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Biden refuses to use political capital to bust the filibuster and save voting rights

In this edition of By Any Means Necessary, hosts Sean Blackmon and Jacquie Luqman are joined by Greg Palast to discuss the blocking of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act by Senate Republicans, which would have restored key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the history of the filibuster as a tool of racist disenfranchisement, Biden’s refusal to use political capital to bust it, and how Democrats’ inaction on issues such as voting rights contributed to their recent electoral defeats.


Sean Blackmon: Today we’re talking about the ongoing struggle for voting rights inside the United States, and we’re happy to be joined for this conversation by Greg Palast, the author of several New York Times bestsellers, including The Best Democracy Money Can Buy… Greg, thanks so much for joining us.

Greg Palast: Always glad to be with you.

Blackmon: Absolutely… This week, Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would restore parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act that has been significantly weakened over the years. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which I believe is the formal name of this, only fell by nine votes short of the 60 that would have been required to advance over the opposition from Republicans… On the one hand, Greg, it’s pretty wild that the question of voter access is even an issue in a country like the United States, that tends to put so much emphasis on the act of voting. Republicans seem to claim that this whole effort is really just a maneuver by the Democrats to shift elections in this country in their favor. But I’m generally curious about what you’re making of this development. What do you think it portends for the issue of voting rights in the United States? Something that, from my perspective, shouldn’t even be that controversial.

Palast: Well, let’s remember, we’ve got a couple bills that we’re talking about. First of all, I would say, having worked all over the world, and especially in Europe, people are stunned that the United States has impediments to voting,.. A lot of nations, like Switzerland, you don’t even register to vote. They assume you’re not a criminal when you walk into vote.

In fact, we haven’t found these illegal voters, people swimming the Rio Grande to vote, for all the shouting and screaming about voter fraud, which is why we have all these rules, supposedly, to stop illegal voters from voting.

I actually did a calculation from the government stats. You are five times more likely to be hit and killed by lightning than to cast an illegal vote. People don’t do it. You go to jail for five years… for on vote —really? It doesn’t happen. So we have to understand that this is not done in the rest of the world, these games, this obstacle course in front of voting.

Now, this week, the Senate Republicans filibustered the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and stopped it from being voted into law in the Senate, even though there was a majority of 51 votes. A filibuster is just, literally, talking a bill to death so that the Senate cannot get on with its work. And to close off that trick, to stop the filibuster, you need 60 votes, and only one Republican, Lisa Murkowski, crossed the line to vote for the bill.

Now, understand, the filibuster was specifically created by Southern Democrats, after the Civil War, for one single purpose: to prevent voting rights legislation and the protection of black people. In fact, one of the only times it was ever used was in 1922 to block the passage of a national law against lynching. So, [until very recently,] it’s been used almost exclusively for one purpose, that is to block rights of black people to vote. Now, it’s been used lately by Republicans for all kinds of things, but basically it’s a Jim Crow tactic.

Jacquie Luqman: So Greg, part of the reasoning that the Republicans have used to oppose this legislation being passed — even though, as you say, it has the majority of votes that are required — is that they say this is another attempt by the Democrats to set election parameters to their advantage, to the Democrats’ advantage, so they say that the bill is unnecessary. But really, of course, there’s always subtext going on here. What is really the main reason that the Republicans do not want this passed?

Palast: Well, let’s think about this, when they say that Democrats, through these bills, are trying to manipulate elections to their favor. What they’re saying is, if you let people vote, Republicans will lose. That’s kind of an interesting comment. In other words, if you really let people vote, oh, my God, we can’t win. And that’s exactly what’s happening. They’re accusing the Democrats of partisanship, but in fact, what they’re saying is, we don’t want people to vote. That’s always been the position of the Republican party. The fewer the voters, the more difficult it is to vote, the better it is for them. But it’s not very good for democracy.

And it’s not like I’m carrying water for the Democratic party. In fact, I’ve investigated some of the shenanigans in voting by the Democratic party. But the truth is that in America right now, unlike a century ago, it’s the Republican party that makes out well by, we use the polite term, “suppressing” the vote. It means blocking citizens from casting their ballots or not counting them.

And I should mention the John Lewis bill simply restores what we’ve had for a half century, the Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court. The John Lewis bill, which was killed this week, would permit something called pre-clearance, a very, very powerful weapon in protecting your voting rights. Pre-clearance was the fancy term meaning that if some officials in a state or county are going to play games, as they did in Georgia during the Senate runoffs, where 6 voting stations out of 11 were closed in Cobb County for early voting — all 6 voting stations that were closed were in black precincts. All six voting stations that were shut down were in black precincts.

