Broken Politics: Republicans Assail Suffrage Itself

Broken Politics: Republicans Assail Suffrage Itself

by Tanya Melich

A U.S. Senatorial nominee for the Republican party arguing that a woman who is raped can simply will herself not to become pregnant.

Elderly would-be voters prohibited from voting because they don’t have a government-issued photo ID.

Republican candidates for federal office backing tax cuts for the very rich while cutting public help for the poor.

Students and people of color discovering on election day that their neighborhoods had a limited number of voting machines, forcing them to wait hours to vote.

©Georganne Aldrich Heller

All are sub-plots in the absurd theater of the 2012 campaign, one of the most dysfunctional and misogynist elections in U.S. history. How can this happen in a time when polls continually indicate that a majority of Americans support all citizens being full partners in selecting the nation’s leaders?

Much of the answer lies in the disintegration of our democratic political system. It is seriously broken and this dysfunction has provided an opportunity for a few people, many of them extremely wealthy, to buy their way into running the country. Those who oppose feminist goals have changed the electoral and governance laws to make it easier for small numbers to override majority opinion.

The feminist political movement has inadvertently been too narrowly focused. It has spent too much time on women’s leadership training and not enough on changing the electoral system so it could win more meaningful, rather than token, elections.

Our democratic experiment has always progressed in fits and starts, slowly including more citizens in the decisions of how the nation is to be governed. Yet in 2012 some leaders supporting Republican candidates sought to limit the franchise.

How We Got to This Sad State

The total cost of the 2012 campaign is expected to reach several billion dollars. Corporate money was a factor in pursuing the Republican agenda, but corporations, outside a few banks and the oil industry, were not as significant players as the individual CEOs, hedge fund managers and billionaires who justify their own personal financial goals as good for the country.

A sizeable amount of this campaign money will have come from a small group of rich Americans. These oligarchs are interested in lessening government oversight and increasing favorable tax policies that will multiply their wealth and power. They use the Republican party as a vehicle to achieve their goals.

Since Reagan’s election in 1980, radical Republicans have had a lock on the party’s retrograde social agenda. They are powerful within the GOP and can win primaries and control party conventions. After McCain’s defeat in 2008, several oligarchs formed a loose partnership with these social agenda radicals, even though most were disinterested in the radicals’ efforts to eviscerate the feminist and gay movement’s agenda. (The selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate aptly symbolizes the merger of these two forces.)

A confluence of events permitted rich Americans to wield extraordinary power in the 2012 election. The Roberts U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case swept away restrictions on the amount of money corporations and labor unions could spend on campaigns. Congress failed to pass campaign finance legislation that would have leveled the electoral playing field. Instead, Congress has passed laws giving advantages to those candidates who back policies benefiting the very rich at the expense of hurting candidates who support fairer laws. It has also failed to pass laws that would have required wealthy individuals to disclose the amount of their contributions when giving to educational political committees.

Such shenanigans are not new. Until the adoption of the constitutional amendments providing popular election of U.S. Senators and the income tax, wealthy Americans often bought numerous elections. Poll taxes and literacy tests were used for decades to keep African-Americans from voting, thus insuring that white southern wealthy men held greater power than their numbers.

Time to start
our democracy

What is new is the enormity of this anti-democratic effort. Billionaire Americans spent millions of dollars on voter suppression laws in 2012. Emily Schultheis of Politico reported: “At least 5 million voters, predominantly young and from minority groups sympathetic to President Barack Obama, could be affected by an unprecedented flurry of new legislation by Republican governors and GOP-led legislatures to change or restrict voting rights by Election Day 2012.” Advocates for this voter suppression claimed they were trying to stop fraud and guarantee fair elections. Yet their efforts were directed toward undermining the League of Women Voters in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida and toward other good government groups that, for years, have been trying to make voting easy and honest. The new election laws took a variety of forms and included placing bureaucratic restrictions on voter registration drives, such as those run by Rock The Vote and the League of Women Voters. In several states with Republican governors and legislatures, laws were passed requiring voters to show government-issued photo-IDs when arriving at the polls or applying for an absentee ballot. After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a photo-ID law in Indiana in 2008, even though not a single case of this kind of fraud was identified, national Republicans launched a campaign championing such laws. South Carolina adopted one of the most onerous, requiring that potential voters must pay for a passport or birth certificate to obtain a “free” voter ID card.

