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Voting Rights, Democracy, and the “Dignity of Man”

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President Lyndon Johnson opened his remarks to Congress urging passage of the Voting Rights Act with these words:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.

A few moments later, Johnson quoted Matthew 16:26:

What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a challenge to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The conservative justices lobbed hostile and for the most part uninformed questions at defenders of the historic legislation. It’s obvious that those judges couldn’t give a fig about the dignity of man or the destiny of democracy.

It is also clear in this and other instances – Citizens United comes to mind – that the Roberts Court is all about protecting material profits of the few from the justice sought by the many. Gain the whole world they might. Their souls I’ll leave for others to judge.

The American Right’s recent war on voting rights is a disgrace. For all their endless prattle about freedom, their voter suppression campaigns betray their anti-democratic natures. It is not citizen empowerment they seek, it is the guarantee of their own power. It’s hard to imagine how they can reconcile their anti-democratic behavior with their professed love of democracy.

Their rationalizing gymnastics require two twisted beliefs. They must first diminish the humanity of those they seek to disenfranchise. Sociologists call it infrahumanization. The targets of out-group prejudice are considered just a little less human than in-group members. Sadly, recent studies show this is a habit shared by many around the world. So when the perpetrators of voter suppression hear a phrase like “the dignity of man,” they think it refers only to them and not the targets of their suppression efforts.

In a related move, vote suppressors have to believe in a natural hierarchy or order in which God or Nature has chosen their group for dominion over others. Most who hold this belief would deny it, of course. They may even deny it to themselves. They may never utter a racial epithet. But their world is turned upside down when someone from the out-category is suddenly in a position of power over them.

There are also cynical Machiavellians who know better, of course. They are quite happy to exploit the bigoted to enhance their own wealth and power.

It is obscene that there’s even a question about the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. And the Roberts Court may understand the potential public backlash. Consequently, some observers think the court will leave intact the critical Section 5 of the act that requires Justice Department pre-clearance of changes to voting laws in several states and jurisdictions. Instead, the Court will gut the Act by undoing Section 4, the formula for choosing the jurisdictions to which the VRA applies. This could allow the Court to try and escape the charge of overturning the VRA.

If we want to continue to gloat about being the world’s greatest democracy, we should be moving in the opposite direction. We should remove any and all barriers to voting by eligible citizens. The VRA should be expanded to cover the entire nation. We should expand early voting. Election day itself should be made a holiday. We should streamline registration efforts and allow for same-day registration or, better, automatically register all eligible Americans when they reach age 18. We should have real, universal voting standards that apply to all citizens no matter where they live.

The destiny of democracy is at stake, just as Johnson said it was in 1965. The recent assaults on voting rights across the country prove that the VRA is not obsolete, as the enemies of popular democracy argue. They prove that there are a good number of Americans who do not believe in democracy at all. We cannot let them prevail.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith