An attack of immense proportions is now underway in the US

Marching for voting rights Washington DC August 2021

By Martin Woodley

Having forced the US working class to accept the largest single event of mass deaths ever; exceeding the death toll due to both the 1918 – 21 Influenza Pandemic and the Civil War, and on course to double the number of deaths in World War II; the US ruling class are now pressing their advantage by inflicting reversals of historic proportions to gains made by the black population and by women. These are respectively voting rights encompassed in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and abortion rights encompassed in the 1973 Supreme Court judgement in the case Roe vs. Wade. In other words, these attacks seek to reverse gains made fifty years ago, which came about directly as a result of some of the most significant mass struggles – the civil rights movement and the women’s movement – since the second world war.

Many policies that are popular among the electorate would be unacceptable for the ruling class, particularly as they have expended so much energy in protecting profits during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the Democrats rely on the urban votes which form the core of their electoral coalition. In particular, the Democrats are heavily dependent on urban black and suburban female votes, and has been impacted repeatedly over the past decade by mass movements such as the Dreamers movement, the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement (the largest mass protest movement for fifty years), the Women’s march (2017, the largest single day protest in US history), etc.

The Republicans, which have been the dominant political force since 1968, have witnessed the first signs of the fracturing of their power in the southern and mid-western states with the loss of Arizona and Georgia in the presidential election in 2020, and the two senatorial runoff elections in Georgia in 2021. This fracturing of Republican power is not a fleeting phenomenon, but is the result of a long term urbanisation of the southern economy and the consequent growth and increasing weight of metropolitan centres such as Atlanta, Dallas and Miami. And within this urbanisation there is the increase in the non-white population relative to the white non-Hispanic population.

Demographic trends and partisan redistricting

As an example, the recent census data has shown that non-whites make up 95% of Texas population growth since 2010. Where the non-Hispanic white population increased by 1.6%, the Hispanic population increased by 20.1% and the black population increased by 19.3%. The Hispanic population now comprise 39.26% of Texas’ population whereas non Hispanic whites comprise 39.75%.

It has been projected that by 2050 89% of the US population will live in urban environments, and by 2045 non Hispanic whites will be a minority of the population as a whole. As of 2019, 27 of the largest 100 metropolitan areas already have minority white populations.

The US Hispanic population increased from 50.5 million to 62.1 million between 2010 and 2020, contributing more than half of all US population growth during the decade, and becoming the largest ethnic group in California in 2014.

As a result of the demographic changes the Republicans are increasingly embracing elements of white supremacist ideology, such as replacement theory, and bringing it into the mainstream. For instance, from the 2010 census 58% of Texas’ Congressional districts were majority white – today 35% of them are.

As a result of the census, as Texas was one of the winning states because of its growing population, which allows it to increase by two its number of congressional seats, the Republican controlled state legislature has control over the redistricting process which allows it to gerrymander its political control even further. A case in point is Fort Bend county – a highly diverse area which has a composition of 32% white, 25% Hispanic or Latino, 21% Asian and 21% Black. It has been reported that

“Donald Trump won the 22nd congressional district, which includes Fort Bend county, by about one percentage point in 2020. Just by reconfiguring the lines, cutting out the most Democratic areas, Republicans could transform it into a district that Trump would have won by more than 20 points.

“On Thursday [23 September], Texas Republicans unveiled a plan that essentially does just that. The draft map shifts the boundaries of the 22nd congressional district to annex Wharton and Matagorda counties, both of which overwhelmingly favored Trump in 2020. It carves out portions of Fort Bend and attaches them to already Democratic-leaning districts anchored in Houston. If the 2020 election were run under the new proposed boundaries, Trump would have carried the district by 16 points.

“Each decade, Republicans have tweaked the boundaries of the 22nd congressional district, which includes much of Fort Bend, to keep it a Republican seat…. The 22nd congressional district was the fastest-growing in the country over the last decade, …Republicans who redraw it will have to shed about 200,000 people from its boundaries to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of people.

“The story in Texas is very similar to the story across the United States. You’ve got urban areas that are increasingly disproportionately Democratic. And you’ve got rural areas that are disproportionately decreasing,” said Stephen Klineberg, a demographer at Rice University.

“You can’t prevent it. So redistricting becomes one of the major mechanisms by which the party that is in control of the senate, the house, and the governorship has really free rein now to redraw the districts to minimize the power of non-Anglos for the Republicans.”

Gerrymandering has been greatly assisted by a Supreme Court judgement in the case Rucho et al vs. Common Cause et al such that there are

“no federal limits on how far politicians could go to draw districts to their benefit. And for the first time since 1965, states with a history of voting discrimination won’t have to get their district approved by the federal government before they go into effect to ensure they don’t discriminate against minority voters. That could make a huge difference in Texas, where the state has drawn districts that violate the Voting Rights Act in every decade since the law was enacted.”

