I’m going to try to not lose my temper, but I make no promises.
This is from Joe Biden’s inaugural address, which is eight days shy of exactly a year ago.
We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you we will not fail. We have never ever, ever, failed in America when we’ve acted together.
This is from his speech in Georgia yesterday:
So, I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered? At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?
So, what changed? To listen to Biden, Kamala Harris, Chuck Schumer, most Democrats, and a whole bunch of journalists, what changed was an existential threat to democracy. “Voter suppression” is a plague sweeping across the land that literally threatens to end democracy in America. Biden & Co. base this grave appraisal on three distinct claims.
The first is that there has been an epidemic of laws “making it harder to vote.”
The second is that Georgia is at the bleeding edge of this effort with voter suppression laws so heinous that they, by themselves, represent “Jim Crow 2.0.”
Last is that Trump loyalists are in the process of rigging the 2024 presidential election by preparing an end run on legitimate vote counts.
So, here’s my grading of these claims: The first is very, very weak. The second is shameful, demagogic, ahistorical garbage. The third is incomplete.
Restricting the right to vote.
So let’s start with the first claim. It comes almost entirely from an accounting by the Brennan Center for Justice.
As Joe Biden said yesterday, “Last year alone, 19 states not [only] proposed but enacted 34 laws attacking voting rights.”
Here’s how the Brennan Center put it October:
In all but seven states, regular legislative sessions are now over. Between January 1 and September 27, at least 19 states enacted 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote. At the same time, lawmakers in many states responded to Americans’ eagerness to vote by making it easier for eligible voters to cast their ballots. Between January 1 and September 27, at least 25 states enacted 62 laws with provisions that expand voting access.
I don’t know which state got in a restrictive law to bump up the tally to 34, but it doesn’t matter. As you can see, nearly twice as many laws enacted expanded voting as restricted it.
Now, the Brennan folks make a perfectly fine point that not all voting rights laws are equal. If, for example, a state banned absentee voting—which hasn’t happened—that wouldn’t cancel out a state expanding absentee voting by another week.
But here’s the first problem. Many of these laws essentially repealed the changes made to account for the pandemic. A reasonable person can argue that they should all be made permanent, I suppose. But a reasonable person cannot plausibly argue that returning our voting practices to those in effect in 2018—when Democrats had sweeping victories—is proof that democracy is on the cusp of being eliminated and that anyone who supports the status quo ante of 2018 is taking the side of Jefferson Davis and Bull Connor. (Heck, voter laws were much more restrictive across the country a decade earlier, according to the criteria pushed by Democrats. Does that mean Barack Obama was elected our first black president in a Jim Crow country? Big, if true.)
Now, some laws went further than that, and I am entirely open to arguments that some of those changes were ill-advised. Heck, I agree that some were ill-advised and unnecessary. But none of these changes amount to “Jim Crow 2.0.” One reason I know this is because nobody—including Joe Biden—has been able to point to a single example of a law that comes within miles of Jim Crow restrictions. If they had such an example, you can be sure they wouldn’t be keeping it secret.
Consider voter ID laws, which are constantly cited as part of this racist, undemocratic tsunami. Tightening voter ID laws may or may not be a good idea. Personally, I think they’re fine in principle. But let’s concede that they’re bad. You know who else thinks they’re fine? A very large majority of Americans, including a majority of black Americans. A Monmouth poll this year found that 80 percent of Americans support voter ID requirements and only 18 percent oppose them. That’s not a new finding. In 2016, Gallup also found that 4 in 5 Americans support voter ID requirements, including 77 percent of nonwhite voters.
Again, are the majority of Americans siding with Jefferson Davis? Really?
And just to be clear, not all of the laws expanding the “right to vote” are good. Democrats have been pushing to make ballot harvesting (allowing individuals to collect ballots from others and drop them off at polling locations or early-voting drop boxes) easier. I think that’s wrong. If you disagree with me, that’s fine. But if you think that makes me a racist, my response is, “Go to Hell.”
Georgia, out of their minds.
More on that in a moment. Let’s move on to Georgia, which, we are told over and over again, is slipping back into Jim Crow because of an election law, SB 202, passed in March. The next day Biden called the law “un-American” and “Jim Crow 2.0.” Again, I don’t think the law was necessary and there are parts of it that I think are bad, but there are also parts of it that are good. Or, more to the point, good from the perspective of making it easier to vote. It expanded early voting to 17 days, including two Saturdays. It did tighten the window to get an absentee ballot in the first place to … 67 days prior to the election. The horror.
A lot has been made of the law’s “ban” on bringing food and water to people waiting in line to vote. But it does allow for polling places to provide water and says this restriction applies only: “(1) Within 150 feet of the outer edge of any building within which a polling place is established; (2) Within any polling place; or (3) Within 25 feet of any voter standing in line to vote at any polling place.” More horror.
By the way, the average wait time to vote in 2020 was less than three minutes.
Again, reasonable people can disagree about all of these provisions. But Biden is trying to bully reasonable people, especially reasonable Democratic senators, with accusations of racism. That’s grotesque.
