Johnson, Voting Rights

GOP Channels Southern Democrats in the 1960’s…

On a Monday night 56 years ago next month, Lyndon Johnson ambled his way on to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to play the role, as one of his biographers has written, of “one shrewd heartland politician finishing what another had started.” 

“The galleries were jammed with whites and blacks, some in street clothes fresh from demonstrations and others in business attire,” historian Randall Woods wrote of the scene. The president’s wife and a daughter were in the crowd, so was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. But the entire Mississippi delegation was boycotting the speech. Those unreconstructed segregationists Democrats, still embracing the grievance of a lost cause, knew what was coming. 

Lyndon Johnson speaks to Congress, March 15, 1965

“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom,” Johnson said in his low, familiar Texas drawl. “So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”

The week before – forever etched in American memory as “Bloody Sunday”- voting rights advocates had been routed and brutalized in Selma, Alabama. The next day’s coverage on the front page of the New York Times ran under the headline: “Alabama police use gas and clubs to rout Negros.” A four-column photo showed Alabama state troopers beating a young marcher – future Georgia congressman John Lewis – leaving his skull fractured and blood on his white shirt and tan raincoat. 

The ugly, un-American state terrorism at the Edmund Pettus Bridge – the bridge still carries the name of a Confederate general and Alabama leader of the Klan – was a hinge moment in political history, and LBJ seized the moment. He would push a Voting Rights Act (VRA) to finally make real the promise of that earlier heartland politician, Abraham Lincoln, martyred in his pledge to guarantee equal rights for all Americans.

Alabama state troopers assault John Lewis during a voting rights march in 1965

“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro,” Johnson told the country and the Congress in 1965. “His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform.

“He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy.” 

Writing recently in The Atlantic, journalist Vann R. Newkirk II correctly asserted that passage of the VRA “finally delivered on the stated ideals of the country,” but now in state after state across the country that ideal “hangs by a thread.” 

From Georgia to Arizona, Montana to Idaho, Republican dominated state legislatures are attempting to do what southern segregationist Democrats did in earlier days: make it more difficult, if not impossible for some Americans to vote. It is no accident that this wave of new era vote suppression and denial comes on the heels of a record vote in a presidential election where a Democrat won the White House over a man who over and over perpetuated a big lie about elections being stolen, dead people voting and ballots being manufactured. 

By repeating time and again that some Americans are “skeptical about the integrity of our elections” Republicans, including the former president, have manufactured a malicious assault on American democracy. It quite simply amounts to the biggest lie ever told about American politics. 

Minnesota’s secretary of state Steve Simon described recently what is happening: “Some folks bring these proposals forward and say, ‘Well, we just need to address confidence in our election systems,’ when it’s some of those very same people, or at least their allies and enablers, [who] have denigrated our election system by either telling lies or at least leveraging or relying on other people’s lies to justify some of these policies.” 

This tactic is the voting rights equivalent of the fellow who murdered his parents and then insisting on leniency because he’s an orphan. 

The Republican floor leader of the Idaho House of Representatives, a guy so cynical that he blasted federal efforts to provide financial assistance to businesses whacked by the impacts of the pandemic and then ended up taking the aid himself, is a champion of the “many people are saying” logic of voter suppression. 

“There are a lot of people in this country looking at what happened in other states — some of those states had ballot harvesting — that feel like they were victimized by the outcome of this last national election,” Mike Moyle said recently as he pushed a bill to restrict your ability to pick up and drop off your elderly grandparent’s absentee ballot.

In the face of precisely no evidence of abuse, Moyle said the quiet part out loud while pushing an earlier even more restrictive bill. “You know what? Voting shouldn’t be easy,” Moyle said. Other legislators are seeking to ruin the ability of voters to take action using the time-test initiative method. 

The gentleman from Idaho won’t appreciate the reference, or likely understand it, but he’s a latter-day version of Mississippi segregationist James Eastland who resisted the Voting Rights Act by claiming his state had a right to disqualify certain voters and, after all, some communists must certainly be mixed up in this push to get more people to vote. 

Mississippi segregationist James O. Eastland

In the 56 years since Johnson framed the basic right to vote as a “battle for equality” rooted in “a deep-seated belief in the democratic process,” the two political parties have traded places on voting rights. Democrats, believing that making it easier to vote and easier for more people to vote, have embraced policies like motor voter registration, mail voting and same day registration. Republicans, looking fearfully at what high turnout portends for their long-term electoral success, now broadly reject inclusive policies and endorse conspiracy theories about stolen elections. In 2013, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court gutted a key enforcement provision of the landmark 1965 law, and the GOP resists efforts to address stronger enforcement. 