It is well known that there are popular majorities for a whole series of progressive policies that are emphatically not represented in Congress. The gerrymandering resulting from the redistricting ensures that as the population moves left, representation moves even further to the right. A new poll shows that “Nearly 8 In 10 Texas Voters Support Legal Abortion In Cases Of Rape Or Incest, Quinnipiac University Poll Finds; 63% Of Texans Say Suing Schools Over Mask Mandates Is A Bad Idea”. Yet, Texas has passed the most draconian abortion laws in the country and governor Greg Abbott has signed into law measures preventing school mask mandates.

These questions have been discussed previously in terms of the impending failure of the southern strategy – the electoral coalition built by the Republican Party after 1968 by which southern conservative white voters were detached from the Democrats and attracted to the Republicans. Over time, this strategy, constructed covertly on race, was augmented by further operations designed to expand their electoral base by encompassing the evangelical Christian right by invoking a defence of family values through the championing of limitations to abortion and LGBT+ freedoms. Latterly, popular discontent following the 2008 financial crash was channelled into racially charged opposition to the welfare state, universal entitlement, tax burdens and immigration by the Tea Party and the movement behind Trump. Each iteration propelled the Republicans further to the right.

The attack on voting rights

The peculiarity of American politics lies in the fact that whilst the US rose to become the foremost industrial power at the end of the nineteenth century, the working class has failed to create a mass permanent social democratic tradition, and has permanently low trade union participation rates. The most important factor in determining this peculiarity is the fact that white racial solidarity has been elevated far beyond multiracial class solidarity. The origins of this go back as far as the founding of the original British colonies themselves, a discussion of which is outside the scope of the present article. But the fact explains the major part of US history including the betrayal of post civil war reconstruction and the subsequent imposition of Jim Crow in the latter nineteenth century, the suppression of the progressive movement and the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, as well as the reaction to the civil rights successes of 1954 – 1964 with the adoption of the southern strategy by the Republican Party in 1968.

The class basis of voter suppression has been discussed previously and derives from the fact that while for most of US history white racial solidarity has kept multiracial class solidarity at bay, there have been examples where it has failed and which have posed a major threat to the interests of capital. The massive multiracial protests in 2020 around Black Lives Matter are the latest case in point. Therefore, as an insurance against class politics breaking through the US ruling class have adopted means whereby rural and small town votes are over represented while urban votes are under represented, and where urban votes – in particular those of black people – are prevented from being cast. This was explicitly the case in the southern states under Jim Crow, but more generally is the case informally to one degree or another. In the current context on the back of the massive multiracial protests in 2020 around Black Lives Matter and building on the foundation laid by the Bernie Sanders 2016 and 2020 campaigns a social democratic left explicitly identifying with the working class as a whole has advanced.

The struggle over voting rights has been discussed in a previous article describing the gutting of Sections 4 and 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court judgement of 2013 in Shelby County vs. Holder. The effect of this decision was immediate and widespread – within 24 hours of the ruling Texas, Alabama and Mississippi began to enforce strict photo ID requirements. Ever since widespread purges of voter rolls have occurred, which were massively intensified under the Trump presidency.

While there were the well known attempts to enforce impediments to voting during the 2020/2021 elections it is generally acknowledged that voting methods were expanded due to the pandemic. This resulted in greatly increased voter registration and voter turnout, with 45% voting by mail and 25% voting early. However, the impediments that did exist show clear racial disproportions, as is shown in the chart below.

The implication is clear – if impediments to voting are increased in future elections voters of colour will be massively disproportionately affected.

In July this year the Supreme Court in a ruling of Brnovich vs. DNC upheld an Arizona law which effectively guts Section 2 of the 1965 Act, which enables legal challenges to laws which have a discriminatory purpose or outcome. This means that currently voting rights are entirely dependent on the legislation which applies within individual states. Thus, of the two central demands of the 1963 march on Washington – a comprehensive civil rights bill, and protection of the right to vote – only formal civil rights continues to exist today.

While the Supreme Court is firmly in the control of conservatives that seek to roll back voting rights as is clear from the aforementioned rulings Shelby County vs. Holder and Brnovich vs. DNC, the Democrats currently control both houses of Congress plus the administration. Therefore they ought to be able to reinstate voting rights through Congressional legislation. And to this end there are some sharp struggles taking place. Two bills, one aimed at reinstating the provisions of the Voting Rights Act – the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Bill, and the other – The For The People Bill aimed at extending voting rights, ending gerrymandering and overhauling campaign finance are currently in Congress. The problem is that divisions within the Democrats prevent them from making passage.

