In This Episode
How do we fight for justice and equality in the face of racism? The struggle to break the cycle of progress and backlash that defines race and politics in America. Learn more: www.thewildernesspodcast.com
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Adam Serwer: I think that there’s a very easy, triumphant narrative of American history which says that we may sometimes deviate from our great principles, but in the end, we ultimately are progressing towards a more perfect union. I think that’s a story that’s too simplistic. What we’ve seen in the past are these moments of progress and great backlash, whether it’s the civil war and reconstruction and redemption, or the civil rights movement and, you know, the rise of Nixon.
Jon Favreau: On April 9th, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Civil War. What came next was a period of history known as Reconstruction, literally a rebuilding of the country. It was an attempt to bring the Confederate states back into the fold and start over. And for about a decade, things went pretty well. At first there was real progress. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed citizenship, and outlawed discrimination in voting rights. More than 1,500 African-Americans were elected to public office on the local, state and national level, mostly in the South. The Ku Klux Klan had started to form, but President Grant was able to fight them off by keeping federal troops in the south who generally kept the peace. But all that changed in 1877. A compromise was necessary to settle the disputed presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Southern Democrats offered to throw their support to Hayes, who was a Republican, but only if he removed all troops from the South. He agreed. The troops left and life for African-Americans got very bad very quickly. The KKK and other white supremacist groups went on a reign of terror and violence throughout the South. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation and discrimination, and most of the progress that had been made since the end of the civil war was wiped away. As Adam Serwer noted at the top of this episode, there is always a backlash.
Jon Favreau: Race has always been one of the deepest fault lines in American politics. As we learned in episode one, the Democratic Party was on the wrong side of that fault line until Lyndon Johnson embraced civil rights in 1964. But that was hardly the end of the issue. In some ways, it was just the beginning. The struggle for racial and economic justice in America is a story of hard won progress, running headfirst into fierce resistance, over and over again. And because Democrats are the party that looks more like America, they wrestle with the same racial tensions and challenges that America does. I was there to watch us elect the first African-American president since the country was founded over two hundred years ago. And then eight years later, I saw that same exact country elect Donald Trump. What, if anything, changed, and how does the Democratic Party deal with it? Over the next two episodes, we’re going to talk about race and politics in America. In this episode, we’ll talk about the fight for justice and equality in the face of persistent political backlash. And then we’ll spend an episode talking about how Democrats can stitch together a coalition that might be able to overcome that backlash. I’m Jon Favreau. Welcome to The Wilderness.
[clip] The Supreme Court of the United States has decided that separate public educational facilities for the races are inherently unequal.
[clip] We just got a report here on this end that the students are in.
[clip] This girl here was the first Negro apparently of high school age to show up at Central High School the day that a federal court ordered it integrated. She was followed in front the school by an angry crowd.
[voice clip] We, the Negro citizens of Montgomery have been involved in a nonviolent protest against the injustices which we have experienced on the [surface].
[clip] How is it that only 4% of the qualified Negroes are registered to vote in your own state of Mississippi?
[voice clip] They took them and put them in jail and they beat them, and they tied them with barbed wire and they drug them all over the town – to the neighborhood, the Negro neighborhood, they were told that this is the way that we want to keep the Negro in his place.
[clip of Bull Connor] You can never whip these birds. I found that out in Birmingham. You’ve got to keep the white and the Black separate.
[clip of Malcolm X] Today, they have taken off the white sheet and put on police uniform. They traded in the bloodhounds for police dogs, and they’re still doing the same thing.
[clip of President Kennedy] And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
[clip of MLK] I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed.
[clip from the Academy Awards] The winner is Sidney Poitier. [applause]
[clip of President Johnson] Tonight, I urge every American to join in this effort to bring justice and hope to all our people, and to bring peace to our land.
Jon Favreau: Let’s talk about race.
Cornell Belcher: Do we have to?
Jon Favreau: Yeah. [laughs]
Cornell Belcher: I think a lot of us forget that the parties fundamentally realigned because of Lyndon Johnson.
Jon Favreau: That’s Cornell Belcher, Democratic strategist and Obama pollster.
Cornell Belcher: Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and upon signing, he says, you know: there goes the south. Truth of the matter is, what he could have said and been more accurate was: there goes a white vote, and for the next several decades.
Jon Favreau: Johnson was right. Democrats have not won a majority of white voters in national elections since the Civil Rights Act.
Marcia Chatelain: Until the mid-20th century, the southern democratic machine in states in the Deep South were critical in obscuring the opportunity to vote, in also undermining the quest for civil rights.
Jon Favreau: That’s Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University, who’ll be walking us through this history with Cornell.
Marcia Chatelain: And we started to see this shift, the split of the Democratic Party, with the Dixiecrats—that was the very conservative Strom Thurmond branch of the party—and people like Lyndon Johnson, moderate Democrats that are coming out of the South, that are more oriented toward civil rights.
Jon Favreau: The Democrats became a big-tent party during Johnson’s presidency. You had the traditional New Deal coalition of labor and working class whites, and now you had newly enfranchised African-Americans who just saw the Democratic Party fight for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and they started voting for Democrats.
Marcia Chatelain: The Democratic Party is able to capture Black voters on both issues and willingness to concede some power to Black coalitions. I think the Republican Party failed to do that because they realized that demographically they didn’t need to do it, that they could convert former Democratic voters to Republican voters.
Jon Favreau: Almost immediately, the white backlash began. It started in the South, but it didn’t end there. Remember, in the late 60s, there were still protests and riots in cities all across the country. People were angry, people were afraid, and pretty soon you had Republican politicians who are all too happy to exploit that fear and anger.
[clips of President Nixon] It is time for an honest look at the problem of order in the United States. If you can’t keep the peace at home, you’re not going to be trusted to keep the peace abroad.
Jon Favreau: Richard Nixon was one of the first. He won the presidency in 1968 with the help of what’s known as the Southern Strategy, an appeal to white resentment that’s about hordes of violent criminals who just happen to be Black preying on law abiding citizens who just happen to be white. Nixon continued this strategy in the White House, where his war on drugs ushered in a new era of institutionalized racism in the form of mass incarceration.
[clip of President Nixon] We must wage what I have called total war against public enemy number one in the United States: the problem of dangerous drugs.
Jon Favreau: In 1976, we elected Jimmy Carter, a Southern Democrat who had pretty progressive views on race.
[clip of President Carter] The time for racial discrimination is over.
Jon Favreau: Carter embraced the gains of the civil rights movement and named more Blacks, Latinos and women to the federal judiciary than all previous administrations combined. Still, many in the Black community were disappointed in his policies.
[clip of Vernon Jordan] For Black Americans 1977 was a year of continued depression, with unacceptably high unemployment and a widening income gap.
Jon Favreau: In 1980, Carter lost reelection in a landslide to California Governor Ronald Reagan, who took a pretty different approach to race in America.
Cornell Belcher: When you start off your campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, people of color get what that’s about, right? And the history of that.
Jon Favreau: Neshoba County, Mississippi, is the place where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964, and Reagan actually decided that this is where he wanted to launch his presidential campaign.
Cornell Belcher: Must understand that, you know, Republicans built a whole strategy, the Southern Strategy, around driving racial wedges, and Reagan pushed it even further. Right? The Reagan Democrats. And he pushed a lot of white working-class voters further, brought them even more into the Republican fold.
[clip of President Reagan] I know that in speaking to this crowd, I’m speaking to what it has to be about 90% Democrat. [crowd noises] I just think by party affiliation, I didn’t mean how you feel now. [laughter] I was a Democrat most of my life myself.
Jon Favreau: Reagan Democrats were typically white, rustbelt, working-class Americans who believed the Democratic Party had become too weak, too liberal, and—for a lot of voters—too focused on helping people who weren’t them: people who were on welfare, people who were addicted to drugs, you know, people who weren’t white.
[clips of President Reagan] School bussing has failed miserably . . . believe me, nothing is more important than welfare reform . . . in Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record, she used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veteran’s benefits for four nonexistent deceased veterans husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running 150,000 dollars a year.
Jon Favreau: This worked for Reagan and in the 1988 presidential campaign, his Republican Vice President, George H.W. Bush, fueled the fire.
[clip of Willie Horton political ad] Bush and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnaped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes: Dukakis on crime.
Jon Favreau: But something else interesting happened in the 1988 primaries, an African-American candidate made a serious run at the presidency. Here’s political commentator Van Jones.
Van Jones: 1968, Dr. King is killed. What’s he killed doing? He’s killed trying to pull together a poor people’s campaign. What is that? It’s poor Blacks and Mexicans and Native Americans and poor white folks. It was so radical, the idea that you could have politics like that, that most of the people in his own camp didn’t like it. Twenty years later, in ’88, Reverend Jackson has taken that idea and turned it into the Rainbow Coalition. And that idea of bringing together white farmers, and African-Americans from the urban environment, and students, and women, and people who are gay and have AIDS—put those people together.
[clip of Jesse Jackson] We sit here together, a rainbow coalition, the sons and daughters of slave masters, and the sons and daughters of slaves sitting together around the common table to decide the direction of our party and our country. . . . A new day has begun. Red, yellow, black and white, we’re all precious in God’s sight. Our time has come.
Jon Favreau: Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was an attempt to bridge racial divides with an agenda that would appeal to poor and working-class Americans of every race and background.
[clip] In 1984, Jackson made history simply by running. This year, Jackson is making history by winning, winning the support that is, of the voters beyond his Black base.
[clip of Jesse Jackson] When we divide, we cannot win. We must find common ground as a basis for survival and development and change and growth.
Jon Favreau: Jackson pushed for a guaranteed jobs program, free community college, universal health care, criminal justice reform. He started doing well, and he even won the support of Burlington, Vermont’s most famous mayor.
[clip of Bernie Sanders] The exciting thing about Jackson’s campaign is that this is a guy who comes from the grassroots. I think there is a real chance that he could do what Mondale couldn’t do in a million years, as that is to bring millions and millions of poor people and working people into the political arena who in the past never participated.
Jon Favreau: Jesse Jackson won 11 primary contests and 6.6 Million votes. He also forced changes in the primary rules that would eventually make it easier for another upstart African-American candidate to capture the nomination. But before that. [sax music] We had our other first black president.
[clip of Arsenio Hall] Did you ever think about playing professionally?
[clip of President Bill Clinton] Yeah, and I liked it tonight. I like being on the other side of the posse.
[clip of Arsenio Hall] Yeah.
[clip of President Bill Clinton] Speaking of what your drummer said?
[clip of Arsenio Hall] What.
[clip of President Bill Clinton] He said if this music thing doesn’t work out, you can always run for President.
Jon Favreau: Clinton was famously called America’s first Black president. He won a larger share of the African-American vote than any Democrat in history. He appointed more African-Americans to senior level cabinet positions than any previous president. And his administration presided over nearly 40% drop in African-American unemployment. But Clinton’s crime bill also exacerbated the trend of mass incarceration. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, the number of incarcerated Americans rose by nearly 60%.
[clip of President Bill Clinton] When I sign this crime bill, we together are taking a big step toward bringing the laws of our land back into line with the values of our people. There must be no doubt about whose side we are on. This bill puts government on the side of those who abide by the law, not those who break it . . . to begin to reclaim our streets from violent crime and drugs and gangs to renew our own American community. [applause]
Jon Favreau: In 2000, Republican George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore and one of the closest elections in history. The Bush administration was a time when African-American poverty and unemployment rose. But what they’ll be remembered for most in terms of race is the federal government’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
[news clip] This is Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Senator, thanks for joining us. Good to talk to you.
[clip of President Obama] Katrina revealed that there’s a gap between the ideal we have as a country and the reality that people are living every day in places like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Jon Favreau: Obama would later tell me that the government’s ineptitude and indifference to the people of New Orleans, who are overwhelmingly poor and Black, was what made him seriously consider for the first time a presidential campaign.
Cornell Belcher: So you have a 40 year process, 40 years in the wilderness from the time Dr. King is killed with this idea of the poor people’s campaign, bringing together this Rainbow Coalition, to Reverend Jackson turning that into an electoral force in ’88, to Obama winning with that in 2008—40 years. You got a black guy named Obama running on hope with this big, weird Obama coalition, and it wins.
Jon Favreau: Obama often said that his presidency alone wouldn’t be able to herald in some new era of racial harmony and equality. And he was right. There were limits to what he was able to achieve in terms of narrowing disparities in wealth, education, homeownership and health care. Some people believe he didn’t speak out forcefully enough, or take bold enough action when it came to the kind of police brutality we saw in Ferguson. Still, it’s undeniable that Obama made historic progress in tackling institutional discrimination and advancing the cause of civil rights.
[news clip] The Department of Justice said today that they plan to phase out the use of private prisons. The decision came after the DOJ inspector general released a scathing report on the security and the safety and oversight of private prisons right here in the U.S.
[clip] Today, the administration is going to send a memo to U.S. attorneys’ offices across the country telling them to change how they charge some of these nonviolent drug crimes.
[voice clip] So that certain low level, nonviolent drug offenders will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.
[clip] He has commuted more sentences than the last 11 presidents combined.
Jon Favreau: It’s also true that by virtue of being the first African-American president and being the first Black family to live in a White House built by slaves, Obama’s presidency had an immeasurable impact on our culture. It changed the way the world looked at America. It changed the way we looked at ourselves.
[clip of President Obama] Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
[clip of Michelle Obama] If you ever wonder whether change is possible, I want you to think about that little black boy in the office—the Oval Office of the White House—touching the head of the first Black president.
[voice clip] I shook his hand, took a picture, and he signed an autograph that said: dream big dreams. And then he signed Barack Obama and basically told me: I can be whatever I want to be.
[clip of Michelle Obama] That is the story of this country, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done.
Jon Favreau: But as we’ve learned, all of that progress came with a price.
[news clip] Fear in a local neighborhood after an anti-Obama display is hung from a tree.
[clip of Donald Trump] He wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility. I’m not saying it hap—I’m simply saying . . .
[voice clip] Obama is not a full-blooded American. And he says the United States is a white Christian nation and only white Christians should be in power.
Marcia Chatelain: This is the analogy I use—
Jon Favreau: Marcia Chatelain again.
Marcia Chatelain: In the book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson talks about African-Americans leaving the South to go to northern cities. And she tells the story about how a man goes into a bar in a northern city and he sits down and he’s able to get a drink, which is something that would not happen for African-Americans in the South. And after he finishes his glass, the bartender takes glass and breaks it, in front of him to show him that he has touched something, it’s tainted and it’s no longer useable. This is an act of humiliation. And I think in many ways what President Trump’s administration has done, as it said to African-Americans, as it said to people who believe in racial justice, you had access to something and now we’re going to destroy it.
Adam Serwer: I think that racism is not the only factor in Trump’s rise, but I do think it is an indispensable factor.
Jon Favreau: Adam Serwer, senior editor at The Atlantic.
Adam Serwer: The Calamity thesis refers to the prevailing conventional wisdom that existed in 2016 and for much of 2017, that Trump was the result of some heretofore unrecognized economic calamity that had befallen white America.
[voice clip] I spent a lot of time in red America and I think there’s a lot of people that felt really left behind.
[clip] It’s coal country, and the president’s pledge to boost that industry was a big part of it.
[clip] They used to vote for Democrats. They were steel workers and coal workers and their jobs went away. Their lives changed.
Adam Serwer: Either it was the opiate crisis or it was trade. It was any number of things and that the media, ensconced in its enclaves in L.A. and New York, simply failed to recognize it.
[voice clip] Donald Trump won 76% of counties with a Cracker Barrel restaurant and 22% of counties with a Whole Foods grocery store..
Adam Serwer: And that doesn’t really tell the whole story because Trump won majorities of white voters in every income bracket. So, you know, that says that it’s about more than just poor people in West Virginia who don’t have coal mining jobs anymore. It’s about an appeal that crosses class lines, a nationalist appeal that says: this is what America is and you’re genuinely a part of it and these other people aren’t.
[clip of President Trump] A victory for all of the people whose voices have not been heard for many, many years . . . American values and cultures will be cherished, and I mean cherished, and celebrated once again. And we will build the wall. Don’t worry about it. We will build a wall.
[clip of Anderson Cooper] So no Mexican judge could ever be involved in a case that involves you.
[clip of President Trump] Well, he’s a member of a society where, you know, very pro-Mexico. And that’s fine. It’s all fine.
[clip of Anderson Cooper] Except that you are calling into question his heritage.
[clip of President Trump] But I think he should recuse himself.
[clip of Paul Ryan] I disavow these—I regret those comments that he made . . . claiming a person can’t do the job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.
[clip of President Trump] Oh. Look at my African-American over here, look at him. Are you the greatest?
Jon Favreau: This is a tough one. There’s no way of knowing exactly how race played into every voter’s decision. Clearly, some people found Trump’s views on race appealing. Other voters have said they were able to look past Trump’s comments, or that they believed he was joking, or that he was taken out of context. This may be true. Again, it’s impossible to truly know what’s in somebody’s mind or in their heart. But what’s clear is that economic anxiety alone cannot explain Trump’s appeal. If it did, he wouldn’t have won white voters in every income group by such overwhelming margins, and he wouldn’t have lost poor and working class Blacks and Latinos by such overwhelming margins. Trump succeeded in pulling some white voters, and pretty much only white voters, away from the Democratic Party. And he did it while running one of the most racist campaigns in history. It’s a dynamic that’s not just bad for Democrats, but dangerous for the country.
Marcia Chatelain: Obama’s presidency demonstrates just how delicate the fabric of this country is. That his presence created this kind of mass paranoia and this mass hysteria about things changing too fast in the country, that both people on the left and the right started to buy into these faulty notions. And I think that’s really powerful.
Cornell Belcher: This is how America fails. America doesn’t fail because of terrorism. America doesn’t fail because of some foreign power comes and invades us and kicks our ass. That’s never going to happen. America fails because of Americans.
Jon Favreau: Everything you’ve heard up to this point has been about the history of both parties relationship to people of color. After the Civil Rights Act, many Republican politicians used race as a way to tell white voters that the Democratic Party only cared about Black voters. And sadly, Republicans have won a majority of the white vote pretty much ever since. The Democratic Party championed civil rights and Black voters are the Democratic base. Without them, the party wouldn’t win much of anything. But it’s also true that Democratic politicians haven’t successfully addressed the racial injustices and disparities that people of color still live with every day, either because Democrats haven’t had the political power, or because they haven’t had the political will. Or maybe because they’re scared that fighting these injustices would play into the argument that Republicans have been making to white voters for the last 50 years. But what would it look like if Democrats weren’t afraid? What would it look like if they were willing to double down on the fight against racial injustice and discrimination? We’ll talk about what that looks like after the break.
Jon Favreau: In the first half of this episode, we discussed the racial backlash that has followed every instance of political progress for people of color in America. In the second half of this episode, we’ll talk about some of the big things that Democrats can do to drive that progress forward, even in the Trump era, especially in the Trump era. It starts with the realization that racial progress isn’t the automatic result of a more diverse country, something that now seems fairly obvious in 2018. Marcia Chatelain explains.
Marcia Chatelain: I’m 37 years old and I grew up with the rhetoric that by 2050 or 2060, the US will not be a majority white country. But that information in and of itself doesn’t have to mean anything. I think what happened was, the interpretation of that material was: how are we going to then consolidate their power by any means necessary? And I think this is what we’ve seen in this political climate. We start to see this kind of scramble to ensure that this browning population will have no access to power and resources. And this idea that just because a population becomes more racially and ethnically diverse that therefore then power will be redistributed, is just not accurate.
Jon Favreau: Systemic racism obviously can’t be addressed with a few policy changes. The racial disparities that still exist in education, health care, housing, you name it. Those are huge issues and some we’ll focus on in upcoming episodes about the economy. Here, I want to zero in on two issues that have to do with racial justice and discrimination that Democrats should be focused on: criminal justice reform and voting rights.
Eric Holder: The history of the civil rights movement is about, among other things and maybe chiefly, about the acquisition of voting rights. And so voting rights has been, is, and will always be, a civil rights issue.
Jon Favreau: This is Eric Holder, Attorney General for President Obama and current Chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Eric Holder: The Selma to Montgomery march was about the acquisition of voting rights. The death of those three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, was about voting rights. Viola Liuzzo lost her life in connection with her attempt to help with the registration of African-Americans in the South.
[news clip] A special report on the three workers for civil rights still missing in Mississippi—
[voice clip] —went to Mississippi to help register Negroes as voters. The federal government could offer them little protection.
[clip] Eight days after Bloody Sunday, the president asked for comprehensive voting rights bill.
[clip of President Johnson] Their cause must be our cause, too.
Eric Holder: You cannot separate voting rights from civil rights. They are inextricably and historically bound.
Jon Favreau: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting, and it allowed for the Justice Department to send examiners to any state or county where any deterrent to voting was in place—such as a literacy test—or where voter registration or turnout had dropped below 50% of the voting age population in 1964. These so-called special coverage jurisdictions were required to seek federal approval before changing their voting requirements. These provisions applied to seven Southern states. And they worked. In these areas the number of Black elected officials went from 72 in 1965 to nearly a thousand a decade later, and voter registration for Black Americans in the South skyrocketed. But this didn’t stop the constant decades-long attack on the right to vote, an attack that’s escalated in recent years. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the provision of the Voting Rights Act that I just mentioned, the one that requires special coverage areas to seek approval before changing their voting requirements. In a five-four decision in Shelby County vs. Holder—yes, that Holder—the court, actually declared that racial discrimination in voting was over. You can’t make this shit up.
[news clip] A significant United States Supreme Court ruling today that reduces federal oversight of discrimination at voting polls.
[voice clip] In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: our country has changed.
[clip of John Oliver] Racially, things have got better in the south. It’s true. Primarily because of things like, oh, I don’t know—the Voting Rights Act of 1965! [applause]
Jon Favreau: Within hours of the ruling, Texas began to take action to pass new voter ID laws and draw new legislative districts that packed people of color into more compact voting districts. Not long after, North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi did the same. Exactly what the provision was designed to prevent.
Eric Holder: Under the guise of voter fraud, gerrymandered state legislative bodies have put in place these unnecessary and undemocratic voter suppression laws—they call them voter I.D. laws—where there’s no indication that there is any widespread in-person voter fraud and the necessity of these laws is plainly not there. The Brennan Center has said that you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to cast a false I.D. ballot. Republicans would have you believe that until they put these voter ID laws in place, there were never any kind of requirements that you prove who you were before you cast a ballot. And that’s simply not true. There’ve always been requirements that you prove your identity before you cast a ballot. It is just as they have come up with a more prescriptive and restrictive way of defining that. And they came up with mechanisms—new means by which you had to prove your identity that they knew would have a negative impact on the turnout of the groups that they wanted to affect: people of color largely, young people, poor people, who might tend to vote Democratic. To keep them away from the polls.
Jon Favreau: These voter suppression laws have had a major impact on turnout among minority groups during the last several elections. A 2017 study found that when strict voter ID laws are instituted, the turnout gap between Republicans and Democrats in primary contests more than doubles. The Republicans who passed these voter ID laws know this, and Democrats should be the party that fights for the right of every American to vote, no matter who you are or where you live. We should campaign on overturning voter I.D. laws, and get behind measures like automatic voter registration that’s now the law of the land in 10 states. Democrats should also campaign on passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a law that would ensure places with a history of racial discrimination can no longer pass restrictive voting laws. And one of the big reasons that Democrats need to compete everywhere for every seat, is because 2021 is a redistricting year. Back in episode two, we talked about why the 2010 midterms were such a disaster for Democrats, because Republicans made massive gains in statehouses across the country right as the new census data was released, and that allowed Republican legislatures to draw the new congressional and legislative districts in 2011. And basically they drew districts in a way that let them pick their voters, a process known as gerrymandering. One particularly egregious example of gerrymandering was the state of Pennsylvania. In 2012, Democratic House candidates received 83,000 more votes than Republican House candidates. But somehow Pennsylvania ended up with 13 Republican House members and only 5 Democrats. It was so bad that the state Supreme Court found the map unconstitutional in early 2018.
[news clip] One of the most famously gerrymandered political maps in the country is about to get redrawn.
[voice clip] The state Supreme Court on Monday said Pennsylvania’s current electoral map clearly, plainly and palpably violates the constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Jon Favreau: And now Democrats are fighting similar maps all over the country.
Eric Holder: Our effort is really simply to have a system that is fair. California and Arizona, for instance have done redistricting on a nonpartisan basis, these independent commissions. I think in some ways that’s the best way in which redistricting in 2021 should be done. There are initiatives that are similar in scope in Ohio and Michigan, potentially in Colorado. But at the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, we’re obviously also looking at filing lawsuits. That’s the only way to break up the system.
Jon Favreau: In June of 2018, the Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions that dealt a blow to efforts to halt partisan and racial gerrymandering through the courts. And now with Justice Anthony Kennedy retirement. These efforts will likely be stymied even further.
Eric Holder: It’s a battle between conservatives and Republicans, against Democrats and progressives. If it is a fair system, democrats and progressives will do just fine.
Jon Favreau: It’s not a coincidence that people of color are disproportionately disadvantaged by laws that suppress the vote, or maps that are drawn so that the Black vote is diluted among many districts. Republicans know full well who our voters are. In the same way, it’s not a coincidence that communities of color are disproportionately affected by our government’s criminal justice policies. For one thing, in 48 states, people in jail and prison can’t vote. And in a lot of states, people who’ve already served their term in jail or prison and are now out, are still restricted from voting. But it goes beyond voting. From Nixon to Trump, we’ve talked a lot about how politicians have purposely conflated race and crime to scare up votes. But let’s talk specifically about how that kind of politics affects people’s lives. In the United States, there are 2.3 million people who are incarcerated right now. A 500% increase over the last 40 years. There are more people incarcerated for a drug offense today than the number of people who are incarcerated for any crime in 1980. And people of color make up nearly 70% of everyone who’s behind bars.
Eric Holder: During the Obama years, that was one of the things that I tried to bring more balance to. Understanding that the primary responsibility I had as attorney general was to keep the American people safe. Right? And never lost sight of that. But also made the determination that we needed to do things in a different way. And so what I tried to do was give discretion to prosecutors, and tell them to look at the defendant who’s in front of you and decide what is an appropriate sentence in that case, not to use the cookie-cutter approach that we had used in the 80s and the 90s that resulted in sentences that were disproportionate to the criminal conduct that people had engaged in. We focused on the notion of rehabilitation while people were in prison, and then deal with reentry programs so that once people were leaving the criminal justice system, some of the deficits that they had and that brought them into the system, might be cured. And what we found was during the Obama years, that as, we were making real progress and we saw the federal prison population go down, we saw the crime rate go down at the same time, and we were also, you know, saving money. And there was a consensus on the conservative side, the progressive side, that criminal justice reform was a good thing.
Jon Favreau: That consensus broke down thanks to Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump. But Democrats should double down on criminal justice reform, which, by the way, is an issue that some Republican politicians and voters also support. We should get rid of mandatory minimums in prison sentencing, and allow prosecutors to take a more discretionary approach. We should focus on rehabilitation of people while they’re in prison, and then be more supportive of them after they’re up. And we should go all in on decriminalization of marijuana, which has already happened in 13 states and Washington, D.C. This reduces the amount of nonviolent arrests and sentences, and legalization of marijuana is now something that 63% of Americans are for. Of course, right now, this is still a lot of talk, talk we’ve heard before. And meanwhile, a lot of communities are hurting and doubtful that anything will change.
[voice clip] Protesters have taken to the streets across the country following the deaths of two Black men shot by police in separate incidents this week.
[crowd chants Black Lives Matter]
[voice clip] How is it that when it comes to white people, they can de-escalate, effect an arrest, but when it comes to black people, they approach us with deadly intention?
[clip] The Department of Justice and the police department are working hand-in-glove like they’ve always done.
[voice clip] I’m actually not concerned with talk as much as I am concrete platform’s, concrete policies.
Jon Favreau: It’s understandable why people of color would lose faith in a political system that continually fails them, especially when it seems like progress can be so easily erased by a single election, especially when it sometimes seems like the party that’s supposed to represent them takes them for granted. A lot of Democrats ask for Black votes during a campaign, but don’t do a good enough job listening to Black voices once they’re in office. Marcia Chatelain again.
Marcia Chatelain: I think the Democrats are in a difficult position right now because of their inability to fully understand the complexity of Black political perspective and behavior. So I think one of the good examples is an inability to have clear conversations with the questions that Black Lives Matter was raising.
Jon Favreau: Black Lives Matter is a movement that started in response to police brutality. And over the last several years, it’s grown to focus on racial and economic justice across a whole range of issues, like voting rights and criminal justice reform.
Marcia Chatelain: I think that the Democratic Party did a poor job in really learning how to engage a group of young people who while critical of the political system, were not entirely alienated from it and could have really been engaged.
Jon Favreau: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both proposed a lot of the policies we’ve talked about in this episode, and they made a real effort to listen and learn from Black voters and activists. But both of them also had moments where they were confronted with criticism for past statements and policies they used to support.
[woman] I’m not a super predator, Hillary Clinton.
[clip of Hillary Clinton] OK. Fine. We’ll talk about it—
[woman] Will you apologize to Black people for mass incarceration?
[clip of Hillary Clinton] Well, can I talk? And then maybe you can listen to what I what I say.
