Summary: The ongoing effort to disenfranchise Black, Latinx, and Native American voters poses a serious test as to whether the socialist Left will mobilize against this serious threat to the very existence of what remains of political democracy in the U.S. — Editors
The Republican Party is now engaged in the most intense and concentrated effort to subvert voting rights in decades. It has serious ramifications for all efforts to develop an alternative to capitalism.
As of end of June, 17 states have enacted laws that restrict access to the right to vote. All of them are in states controlled by Republicans.
This is but the tip of the iceberg: 61 bills with provisions to restrict voting are currently moving through 18 state legislatures, 31 of which have already passed in one chamber (either the state senate or assembly). According to the Brennan Center for Justice, an additional 389 bills that limit voting rights have been submitted to state legislatures that will be debated and decided upon in the coming weeks and months.
This is part of a well-financed, highly-organized nationwide campaign to disenfranchise as many Blacks, Latinx, and Native Americans as possible—as well as reduce turnout among working class whites who oppose the Republican/Trumpist agenda.
In at least a dozen states it will now become more difficult to submit mail-in ballots, by reducing the time voters can request and submit them (such as Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, and Oklahoma) and/or limiting the number and location of drop boxes (Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana). Several states have also reduced the hours and locations of in-person voting, a tactic used for years to suppress voting in working-class precincts. And Florida and Georgia have tightened voter ID requirements—which clearly have a discriminatory impact on lower-income voters, the homeless, and youth. Montana has eliminated election day registration, and a considerable number of other states are considering doing the same. Keep in mind that Biden won Georgia and Arizona by the narrowest of margins; if such rules were in place last November it is doubtful that he would have carried them.
The most egregious effort to restrict voting rights is in Texas, where Senate Bill 7 cuts back voting hours, bans drive-through voting, and gives more power to partisan poll watchers. It prevents 24-hour voting in Harris County—in which Republicans are consistently out-voted. It also makes it harder for those with disabilities to vote. The Republicans in the state legislature tried to push through the bill in direct violation of its own rules by not even informing Democrats who served on the committee drafting the bill of its contents. The legislature has so far been unable to vote on it because the Democrats denied it a quorum by fleeing the state. But since Governor Abbott can call for a new vote whenever he wishes, it is only a matter of time before the Democrats return and the bill is passed (two-thirds of the legislature is Republican).
While restrictions on mail-in or in-person voting has garnered the most attention, the most dangerous dimension of these new laws is the power it gives poll watchers and other party-appointed officials to challenge the legitimacy of elections. The Georgia law allows single poll-watchers to question the eligibility of as many voters as they wish—a clear invitation to intimation and harassment. Several states impose criminal penalties on election officials who make technical mistakes in tabulating ballots. And a growing number of states now require that the final certification of vote totals be taken away from independent election officials (who are often non-partisan) and decided instead by state legislatures (two thirds of which are now controlled by Republicans beholden to Donald Trump). If this stipulation were in place last year in the swing states that Trump wrongly claimed he won, it is likely that he, not Biden, would currently be sitting in the White House.
To top it all off, on July 1 the Supreme Court gutted what was left of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by deciding that Arizona’s proposed severe voting restrictions does not violate Section 2, which prohibits denying individuals the right to vote based on race. The “mere fact that there is some disparity of impact” in terms of race, Justice Alito declared, “does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open.” That a given set of voters (such as Native Americans, whose votes probably provided the margin that caused Trump to lose Arizona in November) have to drive three hours to find a voting booth is not discriminatory, he declared, so long as they have the ability to vote “in principle.” As if deliberately targeting a people with a major “inconvenience” is not inherently discriminatory!
There is long history of suppressing voting rights in this country. It was used to prevent Blacks from voting for a century after the end of Black Reconstruction as well to make it harder for Jews and other immigrants to vote in the early 20thcentury by imposing fluency in English as a voting requirement. But what we are seeing today is something new. As recently as 2007 the extension of the Voting Rights Act, which hundreds of thousands of Black Americans and their allies devoted years of activism to promoting and defending, was extended by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 98 to 0. It is impossible to imagine that happening today.
And it is not happening because what we are facing today is a concerted effort on the part of bourgeois society to destroy what is left of bourgeois democracy in the U.S. and much of the world. Never before has a major U.S. political party been completely taken over by neo-fascist tendencies—but it has happened today with the Republican Party. And never before has such as sizeable section of the U.S. ruling class decided that even the incomplete, class-ridden, and limited “democracy” that we now have must be eliminated in order to feed its frenzied thirst to accumulate ever-more power and profit as an end in itself.
This attitude is aptly summed up in the statements of an assortment of figures on the Right who now openly declare that the time has come to acknowledge that democracy is not compatible with liberty. By “liberty” they mean the “freedom” of the self-centered, egotistical individual to accumulate wealth unimpeded by the needs and care of other people. By “democracy” they mean the social space carved out by decades (and indeed centuries) of struggles by workers, women, national minorities and youth to obtain at least a modicum of political representation, free elections, and elemental rights such as freedom of speech and association. Political democracy is not a gift thought up by the bourgeoisie to trick the masses; it is the product of incessant mass struggles that forced the bourgeoisie to widen the franchise.