In politics the truth is often hiding in plain sight. Georgia voters, including record turnout among African Americans, elected two Democratic senators in January, one, the state’s first black U.S. senator, the other, the first Jewish senator in the state’s history. More people voting is good for democracy. Attempting to keep more people from voting is good for Republicans. 

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Additional Reading:

Some items you may find of interest…

Rush Limbaugh Was Trapped in the ’80s: It’s his fault that our politics were, too.

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh takes a break and smokes a cigar during his radio show. (Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Michael J. Socolow has an insightful piece on the recently departed talk radio personality and his impact on American politics.  

“Limbaugh’s influence on U.S. politics from the Reagan era to the Trump presidency was enormous. To discuss him primarily as a media figure (many credit him with saving the AM radio band when FM radio listening became dominant) is to overlook his more general impact on American political culture. He did not innovate radio programming, nor did he leave an easily replicable formula for a successful show. Like Arthur Godfrey and Walter Winchell before him, there was only one Rush Limbaugh. And like those two earlier giants in U.S. radio, Limbaugh’s style and massive audiences will no doubt disappear along with him. For better or for worse, there won’t be another one like him.” 

Read the entire article:


The Filibuster That Saved the Electoral College

A central character in my new book on four 1980 U.S. Senate races is Indiana Senator Birch Bayh. He was an enormously important political figure and it’s almost lost to history that he came remarkably close in 1968 to doing away with the Electoral College.

“Mr. Bayh had been pushing for a popular vote since 1966, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had ended the Jim Crow era and pulled America closer than it had ever been to a truly representative democracy. Electing the president directly was the next logical step in that progression.”

Read how a Senate filibuster killed the effort. Bayh called it the biggest disappointment of his political life.


One night in Cancun: Ted Cruz’s disastrous decision to go on vacation during Texas storm crisis

Cruz fled disastrous winter weather and ran into another kind of storm

In this delightfully snarky take down of the oleaginous Texas senator the Washington Post’s Ashely Parker strikes a blow for freedom.

“Usually, it takes at least one full day in Cancún to do something embarrassing you’ll never live down.

“But for Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), it took just 10 hours — from when his United plane touched down at Cancún International Airport at 7:52 p.m. Wednesday to when he booked a return flight back to Houston around 6 a.m. Thursday — for the state’s junior senator to apparently realize he had made a horrible mistake.”

The most hated man in the Senate expands his reach.

Read about it here:


Thanks for following along.

And please check out my author website for regular updates about events and talks related to my new book Tuesday Night Massacre: Four Senate Elections and the Radicalization of the Republican Party.

2020 Election, Voting Rights

Let ‘Em Vote…

Wisconsin, a state with a long progressive political tradition were state-level innovations were once the rule, recently held a vote-in-person primary election in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The election went ahead after the Republican dominated state legislature sued the Democratic governor who had wanted to delay the election and create time to allow more folks to vote by mail. 

The conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled for the Republicans, as subsequently did the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s rationale was tortured to say the least. Court’s ought not to interfere with state election laws, the majority said, notwithstanding the inconvenience of an unprecedented pandemic. Oh, yes, and notwithstanding the precedent the Court established in 2000 when five justices handed the presidency to George W. Bush by ordering that Florida state law be set aside and a recount stopped.

Voters line up in Wisconsin to cast ballots in the recent primary. (USA Today photo)

Failing to see the Republican action in Wisconsin and the Court’s ultimate decision to ignore reality as anything less than an effort at partisan vote manipulation is failing to see the forest for the trees.  

In Wisconsin there were numerous predictions that hundreds of thousands of people showing up in polling places would surely lead to more coronavirus cases and sure enough the Milwaukee health commissioner reported earlier this week that at least seven new cases of the virus are traceable to people exercising their franchise. 

All this is a sickly preview of what is likely to happen in November. Failure to adopt vote by mail policies nationally could profoundly impact the presidential and other elections this year. It’s really not too much to call it a crisis for democracy. It doesn’t have to be. 

In a couple of weeks my vote by mail ballot will arrive in my post office box in Oregon. I’ll mark the ballot in the privacy of my dining room table and mail it back or drop the ballot in a special collection box in town. The ballot will need to arrive or be dropped off by election day – May 19. Oregon has been exclusively a vote by mail state for 20 years and it works like a charm – clear, easy and clean. Oregon’s system enjoys bipartisan support, as well. 

