“Democracy and pluralism are under assault.” So reads the first line of Freedom House’s annual report card on the standing of liberty around the world, titled “Freedom in the World.” While this assessment is grimly accurate, one does not have to scan the globe seeking evidence for the ongoing assault on democracy. There was plenty to be found on Super Tuesday, right down in Texas.
Founded in 1941 by a cohort of activists and politicians that included Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendel Willkie, Freedom House is “a nongovernmental, nonpartisan advocacy organization,” according to The Washington Post. The group has published this report every year since 1973. “It has become the most widely read and cited report of its kind, used on a regular basis by policymakers, journalists, academics, activists, and many others,” according to the Freedom House website.
India’s surge toward Hindu nationalism and China’s repression of Uighurs and other Muslim groups, along with China’s efforts to disrupt democracies around the world, take center stage in this year’s Freedom House report. The report likewise notes the many citizen protest movements that have erupted across the globe. “However,” it reads, “these movements have in many cases confronted deeply entrenched interests that are able to endure considerable pressure and are willing to use deadly force to maintain power.”
The Freedom House report takes special notice of the United States under the administration of Donald Trump, finding many areas of deep concern. The report specifically cites Trump’s affinity for authoritarian leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as well as his relentless attacks on journalism and journalists in the U.S. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia, another authoritarian regime, are also underscored.
“Balancing specific security and economic considerations with human rights concerns has been difficult for every administration,” reads the report, “but the balance has grown especially lopsided of late. This problem has been compounded by efforts to undermine democratic norms and standards within the United States over the past several years, including pressure on electoral integrity, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption.”
Indeed, “efforts to undermine democratic norms and standards within the United States over the past several years, including pressure on electoral integrity,” were very much on display during the Texas primary on Tuesday. Texas election officials needed no help from the Trump administration to disenfranchise voters and damage the seedcorn of democracy, however. Chief Justice John Roberts and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court did all the heavy lifting on that seven years ago.
“The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote,” reported The New York Times in June of 2013, “freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. The decision will have immediate practical consequences. Texas announced shortly after the decision that a voter identification law that had been blocked would go into effect immediately, and that redistricting maps there would no longer need federal approval.”
In her dissent of the Shelby County v. Holder ruling on the Voting Rights Act (VRA), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described the decision as being tantamount to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, insisted that “our country has changed,” and minority voters no longer require federal protections for their right to vote, even in states where that right has been trampled on systematically and repeatedly.
Justice Ginsburg was correct. The consequences from the 2013 evisceration of the VRA, particularly the portion of the Act that protected marginalized voters in states with a long history of racial discrimination at the ballot box, came to full bloom in Texas this week.
Voters of color waited in line to vote for seven or more hours on Election Day, and the reason is no mystery. “One of the reasons there’s such long lines in Texas is that state closed 750 polling places after Supreme Court gutted Voting Rights Act,” reported journalist Ari Berman. “50 counties that gained most Black & Latino residents between 2012-2018 closed 542 polling sites.” Further reporting by the Guardian underscored Berman’s findings.
“I think we see a number of states that have more restrictive legislation than they would have if preclearance had been in place,” Myrna Pérez, head of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, said on the fifth anniversary of the court’s Shelby County decision. “I think we have seen some lawmakers push the envelope and see how far they can go with laws that disenfranchise people. And I do think that it contributed to a real ugliness in the country, with racism and the acceptance of racism.”
The Freedom House report emphasized that democracy is specifically under assault from “deeply entrenched interests that are able to endure considerable pressure.” One does not need to travel to China, India or Russia to witness this truth. The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has grown since 2012, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been packing the courts with conservative judges who cleave to the racist lie proffered by Chief Justice Roberts that claims “our country has changed.”
It has changed since 2013. It is worse now than it was then, and that trend has accelerated during the administration of Trump.
The idea that this country is a pure-hearted beacon of freedom is belied by history, by the fact that slavers drafted the Constitution in such a way as to defend their system of slavery. “Freedom” here has always been a pleasant fiction, but the long tide of activism has slowly but certainly invested more and more people with those freedoms white Europeans have taken for granted since first setting foot on this soil.
That work remains incomplete, and will always be incomplete because racism and white supremacy are the alleles that bind the DNA of this manufactured, plunder-born nation.
For all this, the struggle continues. First and foremost is the right to vote. Without it, even our ragged, purchased, corporate-owned democracy is a hollow shell, a bell with no clapper, a lie swaddled in lies. The Freedom House report put its finger directly on the pulse of the problem. Democracy is indeed under attack around the world, and right here at home.