoming has the same number of senators as population-heavy California. Add to that undemocratic mix the legislative tool of the filibuster to fully appreciate the power of minority rule. Even presidential elections, ultimately decided in the Electoral College, frustrate majority rule. In both 2000 and 2016, Republican candidates finished second in the popular vote but won the presidency through majorities in the Electoral College.

Republican politicians know all this. They know their policies lack public support. They know Democrats routinely rack up majorities in national elections. They know that undemocratic institutions, structures, and rules are what enable them to maintain political power. And, they know that their political constituency is continually shrinking.

All of this adds up to one conclusion for Republicans: The only way to prevent Democratic majority rule in the future is to prevent some Democrats from voting. Republicans have long been the heirs of Neshoba in their push to limit the vote. The election of 2020, in which some traditionally red states — such as Georgia and Arizona — began to trend blue, has hastened their urgency to deny some Americans the ballot. The only difference between now and the 1960s is that modern Republicans eschew the violence of Neshoba (at least for now, and I am deliberately overlooking January 6 as I write this) while emphasizing legislative tools to retain power.

The strategy is the same. Only the tactics differ.

Posted April 6, 2020

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