Oregon has had an exclusive vote by mail system for 20 years

“Vote-by-mail is cheap and convenient,” Oregon’s Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno said recently, “it’s given Oregon one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country, and we’ve proven that it’s very secure. In the wake of COVID-19, it also prevents voters from having to choose between staying safe at home and casting their ballot.”

According to records assembled by the conservative Heritage Foundation voter fraud in Oregon is hardly a problem since there is strict enforcement with fines for offenders. As the Eugene Register-Guard reported recently Oregon has had only 15 vote fraud cases since 2000, compared with Mississippi’s 29 cases since 2000 and Minnesota’s 130 cases since 2009. Those states are about the same size as Oregon and only allow in-person voting. In another analysis, The Brennan Center at New York University Law School has calculated the rate of Oregon voter fraud on 100 million ballots cast at .0012 percent. 

Voting by mail has other benefits, as well. I suspect we’ve all been in the position of standing in the voting booth looking at the candidates in an obscure special district election or down ballot race and thinking: “Who should I support for the board of the local mosquito abatement district or I don’t know anything about the candidates for state treasurer.” While sitting at the dining room table filling out your vote by mail ballot you can actually take a moment and educate yourself about such things. 

Vote by mail is also good for working families, seniors, people with disabilities who may have trouble getting to the polls and citizens who are non-native speakers of English. 

Additionally, and some campaigns really dislike this part, vote by mail helps minimize the impact of the last-minute campaign smear. When ballots start arriving two weeks before election day the spurious, two days before the election slimy charge that leaves no time for response isn’t nearly as effective. Campaigns are, at least slightly, less dirty as a result. 

Oregon is remarkably fast at counting ballots, too and results are often known within an hour or so of the polls closing. 

Oregon’s senior senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, is a national champion for voting by mail and has been joined by a host of Democrats in pushing for the idea. But time is running out to get a system in place by November, and of course Mitch McConnell is obstructing. 

Republicans generally don’t like vote by mail and President Trump has spun his usual fantasy arguments and conspiracy theories about the process. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters,” Trump said recently and incoherently. “They go collect them. They are fraudulent in many cases. They have to vote. They should have voter ID, by the way.” Trump, of course, has voted absentee since becoming a Florida resident, but never mind that. The man knows what he doesn’t know. 

Traditional, in person voting in November is clearly going to be difficult and the situation presents a threat to democracy

Trump went on to say the quiet part out loud, admitting his real concern with mail voting, as he said, is that “for whatever reason, [it] doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” 

Total fantasy. Utah, one of the most Republican states in the country, has gone almost entirely to vote by mail. Colorado, a swing state, has voted by mail since 2014. 

The canard that making it easier for people to vote would harm Republicans was clearly behind the recent Wisconsin debacle. Republican leaders there desperately wanted to help a conservative state supreme court judge win re-election and they cynically calculated that pandemic impacted in-person voting would hurt turnout and help the judge. Ironically, even while many Wisconsinites requested absentee ballots and hundreds of thousands voted in person, often wearing masks while standing in line at a drastically reduced number of polling places, the conservative judge lost in a landslide. Turns out that people like to vote. Little wonder some Republicans want to make it difficult. 

When historian Alexander Keyssar, who has written extensively on voting rights, testified before Congress in 2006 he said, “Our history makes plain that the right to vote can be as fragile as it is fundamental.” Protecting our right to vote – and making it easier by voting by mail – should represent a bipartisan commitment to democracy. That it doesn’t speaks directly to the fragility of the American experience. 

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Additional reading:

  • The president and his allies are working overtime to rewrite the history of the last couple of months. That reality makes this remarkable piece from The Bulwark all the more important. The title sums it up nicely – Ten Weeks That Lost the War. You’ll want to keep this and share it with your kids and grandkids.
  • You have likely seen news coverage this week of “protests” in several states from Washington to Idaho to Michigan against state-level state at home orders. These events may seem to be stimulated from the grassroots, but they are not as the Washington Post has confirmed. And as this piece from a scholar who studies the radical right makes clear there is a vast amount of disinformation and conspiracy floating out there.
  • And there is this. One remarkable aspect of the current world situation is that a number of really wonder publications – the New York Review and the London Review of Books for example – have gone into the archives to find great stories to give us perspective. I’ll try to keep posting at least one a week here. This week a piece from September 1940 from The New Yorker. Read the whole thing.