Request a Professor's Review Copy
Stewart Burns



Come to Washington D.C.

Come to
Washington, D.C.
August 24th &
August 28th, 2013
(read more)

Four Girls Jubilee, September 15, 2013

Four Girls Jubilee
Call to Action
September 15, 2013
(read more)


On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 majority struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act that during the past half century in enforcing the 15th Amendment had in effect guaranteed a constitutional right to vote for all Americans and took us a quantum leap closer to the elusive ideal of universal suffrage, supposedly the bedrock of democratic rule, “government by the people.”

“The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her biting dissent, “foresaw progress, even in Alabama. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice’—if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”(New York Times, 6/26/13) Alas, the vital task was far from complete, as has been made clear by the onslaught of sophisticated “second-generation barriers”—race-based redistricting, voter ID laws, etc.—that are now being implemented with a vengeance.  Just like the southern state laws and constitutions that barred black men from voting at the turn of the 20th century, these new provisions (notably the ID laws) make it  difficult for poor people of all colors to vote and make their voices heard. Thus we face not only a resurgence of white electoral domination (even in “majority minority” states like Texas), but a windfall of plutocratic rule. We simply can’t allow low-income people to vote in sufficient numbers to upset the ship of state.

Placed in the context of other key rulings by the most conservative Supreme Court in a century, we the people have good reason to fear that our democracy, rule by the people, is being supplanted by plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. First came the high court’s coup in placing George W. Bush in the White House despite his loss of the popular vote (which doesn’t matter in our peculiar constitutional system) and, as nonpartisan voting experts now generally agree, despite loss of Florida by a thin margin, thus losing the electoral college to his Democratic opponent, the rightful president. Then in 2010 came the Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations (and rich unions) free rein to literally buy elections with unlimited campaign funding. And now Shelby County (Alabama) vs. Holder, the jewel in the plutocratic crown.

Recently a high-level CitiGroup memo boasted about how the banking giant and its fellow travelers had already achieved the fundaments of what it proudly called “plutonomy.”

Moreover, as a civil rights historian, I see something insidious happening that is not new in U.S. history—in fact as old as the Roman Empire. Just as the movement for universal suffrage in the 19th century was stymied by conflicts between voting rights for black men and suffrage for white women, so the divide-and-conquer strategy seems to be smartly deployed by the Roberts Supreme Court. In the course of one week in late June the Court dealt a potentially fatal blow to universal suffrage while putting affirmative action in higher education on life support and essentially declaring the constitutionality of same-sex marriage (at least on a state-by-state basis).

Although a firm supporter of both affirmative action and same-sex marriage, I worry about the harmful effects of fragmenting and compartmentalizing our struggles for human rights. I will close with words from a book I coauthored twenty years ago, A People’s Charter: The Pursuit of Rights in America (p. 334):

“The structural constraints of the ‘system’ have not been all that has stood in the way of achieving political, economic, and social rights. Movement leaders often accepted the inevitability of such constraints when in fact more options and leeway were available. In most rights campaigns, leaders had a fairly comprehensive vision of what their followers were entitled to, but at some point they decided, or reluctantly agreed, to divide rights claims into categories, to set priorities among them, and to choose short-term political expediency over longer-term linkages of rights that would bring less immediate payoff. Though they frequently assumed that winning rights near at hand would lead to securing others, rarely did gaining one type of right open the door to the claiming of another more remote or elusive. This politics of compartmentalization and deferral has entailed major social costs.”

In my next blog I will suggest possible remedies for bringing our democracy back to life.

Leave a Reply