In a tough speech in Atlanta last week, President Joe Biden attempted to shame senators who have been blocking passage of the voting rights bill; legislation that would counteract new laws in several states that make it harder for people to vote, particularly people who do not happen to be white Republicans.
“So, I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered?” Biden said. “At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. (Martin Luther) 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?”
Well, now we know the answer to that question. On a senate vote to bypass the filibuster and allow a subsequent vote on the voting rights bill, all 50 GOP senators and two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, chose to stand, by Biden’s reckoning, with a segregationist governor, a notoriously racist Alabama lawman and the president of the slave-owning Confederacy.
Manchin and Sinema justified their decision as a defense of the filibuster, the arcane senate rule that allows any single senator to stop consideration of a bill. There are a number of reasons that choice is infuriatingly stupid, but just as galling was Manchin’s contention that the bill was not really needed since the government will help out anyone who has their voting rights impeded. Which government would that be? The state government that limited their ability to vote in the first place? Or the federal government whose ability to defend voting rights has been seriously circumscribed by the Supreme Court?
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a similarly nonsensical argument about why the bill was unnecessary. “The concern is misplaced,” the Kentucky Republican said, “because, if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”
OK, there are two problems there. One, turnout among Black voters has, indeed, been high in recent elections and, because that factor boosted Democrats, it is the exact reason Republican legislators all over the country have chosen to impose restrictions aimed at suppressing the turnout of non-white, Democratic voters. Problem two: Did McConnell mean to say Black voters are not Americans?
Though the comment caused a justified uproar among Black politicians, McConnell probably did not mean it quite the way it slipped out of his mouth. On the other hand, he does belong to a party in which quite a few people define a “true American” as a white Christian living in a small town.
Various political observers have noted that the politics of today’s GOP is very much in line with the 1960s-era race-baiting, cultural grievance populism of Alabama Gov. George Wallace (although, to give Wallace credit, he was not a fake populist like most of the current Republican leaders who pander to working-class voters but lavish their true affection on rapacious billionaires). In that context, it is no surprise that not a single Republican senator voted to support voting rights.
Manchin and Sinema? It is still a bit of a mystery why the filibuster is so important to them that they would fail to defend the most sacred right of American citizens. Whatever their true motivations may be, they have chosen which side they are on. And it is not the side of King, Lewis and Lincoln.
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