All serious Marxists know that political or bourgeois democracy is not true democracy, since it is riven with an array of oppressions based on inequities of race, gender, and class. True democracy cannot exist so long as we remain slaves of capital—which we all are today, since socialism by definition is a world system that cannot exist in a single isolated country, no matter what label it gives itself. True democracy—which means that the condition for the freedom of each is the freedom of all—will not be reached until a truly socialist world comes into being that annuls the lawless laws of the world market and statist domination.
At the same time, all serious Marxists prior to the rise of Stalinism held that the liberal or bourgeois democratic state (not to be confused with “liberalism”) was the political formation best suited to carrying out the class struggle to a successful conclusion. For without the political space provided by even a defective bourgeois democracy, the effort to organize the masses into a self-conscious mass movement that could bring down the status quo becomes all the harder.
History provides glaring evidence of this. The existence of a bourgeois democracy is no guarantee that fascists will not come to power (the example of Hitler’s completely “legal” usurpation of power in 1933 is a case in point), but the complete elimination of democracy is a virtual guarantee that the oppressed masses will not come to power.
A simple mental experiment may illustrate this: there is probably no more important movement in the U.S. today than the campaigns to defund and abolish police and the prison system, which gained unprecedented support as result of the anti-racism protests of 2020. It is a difficult goal to achieve, since policing and prisons are integral to the domination of capital. The system will therefore do whatever it can to resist such demands. But imagine how more difficult matters will be if the opponents of even limited democracy have their way. It would be akin to asking the Chinese or Belarussian state to abolish police and prisons; a call that would lead to such campaigns being forced completely underground, if not out of existence altogether.
The efforts to limit access to voting, of which we are only seeing the beginning stages, is therefore deadly serious—not because we imagine that capitalism can be overcome through parliamentary means, but because the formation of a revolutionary movement that surmounts parliamentarism needs democratic space in which to find and define itself.
What has already become clear (if it wasn’t long ago) is that we cannot rely on the Biden administration to carry out this battle for us. While Biden gave a speech on July 17 likening the attacks on voting rights to “a new Jim Crow,” he has done next to nothing to combat it. Given the Republican control of two-thirds of the country’s state legislatures, the way to beat back this reactionary offense is by passing a comprehensive voting rights bill through Congress. Yet Biden is refraining from calling for the elimination of the filibuster, which is the only conceivable way such a bill can get through Congress—assuming every Democratic Senator ends up voting for it. Biden has shied away from pressuring such blue-dog Democrats as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to support such a federal bill. The question is why, when he surely knows it was the votes of those targeted by these voting restrictions that helped elect him.
The answer is rather simple: Biden views his Keynesian-inspired efforts to pump trillions of dollars into refurbishing infrastructure and the welfare state as more important than spending his political capital on voting rights—especially since Manchin is opposed to ending the filibuster but could supply the swing vote on his economic stimulus bills.
What this means, of course, is that Biden views Keynesian measures to rebalance the economy as more important than directly combatting “the new Jim Crow.” Fighting racism takes a back seat to setting the economy aright. There is surely a need for the latter—his proposal for a $300 a month stipend for every child in America could well cut childhood poverty in half. But how sustainable are such goals if the voting rights of Black Americans get sacrificed in the process?
There is, in fact, no necessary connection between refurbishing the welfare state (which was hollowed out over decades by now-out-of-fashion neoliberalism) and combatting racism. The far-Right in such countries as Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are avid supports of strengthening the welfare state (the same is true of the National Front in France) and yet all are thoroughly racist. Biden is certainly not cut from their cloth, but such realities should give pause to those who think that a return to Keynesian measures of income redistribution will best redress the endemic racism of U.S. society.
This is especially important given the fact that “socialism” continues to be largely understood in terms of a “fair” redistribution of surplus value and an enhanced role of the public sector and the state in the economy. Such standpoints fell short of providing an adequate response to racialized capitalism in the past, and they continue to fall short of doing so today.
Biden has recently declared, “What I don’t want us to do is get wrapped up right now, in the argument…about the filibuster…You can’t stop the American people from voting.” But obviously they can be stopped from voting—otherwise the Republicans would not be investing all this time and energy into rewriting election laws in dozens of states. If they get their way, not only might it enable Trump to be elected in 2024, he could return to power with control of both branches of Congress—with the full backing of the Supreme Court.
If anyone thinks that isn’t the most awful outcome one can imagine, think again—given that the Republican Party has brushed off the January 6 attack on the Capitol and moved even further to the Right since then. A return to power by Trump under these conditions would mean open hunting season on the Left and all progressive forces—and Black Americans in particular.
In light of these realities, it is disturbing that so far there has been little mobilization on the part of progressive and leftist forces to the attacks on voting rights. Where are the marches, protests, sit-ins? Are people waiting for Biden to pick up the mantle? Do some on the Left think the battle is unimportant, on the grounds that “bourgeois democracy” is not worth saving? Are other factors at play? Whatever the answer, the time has come to directly address a threat that could stifle today’s effort to develop a socialist alternative to capital’s drive for self-destruction.