In 1970, when I visited my great aunt in a leafy suburb of Chicago, the Bible was read before meals and pamphlets talking of the ‘red menace’ facing America were on the coffee table. I was 16, and I cringed as the preacher at the local church spoke of how young people should ‘take up the cross’ and ‘go fight the communists’ in Vietnam.
A few days earlier, my brother and I had asked an African-American cab driver in Manhattan if he would take us to Harlem. We had read Michael Harrington’s The Other America and wanted to see some of it for ourselves. He was so pleased two white British boys were interested in his neighbourhood, he dropped the cab off and showed us around in his own old VW, pointing out the offices of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. He spoke, in a matter of fact way, of the possibility of civil war.
When I hear now the media saying endlessly how deeply-divided America is, I remember this and wonder when it wasn’t. Was there a harmonious golden age? Maybe, within Washington circles, the nineties and noughties could be seen as such because Bill Clinton made political peace with Newt Gingrich and dissenting voices were rare on Iraq and globalisation. But that consensus didn’t permeate the other Americas.
The way US politics is often portrayed in Britain as some kind of democratic utopia defies even cursory examination. But it leads the credulous to be horrified Donald Trump isn’t acting like Josiah Bartlett.
Trump’s vulgarity undermines the carefully-crafted myth of the US as a cultured and civilized state exporting its values to lesser countries where politicians behave badly and sometimes need to be brought into line by force. Only in places like ‘Africa’ – always spoken about as if it’s one country – are there issues with elections being free and fair. Only in foreign lands are there flaws in voter registration, queues at under-resourced polling stations and candidates with unfair advantages in terms of money and power. Only foreign despots think they can be, at one and the same time, both arbiters and actors in an election.
Yet we saw all these things on Tuesday in the US midterm elections in nearly every state, with varying degrees of severity. Among the worst was Georgia, where the Republican candidate for Governor, Brian Kemp, was also in charge of the organising the election. Four days before polling, he had to be instructed by a federal court to give voting rights to more than 3,000 people who were incorrectly flagged as ‘noncitizens’ because the state failed to update their status. On election day, there was chaos at many polling stations because there weren’t enough machines for the numbers turning out to vote. At one, veteran civil rights leader Jessie Jackson appeared to urge people not to give up.
What makes this all the more farcical is the way the TV channels then take it upon themselves to ‘call’ the result of an election before all the votes have been counted based on their own ‘projections’.
In Georgia, the Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, is standing her ground and refusing to concede defeat until thousands of ‘provisional ballots’ have been checked for eligibility and counted. Kemp’s press secretary has issued a statement saying: “Based on counts released by the Secretary of State’s office, Brian Kemp’s margin is so large that the number of provisional ballots and overseas ballots will not change his Election Day victory.” But, hang on, Kemp is secretary of state. So, that’s Kemp’s press secretary saying Kemp’s office says Kemp would win anyway. Sounds like they need some UN monitors in Atlanta.
And then there’s Florida, where a recount of the vote for a US senator is mandatory because only 0.4% separated Republican Rick Scott from Democrat Bill Nelson. So, what does Scott do? He switches hats from candidate to state governor and sends law enforcement officers into two counties alleging electoral fraud.
You would think – given the recurring controversies about the integrity of elections in the US – that there would be some mechanism for ensuring that the rules are fair and independently enforced. The civil rights movement foresaw these problems and ensured that the 1965 Voting Rights Act required states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before they could change voting laws. But, in 2013, the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 to rescind that provision of the Act, giving a green light for states to adopt rules – such as mandatory voter ID – that have the effect of suppressing turnout.
In spite of all this, the number of people voting across the US this time was a third higher than in the 2014 midterms. Nearly 50% of eligible voters – 113 million people – took part. This remains poor by international standards for a general election, but you have to admire the tenacity of progressive Americans who are trying to make the US live up to its democratic claims.
It is this persistence that has produced a House of Representatives that now includes more women than ever and its first Native American and Muslim members. And it is this persistence that has kept the socialist ideas of people like Michael Harrington alive so that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can carry them into Congress as its youngest member.
In June, when Ocasio-Cortez defeated a veteran incumbent to become the Democratic candidate for Congress in the Bronx, Democracy Now presenter Juan Gonzalez told her: “Your victory is a stunner across the country”. Like her, 71-year-old Gonzalez is part of the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York. Two generations ago, he was one of the founders of the Young Lords. He might even have been in the offices the cab driver pointed out that day in 1970.
Steve is a former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn and the author of Game Changer, which tells the inside story of Labour’s 2017 election campaign.
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