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November 5, 2012

We asked Dr. Tim McCarthy, Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, about coalition building in our current political moment and about what’s at stake in this election. This is part two of his response.

How do Voter Challenge Initiatives, such as voter I.D. laws and mandates restricting the ability of citizens to vote outside of an “Election Day” window, affect the state of American elections, and by extension, American democracy.

The United States has a long history of attempting to deny or suppress the right to vote. The recent voter I.D. laws—dozens of state-level statutes designed to restrict voting rights among racial minorities, recently naturalized citizens, young people, and the elderly—are just the most recent manifestation of this age-old anti-democratic practice, which includes property requirements, literacy tests, poll taxes, age restrictions, racialized and gendered definitions of “citizenship,” and the like. When looking to this history, it’s important for us to remember that the struggle for voting rights has never involved a neat or linear expansion of democratic freedoms. The “universal” enfranchisement of white men in the early nineteenth century coincided with new restrictions on voting rights for immigrants and free people of color. The enfranchisement of black men after the Civil War, through the passage of the 15th Amendment, did nothing to advance the enfranchisement of women, exacerbating political tensions between activists—male and female, black and white—who had been active in the abolitionist and woman’s rights movements during the antebellum period. After the fall of Reconstruction, white supremacists, especially in the South, found new and often violent ways to disenfranchise African-Americans who had just begun to enjoy the freedoms that came with emancipation, including the right to vote.

When looking to this history, it’s important for us to remember that the struggle for voting rights has never involved a neat or linear expansion of democratic freedoms.

The point here is that American history is also a history of the long struggle for voting rights, from the American Revolution to the present day. Our democracy has always been diminished by the disfranchisement of certain groups of people. While we should be outraged by these contemporary attempts to restrict access to the ballot—all Republican-led, and that should be noted, too—we should not be surprised by it. The difference this time around—and the painful irony, given this history—is that the so-called “Party of Lincoln” has re-doubled its efforts at voter disfranchisement in a deliberate and shameful attempt to undermine the political legitimacy and livelihood of a Democratic Party led by the nation’s first black President. And they have been very clear about this—evidenced, most clearly, by Ohio’s thus far thwarted attempts to extend voting hours in conservative white areas while restricting voting hours in regions of the state where black folks and college students reside in large numbers. The legacy and reality of racism continues to diminish our democracy in very real ways.

We would do well to remember that the struggle for suffrage in this country has always required people-powered movements to demand, protect, and exercise the right to vote

And that is why we must do everything we can to resist these current assaults on our most precious democratic right. In doing so, we would do well to remember that the struggle for suffrage in this country has always required people-powered movements to demand, protect, and exercise the right to vote. African Americans earned the right to vote because of abolitionism and the long black freedom struggle. Women earned the right to vote because of the many “waves” of feminism that have washed over our political system since the mid-nineteenth century. Young people earned the right to vote because of the student movement of the 1960s. The good news is that the Republicans, in their anti-democratic desperation, have overplayed their hand. Their attempts at voter suppression have awakened a sleeping giant, and that giant may well deliver the election to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. But this will only be a temporary victory for democracy, one that is still very much threatened, not only by cynical efforts to disenfranchise certain kinds of citizens, but by a two-party political system and the unlimited corporate money—thanks to the failure of campaign finance reform, the Citizens United decision, and the rise of Super PACs—that feeds it.

The conversation that is taking place during this year’s election cycle about women’s rights and capacity to control their own bodies fits inside a much longer historical narrative. Identities like gender and sexuality, being socially constructed, tend to fluctuate, particularly in response to changing times. In your opinion, will the resurgence of regressed ideas about women’s rights and autonomy influence our future understanding and discourse about gender and sexuality?

