You can learn more about the US by ig­nor­ing Donald Trump and look­ing at the de­tails of last week’s vote, writes Pa­trick Cock­burn

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Front Page -

IN 1898 the state of Louisiana held a con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion with the de­clared aim of dis­en­fran­chis­ing black peo­ple and per­pet­u­at­ing white rule. “Our mis­sion was, in the first place, to es­tab­lish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the ex­tent to which it could be legally and con­sti­tu­tion­ally done,” reads the official jour­nal of the con­ven­tion.

Le­gal means were found to scrub 130,000 reg­is­tered black vot­ers from the rolls and al­low ju­ries to come to non-unan­i­mous ver­dicts in felony tri­als, in­clud­ing those in­volv­ing the death penalty.

This mea­sure might sound tech­ni­cal, or even be pre­sented as a bid to make the court sys­tem more ef­fi­cient, but its real pur­pose was thor­oughly racist. It ef­fec­tively sidestepped the con­sti­tu­tional re­quire­ment that black peo­ple should serve on ju­ries, which gave them some lever­age in re­sist­ing le­gal dis­crim­i­na­tion against the black pop­u­la­tion.

Since there were usu­ally only one or two black ju­rors on a jury, they only had in­flu­ence so long as ver­dicts were unan­i­mous. Once a split verdict was al­lowed, then all-white ju­ries could ef­fec­tively de­cide the fate of de­fen­dants by a 10 to two verdict. This en­trenched the le­gal bias against black peo­ple for over a cen­tury.

It was only last Tues­day that vot­ers in Louisiana ap­proved an amend­ment that abol­ished this toxic Jim Crow law that had sur­vived the civil rights move­ment be­cause it was not demon­stra­bly racist writ­ten down, de­spite its ob­vi­ous racist in­tent. Ore­gon is now the only state that does not re­quire ju­ries to reach unan­i­mous ver­dicts. Votes like the one in Louisiana — though lit­tle re­ported by the me­dia — are of­ten more im­por­tant in their ef­fect on peo­ple’s lives than the choice of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Congress.

Some of th­ese votes have vast po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences: great at­ten­tion is given to the races for the gov­er­nor­ship and Se­nate in Florida and too lit­tle to the de­ci­sion by vot­ers to re­store the vot­ing rights of ex-felons, though this will re-en­fran­chise nearly 1.5m peo­ple in Florida or 9.2pc of the vot­ing-age pop­u­la­tion. Th­ese are peo­ple who have com­pleted felony sen­tences, but un­til now had lost the right to vote in a state that is of­ten de­scribed as evenly di­vided be­tween Repub­li­can and Demo­crat.

The pur­pose of deny­ing ex-felons the right to vote was much the same as that ex­pressed openly by those at­tend­ing the Louisiana con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion 120 years ago. Depriv­ing felons of the vote was pur­port­edly non-racist since it ap­plied to every ex-con­vict, but in prac­tice it tar­geted the black pop­u­la­tion. Some 418,000 out of a black work­ing age pop­u­la­tion of 2.3m in Florida have felony con­vic­tions. This is just un­der 18pc of the po­ten­tial black vot­ing pop­u­la­tion who, if they could have cast a bal­lot, would have en­sured that the Demo­cratic can­di­dates for gov­er­nor and the Se­nate were elected.

Only two other states — Iowa and Ken­tucky — bar for­mer felons from vot­ing, so the sit­u­a­tion in Florida was al­ways out of the or­di­nary. This should be very ob­vi­ous but pun­dits mulling over the po­lit­i­cal divi­sions in Florida last Tues­day night sel­dom men­tioned this cru­cial act of voter sup­pres­sion. The midterm elec­tions con­firmed the ex­tent to which the US is racially di­vided, though this was scarcely a mystery to any­body who has spent any time in the coun­try. It was easy enough for Pres­i­dent Donald Trump to whip up racial fears and an­i­mosi­ties by de­mon­is­ing the so-called car­a­van of Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants in Mex­ico.

