“No matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.” (Lily Tomlin)
I have a friend who talks about “the default world.” He means the one in which we adjust to absurdity, tolerating behavior that we ought to rebuke, simply because in that diminished reality it has become normalized.
In the default world, U.S. elections are won by a small proportion of those legally entitled to vote, and right-wing politicians normalize the notion that even some of them should be disqualified. But this is in no sense normal or usual. This voter turnout chart puts the USA lowest on a list of 39 nations. In the 2008 presidential election, voter turnout was about 57 percent, still quite low compared to many other nations. In fact, that is not much more than half the voting rate in some countries, where the law encourages rather than suppresses electoral participation: did you know that 30 nations have mandatory voting? Not all of them enforce it, but one that does is Australia. Resignation or indifference has something to do with our low turnout, to be sure, but increasingly, it’s about suppression.
Look at the culture of U.S. electoral politics with new eyes, and what do you see? A default world in which an entrenched and self-dealing elite uses its power to reduce democracy to a mere formality, doing everything possible to prevent those who object from having a say.
Imagine a satirical film in which fat cats promulgate ever more cruel and absurd rules to prevent those under their thumbs from wriggling free. The images and ideas just flow, don’t they? But the flow stops when I remember that reality trumps satire. The Republicans’ desperate realpolitik—which hardly even genuflects in the direction of ethics or principle—asks us to accept a political culture in which half the electorate is written off as surplus to requirements, worthy only of tactics and tricks that prevent their voting. Mitt Romney said as much in a video captured at one of his fundraisers in May and published this week by Mother Jones.
In the satirical film unspooling in my mind, it’s hard to imagine an ending that doesn’t turn the tables on the villains.
Well, perhaps life will imitate art. Ta-Nehisi Coates had an interesting short piece on the Atlantic website yesterday, explaining how the dog-whistle politics devised by the late Lee Atwater and perfected by today’s Republican right carry a double message. On the one hand, they encode vicious racism without using explicitly racist language, emitting signals that can only be heard by those attuned to their frequency. On the other, Coates points out that they also show how things have changed:
[A]s tactics aimed at suppressing black citizenship become more abstract, they also have the side-effect of enveloping non-blacks. Atwater’s point that the policies of the Southern Strategy hurt blacks more than whites is well taken. But some whites were hurt too. This is different than the explicit racism of slavery and segregation. During slavery white Southerners never worried about disenfranchising blacks. After slavery they needed poll taxes and the force of white terrorism. After white terrorism was routed and the poll tax outlawed, they targeted the voting process itself. But at each level what you see is more non-black people being swept into the pool of victims and the pool expanding.
In fact, the casual, sub rosa racism of American political life generally requires that a sufficient number of white people be swept into the “pool of victims” before the sweeping commands attention. I thought of this as my friend Jerry Stropnicky, a theater artist in Pennsylvania who cofounded the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, posted this account on his Facebook page on 14 September, describing one consequence of the Republicans’ attempt to sweep potential Democratic voters off the rolls:
Ok. I’m at the PennDOT driver’s license center in Selinsgrove PA. I don’t need a Driver’s License. My next door neighbor is 96 years old, sharp as a tack. But she doesn’t drive anymore; she does, however, want to vote in November. She called, asked if I could drive her to the PennDOT photo center in Danville, minutes away. Sure, why not. We get there, but they can’t help her– she has to go to the Licensing Center in Selinsgove, roughly a 40 minute drive. So we’re here, she’s sitting down, I’m standing in line for her for a hour. This voter photo ID law puts every possible barrier between this 96 year old citizen and her right to vote. Appalling. Now that I am experiencing the runaround first hand, let me say emphatically that every legislator who voted for this criminal, anti-democratic law should be voted out of office at the next opportunity. This will add up to a 3 hour ordeal. Argh!
After an hour wait, the beleaguered but kind woman behind the counter at PennDOT helps my neighbor get her photo ID so she can vote. Shame on the politicians who passed this horrific legislation. There are ZERO documented cases of at-the-poll voter fraud (according to the PA Attorney General), but the legislature was willing to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of citizens like my neighbor just to gain some scurrilous political advantage. Shame on them.
Jerry’s post was accompanied by a photograph of a white-haired white lady in glasses at a Department of Transportation counter.
Also yesterday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sent the state’s voter ID law back to a lower-court judge with instructions to consider an injunction. That’s a long way from overturning it (and no guarantee the law won’t be in place to discourage voting for this November’s election). But progress nonetheless, and when you add it to the fact that courts have already overturned at least four states’ voter suppression laws, meaningful progress.
Jerry composed a letter to the editor about this incident, which he has sent to nine Pennsylvania papers. Here’s an excerpt:
According to the Sunbury PA DAILY ITEM, a state comparison found that there are 758,000 Pennsylvania registered voters who lack a driver’s license. These are the elderly, like my neighbor, who wisely gave up driving a few years ago, as well as the disabled, and folks too poor to own cars. They are rural people, like my neighbor, as well as suburbanites and city dwellers. “In the Valley,” the DAILY ITEM stated, “there are 8,700 people caught in this trap.”
What could be worth putting a 96 year-old woman through this? What could be worth potentially disenfranchising three-quarters of a million citizens?
Please don’t say this law is to prevent at-the-polls voter fraud: our PA Attorney General testified in court that there has never been a documented case of such fraud in the Commonwealth. It would be like passing a law to prevent purple striped giraffes from climbing around inside your chimney.
There’s nothing subtle about this. The facts are clear. There is no voter-fraud problem. The goal of voter ID laws is to make it more difficult for people to vote, and the people they want to discourage are immigrants, older people, and low-income people without drivers’ licenses, and anyone else for whom the dance of bureaucracy Jerry recounts would be daunting or logistically impossible. The effect is to eliminate electoral participation by as many people as possible who are clearly entitled to vote, giving disproportionate weight to the votes of those who easily interface with regulatory systems, who easily obtain the signifiers of social belonging. Those who created these laws know this and lie about it with inpugnity, and a remarkably large number of people—from pundits to ordinary people—treat it like no big deal. But more and more of us, like my friend Jerry Stropnicky, know that it is a very big deal indeed, and are standing to say so.
Here’s a link to the ACLU’s “Let People Vote” campaign, with details on voter suppression legislation and opposition to it.
Voter suppression highlights the question that is being put to Americans right now: history is calling us to choose whether we will go along with the charade that this type of behavior is normal and acceptable, that we will choose to live in the default world; or that we will awaken ourselves from its trance and—as I described here last week—live as if we took ourselves seriously. My post last week was about the individual choice to reject an absurd life. This one is about the collective choice made abundantly clear by the culture of electoral politics in the default world. Sadly, it may take a raft of white-haired white-lady ordeals to activate enough opposition to disrupt our adaptation to absurdity, but that opposition is gathering.
A great anthem of empathy done by a zillion wonderful musicians: “It Hurts Me Too.” Here’s the amazing original slide guitar Elmore James version, recorded half a century ago; and Karen Dalton’s unearthly vocals. But I’m going to give you this astounding version by Duane Allman playing with the Grateful Dead. “When things go wrong, go wrong with you, it hurts me too.” Indeed.