News sources report more than two-hundred bills intended to suppress voter turnout are pending in state legislatures. Every one of them is sold as ensuring the integrity of voting systems against fraud that doesn’t exist. Their sponsors aren’t naive. Their intention is to suppress growing voter turnout likely to undermine their hold on state legislatures and congressional delegations. Their motive is to retain power that, given elections with no impediments to voting, would soon be gone. Somehow it’s OK with them to corrupt a system in the name of fighting corruption where none can be found.
Bills are no longer pending in Georgia. The deed is done. Like others, I’m disturbed by the actions of the Georgia legislature and governor. No matter how they try to justify it, it’s intended to disenfranchise enough voters to make it easier for white male hegemony to reign in Georgia. Abrams came too close to being elected governor. Osoff and Warnock eked out senatorial victories: a Jew and a black Baptist preacher, both Democrats, how embarrassing is that for the ‘Ancien Régime’? Kemp & Co. self righteously claim they only want to ensure the integrity of a voting system that has already been proven free of fraud and intentional irregularities. It’s hard to believe they can say it with a straight face, or sleep well with a clear conscience.
It appears some political leaders have cast aside their facades of traditional conservatism to reveal their true identities as libertarian oligarchs who believe they’re entitled to rule, and are terrified of an energized electorate they label as left wing socialists, unworthy of having a voice in government. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that it’s an electorate of non-white and low wage workers. As a reminder, oligarchs are not always from the wealthy elite. Oligarchs are those who believe themselves to be among the select few entitled to rule over the less qualified masses and fuzzy headed intellectuals. They’re aided and abetted by an assortment of ordinary people convinced that, if the oligarchs lose power, their own rights and privileges will be taken away, with guns as the idolatrous icon of their fears.
America has a well established history of oligarchy easily sold to targeted voters: New York’s Tammany Hall, Chicago’s Daley machine, Louisiana’s Huey Long machine, Kansas City’s Pendergast machine, most states in the Jim Crow South, and less well known examples scattered around the country. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1960s, following civil rights legislation, most state and local oligarchical political machines had given way to a more egalitarian democracy with real competition among the politically active. They were replaced by a sort of political equilibrium that depended on predictable voting patterns in which non-white and low wage workers could be counted on for low voter turnout. Occasional outliers gained national attention, and were tolerated as long as they didn’t shake up the equilibrium too much. Underneath the apparent equilibrium, changes were happening. More women and non-whites were being elected to local, state and national office. More non-whites were gaining recognition in the academy, movies and television. Demographic shifts were bringing them closer to plurality than minority.
At the same time, manufacturing job losses and wage growth stagnation made lower wage white workers easy targets for racist/nativist libertarian propaganda with an eery similarity to old time European fascism that favored a different kind of oligarchy. It was an oligarchical movement of extreme libertarianism intent not on local or state rule, but national rule in the interest of wealthy leaders of business and industry freed of government oversight. Having learned their lessons well, they knew how and what to do to motivate vulnerable parts of the electorate. They only needed the right moment, and it came with the election and reelection of Obama. A black man with an Arabic sounding name sitting in the Oval Office was the perfect bait.
Throwing bait out was one thing, but what they caught was Trump, spawning a bizarrely mutated version of their libertarian plans now known as Trumpism. Trump was not one who could be controlled from behind the scenes. Poorly educated and ill informed, he was a street smart operator with no moral compass and no allegiance to anyone but himself. The new oligarchs had backed him with their fortunes, hoping for someone to do their bidding. They did get their 2017 tax legislation, but it was served up with four years of corrupt self serving incompetency that shredded America’s global reputation, disrupted international trade, exploded national debt, and converted real economic growth into a hall of smoke and mirrors dependent on buybacks and risky stock market manipulation. The rest of us got four years of tearing open every class conscious and racist wound of America’s past from which poured forth Trumpism, championing mindless anti government individualism and white supremacy. Trump got soundly defeated in his bid for reelection. The majority of Americans rejected him and what he stood for, but not everybody and not everywhere. In states where trumpian politicians hold power, the way was opened for a return to segregationist voter suppression to shore up white, male control of state legislatures.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote “The Cycles of American History” in 1986. He described America’s story as something like a spiral moving forward but repeating basic themes over and over. He believed that moving forward was also upward toward a more just and open democracy, even if cycles sometimes hid progress. It was a belief dependent on a national consensus about the ideals of American democracy, each generation hoping for a better future even if the present was difficult.
Today’s wealthy oligarchs and their mutant offspring of dedicated Trumpists have no interest in the American ideals of democracy, and no interest in a better life for anyone but themselves. Georgia and the legislation now pending in other state legislatures – are they the tip of an iceberg, or the last gasp of a dying monster? It remains to be seen.