At its core, feminism has always been driven by the belief that women are full human beings who deserve to be treated equally as citizens. This is only a radical notion if you subscribe to the outdated worldview, still very much with us, alas, that women are “naturally” meant to be subordinate to men. Having been raised by three fierce women—a mother and grandmother who went to college and became lifelong public school teachers, and another grandmother who worked as a “cuffer” in a garment factory and earned her high school GED when she retired in her 60s—I have thankfully never adopted such a worldview. The women who raised me were rarely subordinate and never silent, and they often “behaved badly” in terms of pushing back and speaking out against the gendered constraints that were all too common in the worlds—poor worlds, patriarchal worlds, prejudiced worlds—they navigated with enormous strength, admirable savvy, and not a little humor. I like to tell people that I was a feminist long before I was ever a homosexual. This is true, and it’s because of them.

The “war on women” is real and retrograde—and dangerous, too—all the more so because it flies in the face of truly modern understandings of gender and sexuality as multiple and fluid.

It is also true that gender and sexuality, like race, are socially constructed, meaning that they aren’t in any way “natural” or “fixed,” even as they have great meaning to us in our everyday relations. This notion that gender, sexuality, and race are “social constructions” is a relatively recent phenomenon, which means that we still have a lot of people roaming this planet, many of them knuckle-dragging men, who are far behind the times. Many of these men are leaders in the “modern” Republican Party—men like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who seem trapped in a conservative world where women are still “happy housewives” or stuffed in “binders,” and men like Todd Akin and Dick (aptly named) Mourdock, who seem trapped in a crazy world where vaginas have special de-activation powers and where rape is sometimes just a special little gift from God. As I’ve already stated, the “war on women” is real and retrograde—and dangerous, too—all the more so because it flies in the face of truly modern understandings of gender and sexuality as multiple and fluid.

Still, it’s precisely because gender and sexuality are socially constructed—always moving, hard to “prove” or “pin down”—that we have these pernicious and increasingly aggressive attempts to control women by constraining their choices and regulating their bodies (more than 1000 recently proposed or enacted pieces of state and federal legislation, by Rachel Maddow’s count). There have always been attempts to control women, especially during periods of American history where women themselves were rising up, pushing back, and speaking out in various ways. It’s no mystery that in an age where feminism has clearly won so many victories—abortion rights, access to contraception, women’s health, educational and professional advancement, political and legal power, and the like—there would be a backlash against these profound transformations.

There have always been attempts to control women, especially during periods of American history where women themselves were rising up, pushing back, and speaking out in various ways.

That does not mean, however, that we should ignore or dismiss this backlash. After all, these men are still powerful, embedded as they are at the helm of the very institutions that control and govern our lives and enabled by some women who suffer from a kind of false consciousness that is both debilitating and difficult to understand in the 21st century. As with other movements for social change, feminism has always had its share of female detractors, and progress is never inevitable or irreversible. The difference today, however, is that women constitute a majority in the United States and throughout the globe, women hold positions of power in all the major professions, and a new generation of young women—many of them minority and queer—are coming of age with a fierce and unrestrained sense of their own power and voice. What’s more, they are emerging alongside a generation of men who have been at least partially liberated from the patriarchal and hetero-normative worldviews of their fathers and grandfathers. All of this amounts to a major cultural shift that is shaping the beliefs and actions of a generation of foot soldiers who are much better equipped to win the latest battles in the “war on women” than ever before in American history. I am confident that we will look back at this period and see it for what it was: the desperate last gasp of a dying breed of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals whose extinction beckoned a new era of freedom and equality for women, and for all of us who stood by them in the fight.

During the past few years, instances of policing citizenship have been prevalent within our national discourse. For example, when we look at entities such as the Tea Party, The Birther Movement, True the Vote, etc., we see an interesting narrative surrounding suspicions of illegitimacy. What does the election cycle of 2012 tell us about our present conceptions of which voices matter within our democracy?