Now, that type of stuff cannot happen if the Voting Rights Act were still in full force, or if the John Lewis bill had passed. Because the state would have had to say, go send a note to the Justice Department, say, we have 11 voting stations, we’re closing down six, all in black precincts, but we are claiming that this has no racial effect on the vote. Of course, the Justice Department would not clear that change. That’s the John Lewis bill, it would prevent the horrible shenanigans I saw in states like North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Ohio, et cetera.

Blackmon: The ongoing uses of the filibuster to defeat this, and its direct connection to a racist disenfranchisement is important, particularly as there are ongoing calls to the Democrats to basically kill the filibuster, try to get rid of it, or at the very least significantly reform it. But there seems to be a refusal on the part of the Democratic leadership to do that. Why the hesitance from the Democrats in terms of really doing something about the filibuster issue?

Palast: Well, I’m going to give you the answer in Joe Biden’s own words, ‘cause it actually shocked me. I’m going to read you exactly what President Joe Biden said:

“Here’s the deal: If, in fact, I get myself into, at this moment, the debate on the filibuster, I lose at least three votes right now to get what I have to get done on the economic side of the equation, on the foreign policy side of the equation.”

In other words, what he’s saying to us is, I’m not going to use my political capital to bust the filibuster for the Voting Rights Act. What I have to do is save my political capital for my infrastructure bill. And I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about on foreign policy, and I don’t understand what he means by, oh, I’ll lose three Democratic votes if I bust the filibuster. But, okay, he’s telling us, I’m just not going to put my political weight behind it. I’m going to put my political weight somewhere else. So there’s your answer, in his own words.

Luqman: And since, we have the results from so many mayoral, gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial elections, as well as some other down-ballot races that happenned around the country, people are now, of course, looking at some of the losses in these races, especially in Virginia, that the Democrats suffered or narrow, narrow victories that shouldn’t have been as narrow, like in New Jersey, and they’re saying things like, well, black voters didn’t come out. Or people just aren’t engaged in the voting process. Or people don’t take their civic responsibility seriously. But I mean, Greg, if the President of the United States, who is a Democrat, who at the moment enjoys a Democratic majority in the House, and a plus one in the Senate, won’t put his weight behind voting rights measures, how in the world are people still blaming voters for not supporting Democratic candidates who, literally, will not support them?

Palast: Well, one of the problems you did have in Virginia is that Terry McAuliffe’s not a very attractive candidate. The last time he won the governorship in Virginia, he’s a very conservative Democrat, was against a really odious candidate. And so he’s a very weak candidate put up by the centrist Democrats. He’s very close to the Clintons. So if you don’t give people exciting candidates…

By the way, I think our biggest deficit is really among young voters who, if they don’t get excited, they don’t show up. Now, I wish that weren’t true, that they would think of voting more as like, you have to brush your teeth. It doesn’t always prevent tooth decay, but you’ve got to do it. But, yeah, there’s a problem of fall off. But also, if you’re not going to get candidates that are going to motivate people…

It was always felt that you couldn’t get black people out to vote in midterms, non-presidential elections, but we had the runoffs in Georgia on January 5, where I’ve never seen such an outpouring in the African-American communities in Georgia — cause you had exciting candidates. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were progressive, strong candidates in Georgia. Frankly, two of the most left wing senators we have and they won in Georgia. You give people something to vote for, and they’ll come out and vote for it.

Blackmon: The issue of how the Democrats keep going with basically these establishment-type candidates…What do you think that could portend for the party as an institution moving forward? Particularly in 2022 and 2024, it’s clear the sort of candidate that constituents actually want to see, particularly young people, if it’s clear that that’s the direction that part of the base wants to go, and the leadership continues to refuse to do so. It seems to me that the Democrats only stand to lose by returning to that same well, even when it’s so clearly seems poisoned, and that they continue to ignore that clear desire for more progressive candidates really are at their own hazard.

Palast: Well, two things. Obviously candidates like McAuliffe are chosen because they’re massively good fundraisers. They know how to get that money. For all of the Democrats talk about let’s have campaign finance reform, they want those big fundraising dudes, like McAuliffe, as candidates, who have their own millions. He was running against a Republican who was a multi-gazillionaire. And so you end up with rich guys, or guys who know rich guys, and that’s who you’re going to end up with. And they tend not to be very progressive. So, again, money is the key in primaries and in choosing candidates. So that’s one of the problems. Progressives tend not to have very thick pocketbooks.

Greg Palast (Rolling Stone, Guardian, BBC) is the author of The New York Times bestsellers, Armed Madhouse, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits and the book and documentary, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
His latest film is Vigilante: Georgia's Vote Suppression Hitman

Palast is currently working on a new documentary Long Knife, exposing the Koch Brothers' theft of Osage oil, to be released in 2024.

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