John Buell

Origins of an Invulnerable Base

As of mid November, University of Michigan political scientist Juan Cole thought Roy Moore might still win the race for the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. Such a surprising outcome seems less likely now, but Moore has managed to retain the support of a large core of Alabama voters. My first reaction to Cole’s piece was recollection of Donald Trump’s claim that he could shoot someone on the streets of Manhattan and still win. Some Moore backers believe that voters will overlook the sexual molestation charge and still vote for him. Whether they are right about Moore remains to be seen, but both Moore and Trump seem to have an almost invulnerable core of support, a phenomenon in need of explanation.

Cole points out: “evangelical voters have shown that they will vote for a candidate known not to have a biblical lifestyle (Trump) as long as he stands for white supremacy. This outcome makes you a little worried that some large proportion of American white evangelicalism may be latently a form of white supremacy.”

Cole cites other factors as well that may make this race still competitive. Voter ID as well as registration provisions are especially discriminatory in Alabama and work against minorities, young, elderly, and poor, all of whom tend to be disproportionately Democratic.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? Alabama Republicans have done a masterful job in mobilizing, intensifying, and fusing racial, economic, and cultural animosities in behalf of extreme voter suppression tactics. Thus, in addition to the standard Republican line regarding “widespread voter fraud,” a charge for which virtually no evidence is ever forthcoming, Republican state officials have turned these draconian voter suppression techniques into a test of citizen virtue, a test that these minorities are deemed to fail. The Campaign for America’s Future reports:

“Alabama does not allow early voting or in-person absentee voting. The state also does not allow online voter registration and has one of the lowest “Motor Voter” implementation rates (these provisions enable voters to register when interacting with another government agency like the DMV).”

The Campaign also reports: “Alabama was also penalized for requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.” State leaders have defended these practices. Thus John Merrill, Alabama Secretary of State: “I’m not attracted to lazy people or sorry people or people that don’t want to get involved. … {If} you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear and to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege.”

On the other hand, civil rights leaders “fought — some of them were beaten, some of them were killed—because of their desire to ensure that everybody that wanted to had the right to register to vote and participate in the process. I’m not going to cheapen the work that they did. I’m not going to embarrass them by allowing somebody that’s too sorry to get up off of their rear end to go register to vote.”

Thus Merrill subtly proclaims he is not a racist, indeed even celebrates the heroism of the early civil rights champions — all in the service of reiterating and intensifying ugly contemporary stereotypes (lazy, sedentary). Resentments about hard work of the white working class not paying off are a subtext here and are intensified and redirected toward a traditional scapegoat rather than a socioeconomic system that burdens wide sectors of the population. And were large numbers of poor and African American citizens to take time off to register, obtain a photo ID, and vote, Merrill would doubtless criticize their irresponsible attitude to their jobs.

Of course the Democrats should not be left off the hook. Is it merely draconian voter procedures that suppress voting? A president who bragged about ending welfare as we know but refused to support guaranteed jobs in its place hardly inspired greater participation by African Americans. Those same trade treaties and fiscal policies that encouraged deindustrialization hurt all working class Americans.

Nor should African Americans in elected office be wholly excused. Many have been comfortable endorsing a leadership that gives them little more than crumbs. Many dutifully fell in line behind HRC even before extracting any real concessions from the critic of those predatory teens. American politics is caught in several vicious circles. Voter suppression encourages regressive political agendas that in turn drive diminished political participation by poor and working class citizens. Unlimited money in politics further speeds the destructive downward spiral.

More immediately progressives should ask themselves a question: Has the systematic voter suppression efforts in the key states of the last election received even a tiny amount of the attention Russia/Trump collusion has elicited? What would have happened if the Democrats had devoted as much energy and money as went into fancy ads and consultants to voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in those key states? If heroic protestors could overcome violence in the ’60s, what actions might have enabled citizens to work around today’s barriers?

I suspect many establishment Democrats are not interested in pursuing that question. Many might hope minorities and the poor will vote in general elections but heaven forbid their active participation in the primaries that might change the shape of the party.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2017

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