There is no question that the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the nation’s first black President propelled some Americans into a fresh tizzy of racist resentment and xenophobic rage. Make no mistake, the nearly simultaneous emergence of a range of conservative political groups is not a coincidence: the Tea Party (which exploded on the scene during the debates over health care reform in the summer of 2009 and has since captured the “soul” of the GOP); the so-called “Birther” Movement (which repeatedly questions President Obama’s citizenship status); and the True the Vote effort (which seeks to monitor supposedly widespread instances of “voter fraud”). Each in their own way, these groups have attempted to undermine President Obama’s authority, question his legitimacy as both president and citizen, and gin up the worst angels of our nation in an attempt to both mobilize opposition to his political power and intimidate those of us who support him.

Each in their own way, these groups have attempted to undermine President Obama’s authority, question his legitimacy as both president and citizen, and gin up the worst angels of our nation in an attempt to both mobilize opposition to his political power and intimidate those of us who support him.

But I’d like to flip the script, as it were, on these claims of “illegitimacy”—to frame this conservative opposition as itself illegitimate. Keep in mind, when Barack Obama was born—to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya—many states within the United States had so-called “anti-miscegenation” laws on the books making interracial relationships illegal. In wasn’t until 1967, nearly seven years after President Obama was born, that the Supreme Court struck down these laws in a unanimous decision in Loving v. Virginia. In other words, his parents’ relationship—and by extension, his birth—was considered “illegitimate” in much of the country at the time, especially in the South. In retrospect, however, it wasn’t his birth, or their relationship, that lacked legitimacy; it was the blatant racism (and no doubt, xenophobia, since his father was an international student) that led so many Americans to reject the prospect (and longstanding American reality) of interracial relationships and the biracial children produced through sexual relations between black people and white people. That claims of “illegitimacy” still surround Barack Obama some fifty years later is both profoundly ironic and deeply tragic.

Though many of his predecessors have endured aggressive public scrutiny and forceful opposition, never before has an American President been subjected to such widespread—and racist—disrespect from his political detractors.

It’s a good thing President Obama has such a good sense of humor, and seemingly vast reserves of patience, because he has endured these racist, xenophobic insults from the moment he first took office (and even before)—from South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson shouting “you lie” during the President’s 2009 address to Congress on health care reform, to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer finger wagging on the tarmac during the President’s visit to her state last year, to his GOP challengers decrying the President as “foreign” and “the best food stamp President in American history,” to former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s recent Tweet about President Obama’s “shuck and jive.” Though many of his predecessors have endured aggressive public scrutiny and forceful opposition, never before has an American President been subjected to such widespread—and racist—disrespect from his political detractors.

In a larger sense, such racism reflects the growing anxiety of white Americans, who represent a declining percentage of the nation’s population and who are living through a time when traditional definitions of citizenship are being challenged and reconstituted—by a wave of new immigrants from other countries, by debates about “legal” and “illegal” immigrants, by shifting racial and ethnic demographics within the country, by an increasingly multicultural class of powerful elites, and by the nation’s first black President. Recently, “minority” birth rates exceeded white birth rates, and if Census projections are accurate, the United States will become a “majority-minority” country in the next generation. So times they are a-changin’. But on a deeper level, the racism to which President Obama continues to be subjected is not new at all. Ancient and stubborn, it represents our great national curse—the centuries old stain of slavery and segregation that refuses to go away. It is among the most American of pastimes to disrespect and dehumanize black people, to view them as inferior, incapable, illegitimate. The difference, now, is that one of those black people is the President. It is my hope and expectation that after the election, this will still be the case. After all, there’s too much at stake—and besides, who wants to be on the wrong side of history by rooting for America’s first black President to fail? Not me.

Read the first part of the interview here.

Timothy Patrick McCarthy teaches history, literature, and public policy at Harvard University, where he directs the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. An award-winning scholar, teacher, and activist, he has published four books—The Radical Reader, Prophets of Protest, Protest Nation, and The Indispensable Zinn—with the New Press. He is also an online blogger for The Nation.

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