Essentially, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin refuses to pass any bill that doesn’t have bipartisan support, and refuses to abolish the Senate filibuster so that at least ten Republican Senators are needed to support Democrat legislation. Instead, Joe Manchin together with a group of Democratic Senators including Amy Klobuchar and Rafael Warnock have put together an alternative bill – The Freedom To Vote bill. This is nothing but sleight of hand since whilst it includes some minor advances on the current situation like expanding early voting and felon re-enfranchisement, leaves out the important provisions such as the restoration of the federal preclearance that was nullified by the Supreme Court ruling from 2013 and the banning of mass purges of voter rolls. However, even the modest advances contained in the bill will prevent it from gaining the support of the requisite ten Republican Senators needed to overcome the filibuster.

On Wednesday, 20 October The Freedom To Vote Bill was debated in the Senate on a procedural motion designed to test Republican support – every single Republican Senator voted against, leaving Manchin’s attempt to attain a semblance of bipartisan support in tatters. Naturally, the response of activists is predictable and entirely reasonable.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, which played such a pivotal role in the 2020 elections, speaking on the Black News Channel discussing the possibilities of passing the Freedom To Vote Bill has expressed the widely felt frustration. Ominously for Democrat hopes in the midterms she has tweeted

“Personally, I am going to work as hard in the midterms as they work to secure voting rights protections.

We will see.”

The Atlantic staff reporter, Peter Nicholas reporting on a conversation with an administration official wrote;

‘I asked a White House official about those who are frustrated with inaction on voting rights protections. “Every constituency has their issue,” the official said. “If you ask immigration folks, they’ll tell you their issue is a life-or-death issue too.”’

LaTosha Brown responding to Peter Nicholas tweet:

“This kind a cavalier attitude about voting rights has been the consistent message coming out of the WH. This quote affirms voting rights are NOT a priority for Biden administration. They are severely underestimating how Black voters will respond to this posture. It’s not good.”

The signature of the Biden administration’s willingness to force legislation by any means necessary is its attitude to the filibuster. This is notably lacking, as has been noted by Peter Nicholas:

“…In one crucial respect, Biden has been holding back: He has yet to give a full-throated statement that Senate Democrats need to end the filibuster.”

This one question more than any other single item has led to the inability to make legislative progress.

“..apart from a COVID-19 relief package passed six months ago, his agenda has stalled. Negotiations to overhaul police practices after the George Floyd murder have collapsed, while a push to protect voting rights has sputtered.”

The initial pursuit of an aggressive agenda such as the Covid relief package, including $1400 checks, and the promise of a $15 per hour minimum wage and an infrastructure bill that included new green jobs and improved funding for services, not to mention criminal justice reform following the Black Lives Matter upsurge in 2020, has incrementally given way to widespread pessimism as the administration works to lower the expectations of the Democrat base. Having started his legislative term by seeking to make concessions for the sake of bipartisan dealmaking, it is now clear that the political struggle has reduced to the struggle within the Democratic Party between its progressive and corporate wings.

There have been notable protests outside the US Capitol, including state legislators who travelled to support Texas state legislators who valiantly absented themselves from voting on restrictive voting laws to deny the Republican majority a quorum. The response in Texas was to issue warrants for their arrest. The sweeping Texas voting restrictions bill was finally passed in August. This measure along with a bill which imposes a near total ban on abortions, and the passing in June this year of the Texas “Critical Race Theory” bill which prescribes how teachers can talk about “current events” and America’s history of racism, arguably makes Texas the most right wing state in the country.

Democrats are contemplating the implications of the current blockage in Congress with a growing sense of unease. The Brennan Law Centre have reported:

“Between January 1 and July 14, 2021, at least 18 states enacted 30 laws that restrict access to the vote. These laws make mail voting and early voting more difficult, impose harsher voter ID requirements, and make faulty voter purges more likely, among other things. More than 400 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.”

In March this year the Georgia state legislature passed restrictive voter legislation that included provision for the state to take over a county election board if it is deemed to have problems of mismanagement or fraud. In August the state election board appointed a panel to investigate past elections in Fulton County, which in 2020 voted 72.6% for Biden against 26.2% for Trump.

Democrat control of the Senate is on a knife edge, while the majority in the House is wafer thin. Clinton, Obama and Trump all lost control of the House in their first midterms, and 2022 will see gerrymandered redistricting on a massive scale. If Congressional protections of voting rights is not put onto the statute books, 2022 will be the prelude to the most extreme Republican administration and Congress for a hundred years.