[voice clip] We are trying to be reasonable. [women yelling] We’re going to let you on the mic, after Senator Sanders. [woman yells]
Jon Favreau: Democrats need to do more listening, learning, and fighting for voters they’ve sometimes taken for granted. And as Democratic pollster Celinda Lake points out, the party would benefit from paying extra attention to the single most loyal group of voters and the Democratic coalition.
Celinda Lake: Frankly, the Democratic Party should just be turned over to African-American women. We would be so much better off and our country would be better off.
Marcia Chatelain: African-American women have no choice. I think that the luxury of retreat is one that African-American women on the whole have never had an opportunity to even imagine. That the issues that are critical to citizens and issues that are critical to people getting the things that they need for themselves, their families and their community: African-American women are closest to those struggles. And so if Black women are organizing around public education, it’s because the critical mass of African-American women have to use the public education system in order to educate their children. If African-American women are concerned about health care, it’s because these are the women who are most likely having to navigate the system of either public services around health, or having to struggle with inadequate health care coverage because their jobs don’t give them proper benefits.
Symone Sanders Black women will continue to show up, and will not just cast their ballot for themselves. Like when black women vote, they are, in fact voting for their communities.
Jon Favreau: This is Symone Sanders, 2016 press secretary for Bernie Sanders and current strategist for Priorities USA.
Symone Sanders It’s not as though black women were just so in love with Secretary Clinton—Black women was trying to save the world. Black women were like: look, we need to do what we need to do to keep this crazy man out of office, i.e., Donald Trump—he cannot become president, so we need to vote like we have never voted in the history of voting.
Marcia Chatelain: I think that the Democratic Party loves Black women because they know that they’re consistent voters, but the idea of sharing power with Black women I think it’s still very difficult, not only for the organizational structure, but even at the lower level, at the state party level to then run Black women candidates.
Jon Favreau: I asked Symone what investing in Black women would actually look like from a political standpoint.
Symone Sanders It would mean hiring black women. It would mean running targeted programs that target Black women in communities to turn them out. It would mean having a sustained presence in communities of color, particularly African-American communities—not just a month and a half before the election. I mean, I would be interested to see what the diversity numbers look like for a number of the party committees in the Democratic Party apparatus. Like are the Black women on your staff the diversity director and the African-American media person, or the African-American outreach director. Like, we have to hire and support Black women in various different roles. We need to run and support black female candidates.
Jon Favreau: As a party, we need to do all these things: fighting for issues like voting rights and criminal justice reform, making sure that more Democratic politicians actually look like the people who are voting for them, and being unafraid to show up for honest, difficult conversations about race, not just during a campaign, but all the time.
Eric Holder: I think we are, as a nation, still reluctant to talk in a frank way, in an honest way, about racial issues. And a lot of ways that’s understandable given the racial history of this country, from the original sin of slavery all the way through the Jim Crow era, and through the disparities that we continue to see in this nation. It’s a hard issue to discuss, but that’s not enough. I mean, we’ve got to have that conversation and use that conversation as the basis for substantive proposals to get us to a better place.
Cornell Belcher: We have to have a conversation that’s real because America is not getting whiter.
Jon Favreau: Cornell Belcher, again.
Cornell Belcher: It just isn’t. It’s going to continue to get browner. And so we’re going to have to figure out how to share power, and whether or not we, in fact, believe in democracy or we, in fact, believe more in power than democracy. I don’t know what the best messaging is about sort of the big we, but we better figure it out and Democrats better engage there, or we’re going to tear this country apart.
Jon Favreau: The big we. In this episode, we talked about the history of racial backlash that’s always followed racial progress, a backlash that we’re living through right now. We talked about how Democrats can’t allow that backlash to scare them away from the fight for justice and equal opportunity. But we also know that what Cornell said is true, that the only way to avoid tearing this country apart is by figuring out that big we. By stitching together a winning coalition of voters who are Black and brown and white. OK, so how does that happen? Can Democrats ignore the white voters we’ve lost, or do we need to win at least some of them back? Is it possible to do so without sacrificing our commitment to civil rights and racial justice? And if it’s not possible, what else can we do? All that and more on the next episode of The Wilderness.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two Up, and Ruth Lichtman, Tanya Somanader of Crooked Media is our co-producer. Andrea B. Scott is our editor, and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robbie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Allison Grasso. Agency Services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal Services from Dean Bahat at Ziffren Brittenham and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance Counsel is Kathryn Alimohammedi from Donaldson + Califf. Thanks for listening.