It’s being widely reported today that Hillary Clinton’s speech to the American Bar Association meeting yesterday on voting rights is the first in a series of addresses on major issues of the day that may well serve as a turning point towards a 2016 presidential campaign.
Perhaps her choice of voting rights as a kickoff topic was a scheduling quirk or some other kind of coincidence. If not, it actually could represent something of great interest to U.S. politics no matter what she winds up doing or not doing in 2016: the emergence of voting rights as a voting issue that politicians talk about on the campaign trail.
Think about it. Voting rights has been an on-again, off-again issue in political speeches for decades, mostly among Democrats, and often in communications tailored to people whose right to participate in elections had not been fully established or was endangered. It’s recently become a topic of great interest to state-level Republicans who want to signal their hostility to undocumented workers or ACORN or the New Black Panther Party or just those people. But it’s hard to remember a time when it was discussed to a significant degree in presidential campaigns. Did George McGovern or Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton ever do a voting rights speech during their presidential campaigns? For that matter, did Reagan or either Bush deliver a highly publicized warning about “voter fraud” in their campaigns? Even in 2004, in the wake of the Florida disaster, I can’t recall any of the major Democratic presidential candidates talking about the need to protect the right to vote.
As HRC’s speech indicates, that may be changing, if only because for the first time since the Voting Rights Act was enacted, a sustained, self-conscious and very public national effort is underway to manipulate voting laws and procedures to make it harder to vote. And it actually goes a little deeper than that: an increasingly dominant theme in conservative politics is the argument that “liberal elites” have deliberately used public funds to bribe large elements of the population into voting for them, in a corrupt bargain to end all corrupt bargains. When you boil it all down, that’s what Mitt Romney was talking about in his infamous “47%” remarks: nearly half the population, he suggested, was beyond rational persuasion in determining their voting preferences, having been bought in advance via government benefits. The same claim is at the heart of the “Democratic plantation” meme that has become standard fare for Republican politicians talking about their difficulties with minority voters. It’s a very small step from there to the belief that minimizing the participation in elections of such people is an essential, and even noble, aspiration. And beyond that, contemporary conservatism is heavily preoccupied with the idea that the “rights” of the virtuous, productive minority of Americans to enjoy the full fruits of their hard work and creativity are being threatened by an essentially shiftless majority whose participation in elections is fundamentally corrupt. It’s the often-unstated but ever-present premise behind the conservative hostility towards majoritarianism that is evident on topics ranging from the filibuster to the legitimacy of duly enacted legislation like the Affordable Care Act.
So there’s every reason we ought to be talking about voting rights during major national campaigns, not as a constituency-group issue or “specialty” topic but as a subject on which there are large and important differences between parties and candidates. Perhaps HRC’s effort yesterday will help make that happen.