Trump is al­ways skil­ful in dom­i­nat­ing the news agenda and he did so again in the fi­nal weeks of the cam­paign. His suc­cess was hugely aided by the lack of any Demo­cratic leader able to re­but him in equally at­ten­tion-grab­bing terms. The me­dia dances too eas­ily to Trump’s tunes, but, since the Demo­crat lead­ers don’t play any memorable tunes of their own, it is dif­fi­cult to know what else the jour­nal­ists can do.

The ab­sence of an ef­fec­tive Demo­crat lead­er­ship also opened the door to Trump’s par­tial suc­cess in claim­ing a great vic­tory in the elec­tions, though, in los­ing the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, he has over­all suf­fered a de­feat. Many of th­ese ploys are scarcely new: Turkish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan in­vari­ably claims an elec­toral tri­umph be­fore all the votes are counted and a win­ner de­clared. Pop­ulist na­tion­al­ist lead­ers with cult-like at­tributes the world over all show the same need to project an aura of in­evitable suc­cess.

This un­re­lent­ing fo­cus on Trump and the strug­gles at the apex of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is of­ten ir­rel­e­vant to what is hap­pen­ing, both good and bad, on the ground.

It does not bring any­body very close to un­der­stand­ing what makes Amer­ica tick and how far and in what di­rec­tion this is chang­ing.

A bet­ter guide to this is of­ten lo­cal or state-wide ini­tia­tives or the elec­tion of new district at­tor­neys or sher­iffs who ac­tu­ally im­ple­ment the law. In Alabama, for in­stance, two coun­ties have voted to ban their sher­iffs from be­ing al­lowed to take for them­selves any money left over from that al­lo­cated to pay for food for pris­on­ers af­ter they have been fed. This is a sig­nif­i­cant amount of money, with one sher­iff keeping $750,000 which he in­vested in the pur­chase of a beach house. Since it is in the fi­nan­cial in­ter­est of sher­iffs to spend as lit­tle as pos­si­ble on feed­ing their pris­on­ers, it is not sur­pris­ing that they go hun­gry. In one case, where the sher­iff had legally pock­eted $200,000, a judge found “undis­puted ev­i­dence that most of the in­mates had lost sig­nif­i­cant weight”.

I found when I was a cor­re­spon­dent in the US that vis­it­ing for­eign­ers, who came from cen­tralised states, usu­ally ex­ag­ger­ated the role and power of the fed­eral govern­ment and underestimated that of lo­cal of­fi­cials in the states. An ex­am­ple of this last Tues­day was the elec­tion of pro­gres­sive District At­tor­neys in Hous­ton, Dal­las and San An­to­nio in Texas, a state that holds 218,500 peo­ple in jail. Many are there be­cause the state au­thor­i­ties have crim­i­nalised poverty. The choice of DA will de­cide to what ex­tent peo­ple who can­not pay mi­nor fines end up spend­ing years in in­car­cer­a­tion.

Re­sis­tance to such in­jus­tices is strong and grow­ing, with the re­turn of more than a mil­lion peo­ple to the elec­toral roll in Florida be­ing the most im­por­tant sign of this. The shock ef­fect of the rise of Trump is great but is ex­ac­er­bated in the minds of many Amer­i­cans and most for­eign­ers be­cause they un­der­es­ti­mate the ex­tent to which the US is a racially and so­cially di­vided coun­try. Slav­ery left a mark on black and white peo­ple that has never been erad­i­cated. Trump is a symp­tom of this rather than an aber­ra­tion. That is why his type of pol­i­tics will per­sist, but so too will the op­po­si­tion.

‘The fo­cus on Trump is of­ten ir­rel­e­vant to what is hap­pen­ing, good and bad, on the ground’

TRIBUTE: Me­la­nia Trump and Brigitte Macron at the El­y­see Palace in Paris ahead of com­mem­o­ra­tions mark­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of the ar­mistice end­ing World War I.

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