Liberals are aghast at the Supreme Court ruling last week that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg denounced the decision for its “hubris.” Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, condemned it as a “dagger” stab at civil rights. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. warned that he would not let the court’s ruling hinder Justice Department activism.
The Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965 after the brutal and bloody repression of peaceful black protesters by Alabama and other Southern states. In the decades after the act passed, black voter registration soared. The Alabama cities of Selma and Montgomery — notorious for civil-rights-era violence — now have black mayors. Nationwide, blacks had a higher percentage turnout in last fall’s presidential election than did whites.
Thanks to the Supreme Court decision, Southern states will no longer have to kowtow to the Justice Department when they do something as picayune as move a polling location across the street. According to Justice Ginsburg and many pundits, however, any decrease in federal power over state and local governments practically guarantees a new Jim Crow era.
Justice Ginsburg declared in her dissent: “The grand aim of the Act is to secure to all in our polity equal citizenship stature.” “Equal citizenship stature,” though, does nothing to remedy the great and growing inequality between the citizen and the state.
The Voting Rights Act is part of a modern catechism that sees voting as practically the alpha and omega of freedom. In a speech when he signed the law, President Lyndon Johnson assured the audience: “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies.” But permitting people to vote, however, provides no assurance that citizens will not be ravished after the polling booths close.
Earlier in 1965, in a phone call to Martin Luther King, LBJ declared, “I just don’t see how anybody can say that a man can fight in Vietnam, but he can’t vote.” The fact that people could vote did nothing to nullify LBJ’s dictatorial power over draftees. Tens of thousands of conscripts died in an unpopular war that occurred largely because the president had unlimited power to commit them into a pointless foreign conflict on false pretenses. Regardless of how many lies LBJ told about the war, young Americans were still obliged to follow his orders to the death in the jungles and rice paddies.
LBJ also proclaimed that the Voting Rights Act “is nothing less than granting every American Negro his freedom to enter the mainstream of American life.” While LBJ lauded portraying himself as a savior, the act did nothing to protect blacks from federal rampages. King was targeted for endless wiretaps, harassment and blackmail by the FBI. Seeking to subvert black civil-rights organizations, the FBI ordered its field offices to “exploit conflicts within and between groups; to use news media contacts to disrupt, ridicule, or discredit groups … and to gather information on the ‘unsavory backgrounds’ — immorality, subversive activity and criminal activity — of group members,” according to a 1976 Senate report. In San Diego, the FBI instigated violence between the local Black Panthers and a rival black organization, helping spur several killings.
In Washington, however, piety trumps history every time. President Obama announced that he was “deeply disappointed” by the Supreme Court ruling and promised that his administration will “do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.”
Yet the worst violation of “voting rights” is the notion that election winners should have unlimited power. Nothing personifies that power more than Mr. Obama’s drone assassination program by which he claims a prerogative to kill anyone in the world whom he labels a threat. If the president can seize as much power as he pleases, then Americans are voting for a master, not for a chief law enforcement officer. If the president is unconstrained, America is perilously close to what the Founding Fathers dreaded — “slavery by constitutional forms.”
Trumpeting the importance of voting deludes people into thinking that they have a leash on the government. More than 300 years ago, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, declared, “Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed.” Having a vote does nothing to prevent a person from being molested by the Transportation Security Administration, spied on by the National Security Agency, or harassed by the Internal Revenue Service.
The more that voting is glorified as a panacea, the more lackadaisical people become about preserving their constitutional rights. Freedom to vote is valuable primarily as a means to safeguard other freedoms. At this point, though, voting is little more than an unreliable Kevlar jacket against political and bureaucratic assaults.
James Bovard is the author most recently of a new e-book memoir, “Public Policy Hooligan” (Sixth Street Books, 2012).