Women were particularly hurt by these new laws. There are more poor women than men and the poor are more likely not to have access to driver’s licenses and other government forms of ID. Compared to men, women tend not to have the information needed to comply with such laws because they are less involved with civic life. Women have a slightly more cynical attitude about whether it is a good idea to participate in what appears to be a “dishonest” process.

Political feminists have been trying to change this lack of political engagement for years, but civic education and electoral reform have not been a priority. Instead, the women’s movement has focused on electing those who support its agenda rather than also improving the systems under which those women are elected and then govern.

Scorching Ballot Boxes in 2010

Since the 2010 election, feminist beliefs have been under the most ferocious attack in modern U.S. history, equal in intensity to the battle for women’s suffrage.

The ongoing recession struck fear and should have made women voters angry to punish those who had brought about the economic mess. But, in 2010, women who generally agree with the feminist agenda didn’t vote in large numbers. Feminists were unable to ignite enthusiasm for voting because many women were disappointed that congressional Democrats and the president did not immediately bring back jobs. Some didn’t believe voting would make any difference in their lives.

Radical Republicans and some oligarchs implemented a plan in 2010 aimed at the 2012 election. Legislators and governors they backed in 2010 would redraw the lines for congressional and state legislative seats. The Tea Party, funded by wealthy backers mainly from Texas, would provide the grassroots people to elect Republican governors, state legislators and members of Congress — and it worked.

©Georganne Aldrich Heller

New district lines were drawn that favored candidates who supported the anti-feminist and anti-big government agenda. The Citizens United case and the decision by the leaders of the congressional Republicans not to work with Obama and the Democrats paralyzed the federal government for months, setting the stage for this year’s election. The GOP’s aim was to prove that Obama was ill-equipped to improve the economy and create jobs.

For both parties, the women’s vote became the key to winning the 2012 presidential election. Romney’s strategy aimed to convince white blue collar and married women that only Romney could fix the economy. It would ignore the radical Republicans’ social agenda and hope women would not notice that a Romney presidency could lead to radicals being appointed judges and running the departments that directly affect women’s reproductive health.

Romney’s campaign set out to increase Republican margins among women who had voted for the two Bushes and John McCain. These were white married women with children living in the suburbs and rural areas and white women from former industrial states hurt by the recession. Many are the children and grandchildren of Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and who forsook their familial link to the New Deal. Some are deeply religious conservatives who believe in the radicals’ anti-women agenda.

The Obama campaign called the Republicans’ bluff and challenged Romney to prove that the GOP would make life better for women. Obama’s strategy reversed the 2004 Kerry approach that took the women’s vote for granted and targeted white male voters who tend to vote Republican. It set out to attract all American women regardless of color with the message that under Obama the economy was getting better and that the concerns of women were his, too.

For the first time in U.S. history, the election centered around the votes of women, thus fulfilling the suffragists’ prophecy that this day would come. .

Getting Out of the Morass

must widen
our political vision.

We must master the electoral and governance systems. A lobby day on the Hill or petition-gathering in the district is of little use if a senator from Oklahoma can stop the passage of a law that the majority supports.

Reform means changing focus. Another battle to save the Violence Against Women Act or funding for contraception means little if we are constantly stopped by inside parliamentary maneuverings, even when we have the support of the general public. As we pick up the pieces on November 6 — regardless of whether Obama is re-elected — the misogynists running the Republican party are not going away.

We need to analyze how big a difference the voter suppression laws made. We need to redress the damage done by the Citizens United case — not by taking the arduous path of a constitutional amendment — but by convincing Congress to pass laws guaranteeing that the general public interest is addressed. We must see that laws limit the amount of money that the oligarchs can contribute to campaigns and that all contributions to political candidates are publicly registered. We should join forces with good government groups, like the Brennan Center for Justice and Common Cause, that have been working on these problems for years.

The misogynists
running the
Republican Party
are not going away

The time to start revitalizing our democracy is now — not when the next presidential election comes around. Take a break for the holidays and then resolve in January 2013 to work to reform our political system.

Later generations of women will thank you if we’re successful. If not, they’ll be back fighting the battles of the 1970s, or even worse, those when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony were storming the barricades.

Tanya Melich is a founding member of the feminist political movement. She was the first to document the 2012 themes of the GOP war against women in her 1996 book, “The Republican War Against Women: An Insider’s Report From Behind the Lines.”

Also see: Getting Closer to the Levers of Power by Diane Vacca in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Silos No More: Shaping Alliances for Reproductive Justice by Susan Yanow in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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