House Democrats on Tuesday listed the two main reasons why they want to impeach President Trump. The primary one was because he engaged in a form of voter suppression, though foreign election interference isn’t commonly understood as such. When the president leans on a less powerful counterpart, from Ukraine or elsewhere, to gin up a phony investigation of his potential 2020 opponent, he wasn’t merely doing Vladimir Putin a solid at Ukraine’s expense. Trump was attempting to rob American voters of their agency. If successful, we would not have a truly free and fair choice between him, the incumbent, and either Joe Biden or whoever the Democrats nominate.
It is a fascinating time, seeing this all unfold at the same time that Republicans in Congress prepare to block a new attempt to fix the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They appear ready to do this even as the still-unpopular Trump faces impeachment in the House for interfering in his own forthcoming election in 2020. The Republicans, apparently, feel no risk of political consequence. They have good reason not to.
With some pomp and circumstance, House Democrats celebrated the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act on Friday. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the former student leader who had his skull cracked 54 years ago in Selma marching for the very piece of legislation that he now aimed to repair, presided over the victorious vote. The bill, if it ever had a prayer of becoming law, would have restored over time the key VRA protections gutted by the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision. (Since then, at least 23 states have put new voter restrictions in place and every attempt at a legislative fix has gone nowhere in Congress.)
If the VRAA were to have become law, it would restore the federal preclearance that the Supreme Court struck down, recognizing its value for an America not yet rid of racism or voter suppression. Congress would have to approve anything from a voter-ID bill to a change in a polling place in a heavily nonwhite area. But I speak of these possibilities already in the past tense because despite the considerable, months-long Democratic investment in the VRAA, only one of the 197 currently elected House Republicans — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — voted for the bill. The Mitch McConnell-led Senate promises a defeat, and even in the unlikely scenario that the bill somehow survived, Trump has threatened to veto it.
Re-authorizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was not, once upon a time, a partisan matter. It was barely even newsworthy when they were passed. It was just what Congress did.
In 2006, when the Republican-controlled House handled the task with a 390-33 tally, we were in the middle of the second George W. Bush term: nearly a full year after the horror of Katrina and well into a White House tenure born in a controversial Supreme Court decision about disputed Florida ballots. There were certainly reasons for partisan angst back then. Plenty of Republican schemes were up and running to block black and Hispanic voters from the polls and America was even closer to its legacy of Jim Crow-era voter suppression. But the VRA remained intact. Republicans letting it die on their watch was apparently beyond the pale. Instead, they let the Supreme Court beat the Voting Rights Act to within an inch of its life.
It is blithe to simply say, “Things have changed.” What has changed? Not merely the fact that that the Republicans installed a vulgarian incompetent in the White House, with the conscious help of foreign interference that they appear ready to accept once again. No, there is a political insulation that they enjoy that must be examined, and challenged. Is it because Republicans have a propaganda network in Fox News, or lie with such impunity that they have made our politics into an epistemic wasteland? Is it the failure of our press to hold them properly to account, or that of the Democrats, or both?
No matter who or what is to blame, the reality is that while an impeachment about voter suppression and this new voting rights fix may prove significant — both in terms of what they signify to history and to the unsuppressed voters who vote for the Democratic ticket next November — they are not creating a unified narrative that serves the party’s ends. And that’s on the party. The Democrats, for all of their ability to draw parallels to America’s past of Jim Crow voter suppression, seem unable to connect impeachment to what the Republicans are doing to the Voting Rights Act and force any kinds of political consequences for what is not merely an offense against people of color, but against the very idea of democracy. Instead, we see them stepping on their own news by announcing a trade deal with Trump on the heels of their impeachment presser, perhaps so eager to quiet the intellectually vacant “do-nothing Democrats” criticism that they hand a victory to the same president who they want to evict from the White House. Yes, the same one who was brazen enough to welcome Moscow’s top diplomat back to Washington on the same day impeachment articles were introduced.
Adam Schiff, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, was nearly there on Tuesday morning when he warned those who would have them be more deliberate and wait to introduce articles of impeachment. “Why don’t you just let him cheat in one more election?” he argued, sarcastically. But impeachment, especially after McConnell’s Senate exonerates him, won’t stop Trump from interfering in the election. He will cheat, that much we can count upon. So will Republicans, in states far and wide, unencumbered by an operational Voting Rights Act.
I could wax on about the racial politics of the Republican decision to oppose the voting-rights fix for days, but why belabor the obvious? Whichever political party they have chosen since the days of Reconstruction, the people who are bent upon the preservation of white and male political power and the wealth that comes with it have never been reticent to use any number of inherently anti-democratic means in order to achieve that goal. Nowadays, courts filled with judges appointed by their presidents sign off on their discriminatory laws, further codifying racism. Nothing much has changed, save for the violence and the vocabulary.
It is well past time that Democrats alter theirs. The Voting Rights Act sought not merely to address racism, but to correct an imperfect America. Speak of protecting and emboldening civil rights in the language of patriotism, and help voters understand that Republicans see that imperfect America as not worth fixing. Then make impeachment into the voting-rights issue that it is, and connect it to the Voting Rights Act remedy. If passing the VRAA was, at least in part, about messaging to voters that elections matter, how better to publicize the need for a federal law that protects them and those who are most often prevented from participating in them?
For all of their House control, Democrats in Congress don’t have the strength to win this fight. Their voters might, however. The only way that the party will win, both in this struggle and in the election, is if they realize how to empower those voters who can still access the ballot. Naturally, Republicans know this, since the very people who they are trying to block from the ballot are the only ones who can hold them accountable for their assault on democracy. Given all that is at stake in the next presidential election, I sincerely hope that Democrats have also figured that out.