Editor's Note

Editor's Note

Michael Tomasky introduces Issue #28

By Michael Tomasky

In our last issue, we took on money in politics—a perennial problem of our political culture. Now, we tackle a new one: voter suppression. Here is a problem we thought we’d solved 50 years ago with the Voting Rights Act. And largely, we had. There have always been shadowy Election Day campaigns in cities to try to depress the black vote—the fliers stating that you couldn’t vote if you hadn’t paid your electric bill, for example.

But these days, something far more organized and insidious is happening. Conservative groups are all too aware that African Americans and Latinos aren’t voting for their candidates. So, rather than change their policies (God forbid, that!), they’re trying to change the voting rules. The bills conservatives tried to pass in many states in 2012 could have dramatically restricted the franchise among poor people and minorities and even altered the election’s outcome.

That those efforts didn’t succeed speaks mainly to the fact that federal judges, thank goodness, are still inclined to uphold federal law: In each case, the proposals didn’t withstand judicial scrutiny. But rather than admit defeat, conservatives are merely going back to the drawing board and trying to draft new laws that can withstand such scrutiny while accomplishing the same goal. And, of course, the Supreme Court is reviewing the Voting Rights Act, so what constitutes federal scrutiny may be about to undergo a radical transformation.

It’s with all this in mind, and with the assistance of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, that we take an in-depth look at this problem with some of the top experts in the field. Michael Waldman, head of NYU’s Brennan Center and one of the country’s leading progressive experts on voting, kicks things off with an overview. He argues that instead of just waiting for the right to propose restrictions and then organizing to defeat them, progressives ought to play offense and come up with new strategies to ensure voting rights—and, he writes, we should acknowledge that some fraud does exist and propose solutions to it, thereby defanging the right’s main argument.

Yale law professor Heather Gerken describes how a system of automatic voter registration would work. Jonathan Soros and Mark Schmitt make the case for establishing a constitutional right to vote. (That’s correct—no such right exists now!) Demos scholar Tova Andrea Wang addresses how we might increase levels of civic participation, starting with but not limited to voting, among immigrants and naturalized citizens. And the AFL-CIO’s Jeff Hauser looks at the new strategies from the right that will be coming down the pike in 2014 and beyond. This is the classic case of an issue on which the broad left needs to move from defense to offense, and we think the ideas herein, if executed, will accomplish exactly that.

Elsewhere, this issue is replete with original and fascinating arguments. NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, whose book The Righteous Mind was one of the most-discussed political books of last year, continues his exploration of the “moral maps” of liberals and conservatives and offers fresh thoughts on how we might bridge our current divide. Mark Kleiman of UCLA, a leading scholar on crime and punishment, offers a groundbreaking essay on why both “the Foucauldians and the sadists” have crime and punishment wrong and argues that we need “better and more equal law enforcement” whose specifics defy the current left-right dogmas in surprising ways. Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, who has traveled extensively in the Middle East and studied the various impacts of the Arab Spring firsthand, delivers a timely and important piece that looks at the long-term Arab future, laying down the seven markers by which progress must be judged.

We’re particularly proud of this book section. The esteemed journalist Jane Mayer reviews a new book on the Bush Administration’s terrorism prosecutions. The economist Brad DeLong eviscerates the right-wing “nation of takers” argument. We have the historian and Detroit native Thomas Sugrue with an elegiac piece about his hometown; Yale historian David Blight with a luminous essay on Lincoln the Emancipator; and Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, authors of the excellent Why Nations Fail, on Jared Diamond’s new book.

Finally, Bill Burton, co-founder of last year’s leading pro-Obama super PAC, responds to Russ Feingold’s essay from the previous issue, and our own Jack Meserve tips his cap to Orwell as he shows that we can’t solve our real problems if we can’t call them by their correct names. A correct name for this issue, we think, is “excellent.”

Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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