Jim, what now?
Let’s pause to talk about Jim Crow for a moment. When assessing the very real evils of Jim Crow, restrictions on voting are pretty low on the list. I’m not saying they weren’t evil, but the root of their evil was that they were a means to an end to secure far greater evils—like the ability to beat or lynch blacks, often with impunity. Jim Crow impoverished generations of blacks by preventing them from participating in the economy, traveling, or utilizing their constitutional and God-given rights. Jim Crow was a form of apartheid.
If Georgia has been moving toward Jim Crow 2.0, one has to wonder: Why are so many blacks moving there, never mind staying there? The black population of Georgia nearly doubled from 1990 to 2019. Whatever you think about their right to vote, a lot of them voted with their feet to live in Georgia—and disproportionately from states like Chuck Schumer’s New York, where voting is notoriously difficult compared to places like … Georgia. Again, Georgia has 17 days of early voting. New York? Nine. Georgia allows “no excuse” absentee voting. In 2020, Andrew Cuomo signed a bill allowing people to use COVID as an excuse. A ballot initiative to allow “no excuse” voting failed by a healthy margin in 2021, a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 2 to 1.
They come from below.
Okay, let’s move briefly to the third claim: that Trump loyalists are positioning to ignore the will of the people by ignoring legitimate votes. These claims take two forms: 1) Some “Big Lie” Trump loyal Republicans are running for office and can’t be trusted to follow the rules, and 2) Some states have passed laws that put partisan officials in charge of the election process (or empower them to overrule apolitical state officials).
Obviously, I would prefer such people not run for office. But to date, they haven’t done anything yet, and so I don’t understand what people think can be done about it. Surely people have a right to run for office and, more importantly, if voters elect such candidates, the self-styled saviors of democracy can’t really be arguing that the will of the voters must be ignored.
As for the second problem, I think those changes to state laws were unnecessary, unhelpful, and in some cases indefensible. But again, if duly elected officials change laws within the boundaries of the Constitution, I’m at a loss to see how that is, in itself, undemocratic. It’d be one thing if they were enacting Jim Crow style laws. That would be undemocratic. But. They’re. Not.
Okay, I think I’ve been remarkably restrained. So let me speak a bit more freely now. Biden’s speech yesterday, and this whole project, is shameful, dangerous, stupid, and profoundly hypocritical.
Because the wheels are coming off his presidency, Biden has decided to divide Americans in ways he vowed he would not. Now, I don’t have any problem per se with politicians “dividing Americans.” Democracy is about disagreement, not unity. Unity is Biden’s bag and, as I pointed out at the time, I thought Biden’s unity schtick was clichéd nonsense. I’ve spent the better part of two decades ranting about the “cult of unity.”
But I do have a problem with a president dividing Americans by casting people he disagrees with as evil racists bent on destroying democracy—particularly when it’s not true (and when Biden himself played footsie with the very segregationists he’s now associating with his political opponents). Even worse, his lies are intended to sow even more distrust in our elections purely for partisan gain.
And let me just say right now that if any readers come at me with, “But what about Trump?” their arguments will find no purchase. I’ll stack my record of criticizing Trump for spewing hateful lies against pretty much anyone. But Biden staked his entire presidency on taking the high road; on not being like Trump. He vowed in his inaugural address, “I will be a president for all Americans. I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” He cribs Obama’s better rhetoric about there not being red states and blue states but the United States all the time. And he threw it all away yesterday.
And for what? I could go on about how the legislation he wants would make our electoral system worse in myriad ways, but that misses a crucial point. This legislation almost surely won’t pass, and probably the only way it can pass is by getting rid of the filibuster (even then it’s unlikely). If Biden, Schumer, and Pelosi actually cared about saving democracy and thwarting the Trumpist threat from below, or the joys of unity and bipartisanship, they’d focus on reforming the Electoral Count Act or writing a bill that could attract the votes of people like Mitt Romney. Instead, they’d rather cast Romney—who, as Sarah Isgur notes, was the first senator in American history to vote to impeach a president of his own party—as a partisan hack in league with Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis. If he cared about letting the “will of majority” prevail in the Senate as he claims, he’d work to craft legislation that a majority of the Senate could support. Instead, he’s saying they have to swallow policies that have been on the shelf for years or be guilty of racism.
That’s cynical and shameful—but it’s also so incredibly stupid. If this thing doesn’t pass, Biden will be the second president in a row to tell voters in Georgia there’s no point in voting because the system is rigged. If it does pass, thanks to a successful effort of abolishing the filibuster, these idiot demagogues will still probably lose the House and Senate in 2022. And if they lose the presidency in 2024—a reasonable bet—they might see all of these “reforms” repealed by Republicans. And Democrats would be powerless to stop them without the filibuster.
Biden’s presidency is spiraling into abject failure. Calling tens of millions of Americans racists to change the subject isn’t just bad politics and bad policy, it’s immoral, and it deserves to put him on the wrong side of history he keeps prattling about.