Utah Senator Mike Lee, a raving hypocrite who abandoned his stated principles to play lackey to Donald Trump, is fond of saying, “We’re not a democracy.” Lee thinks that’s a good thing. He’s written: “Democracy isn’t the objective: liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are.” When Lee says these things, he’s not merely playing the role of an overzealous high school social studies teacher trying to use “cool facts” to deflect the hail of spitballs. He’s also channeling the deepest fears of the slavers and colonists who wrote the Constitution. Those guys understood, as Lee does, that a true democracy, in which everybody gets to vote and participate in self-government, would be a threat to white male hegemony in the New World.
They’re not wrong. The founders and Lee and Jefferson Davis and Ron DeSantis—and all the other white guys who have stood against the right to vote throughout American history—are correct in their assessment that universal suffrage and equal representation are the surest ways to end white male political supremacy.
That is why the “right to vote” is not spelled out in the Constitution, and why voting rights are under near-constant attack by conservative forces. It’s almost certainly why Lee thought that HR 1, the bill designed to restore and secure voting rights, was “written in hell by the devil himself.”
It’s no accident that the current assault on voting rights started not with the failed reelection of Donald Trump but with the successful election of Barack Obama. After the 2010 midterm elections and the new US census that followed, Republicans promptly used the gains they’d made to go on a gerrymandering rampage. Their allies on the Supreme Court then used two cases—Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee (2021)—to effectively neuter the Voting Rights Act.
Those moves set the stage for the legislative attacks on democracy that white conservatives have launched this year. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 17 states have enacted 28 new laws to restrict voting access. A total of 48 states have proposed a staggering 389 voter restriction bills, which run the gamut from obtuse (requiring notaries to sign absentee ballots), to cruel (denying water to voters waiting in line), to downright racist (excluding from early voting the times Black people get out of church).
The GOP’s current eruption of voter suppression is unrelenting and ferocious, but it’s not a new phenomenon and should not have been unexpected. Everybody knows that voting rights were initially restricted to wealthy white males and only grudgingly doled out to additional humans after war, outrage, or mass grassroots movements.
The solution to these cyclical outbursts has never been incremental change. Radical legislative interventions (the Voting Rights Act), new constitutional protections (the 15th and 19th amendments), and a judiciary willing to uphold them (Earl Warren protected the voting rights John Roberts is now destroying) have been some of the ways people have fought to limit the antidemocratic instincts of the white men in power.
But the current Democratic Party can’t take such bold action. Even though the mass of the party’s Congress members are willing to do whatever it takes, including nuking the filibuster, to ensure that Jim Crow–style voter restrictions never come back, they are all too easily hamstrung by a few timid white senators who seem to think that full and equal access to the rights of citizenship is just one option among many and that basic democratic rights should be put on the bargaining block in the name of bipartisanship.
There are too many people who seem to be willing to give the Biden administration and the national Democratic party a pass if it can’t convince Joe Manchin (and the cabal of spineless Democratic Senators he speaks for) to do the right thing. Given the stakes—the existence of democratic self-government—I don’t think the president can just throw up his hands and say “Welp, I tried.” Nobody looks back on Rutherford B. Hayes, who presided over the end of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow, and says “good effort.” Texas Democrats are fleeing their state in an ultimately futile effort to stop new voter suppression laws; I think it’s fair to expect more than a speech (not even in prime time from the Oval Office but on a random afternoon) from President Biden.
In this speech, Biden was reduced to making a moral appeal to the bigots in the minority. “We will be asking my Republican friends—in Congress, in states, in cities, in counties—to stand up, for God’s sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our elections and the sacred right to vote,” Biden said, adding: “Have you no shame?”
If that’s all he’s got, we’re going to lose. Because conservative white people have no shame. They’ve never had any. Throughout American history, they have shamelessly regarded the right to vote as the ultimate white privilege.
We are not a democracy. The question has always been whether enough white people even want one.