Voting rights journalist Ari Berman on opposing minority rule

Ari Berman spoke with Facing South about his new book “Minority Rule” and the current state of American democracy ahead of the 2024 elections. (Images via Ari Berman.)

The state of American democracy has generated fear and apprehension in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. New voting restrictions, widespread disinformation, threats to voters and election officials, and even violent attempts by far-right extremists to overturn election results have raised concerns among people across the South and the country.

Institute for Southern Studies Democracy Program coordinator Benjamin Barber spoke with voting rights reporter and author Ari Berman about the current state of American democracy and the importance of fighting for a more inclusive political system. His new book “Minority Rule: The Right-Wing Attack on the Will of the People―and the Fight to Resist It” details the clash between white supremacy and multiracial democracy. Through in-depth historical research and critical reporting, Berman explains the anti-democratic features of the Constitution and new suppressive tactics used to subvert the expansion of multiracial democracy across the South. 

As the national voting rights correspondent at Mother Jones and a reporting fellow at Type Media Center, Berman has been covering voting rights and democracy for over a decade. His other books include “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America” and “Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.”  This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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In the book, you argue that the Constitution was originally written to stifle democracy, not expand it—that the founders’ concerns weren’t about protecting the rights of minorities but instead focused on safeguarding the rights of a specific minority, namely white male property-owning elites. Could you elaborate on the philosophical underpinnings of this belief and its impact on the radicalization of the current Republican party?

The founding fathers wanted democracy, but they didn’t want too much democracy, and they didn’t want democracy if it threatened their interests. So after the Declaration of Independence, states got a lot more power, and state governments became more democratic, and then they passed more populist policies. The founders perceived that as a threat to their own influence. So they wanted to write the constitution in such a way that made sure that there were specific protections for their interests, whether it was for elite white power more broadly or for more specific minorities, like the slave states or the small states.

These are not, as you mentioned, minorities as we tend to think about them, because they really weren’t concerned at all with historically disenfranchised communities. They were the ones who were disenfranchising them. So they weren’t concerned about African-Americans or women or Native Americans. It was just assumed these people aren’t going to be part of the government. So the debate was more or less about how much power white people should have. The more powerful whites wanted to have more power over the less powerful whites, and then by extension over everyone else.

The constitution essentially created this idea of minority rule, both in terms of the structure and in terms of the ideology. Even as parts of the Constitution have democratized and things like the Senate have become more structurally democratic, this idea that government should be structured in a way that protects elite white power I think remains very powerful.

You write that “since extending the franchise and many other rights to formerly disenfranchised communities, the antidemocratic features that were built into the Constitution have metastasized to a degree the Founding Fathers could have never anticipated.” What is the historical relationship between the diversification of the country, specifically the South, and the surge of suppressive efforts to dilute the political power of historically marginalized groups? 

Two things about that. The first is that a lot of the undemocratic features have gotten worse as the country has gotten bigger and more diverse. So when there’s only 13 states in 1787, the gap between large and small states or the gap between free and slave states is not as big as the gap between states now. In 1790, the country’s largest state, Virginia had 13 times as many people as the country's smallest state, Delaware. Well, now the country's largest state, California, has 68 times the number of people as the small state of Wyoming. So, if you're worried about the Senate being structured to further minority rule, the Senate is structured in a way that furthers minority rule to a much greater degree than it did back then, because the gap between large and small states is much bigger but every state is getting the same number of senators. So there’s the structural imbalances that have gotten worse because of demographic change and geographic sorting and political polarization.

Then there’s the fact that you have all of these new anti-democratic movements on top of these anti-democratic structures. I think that it is very evident, when you look at the ruling power structure in the South, that there have been efforts at voter suppression and gerrymandering and other tactics that are meant to keep marginalized communities marginalized and keep the white power structure more or less intact. That’s been a feature of the Republican party throughout the South.

Reconstruction altered the region’s political landscape with the emergence of Black men as full participants in the electoral process. You write that during this era, “the definition of democracy had been radically enlarged; citizenship was now tied to equality, not just whiteness.” How have movements for racial progress been deeply linked to democratic advancements?

Basically multiracial democracy was all about being able to democratize the political system and give historically marginalized groups a chance at participating in democracy. There's this great line in the book that says the story of the Constitution is the story about how it excluded all of these, what one historian called “forgotten people.” Those are the people that are written out of the Constitution —  African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and other historically disenfranchised minority groups.

The big struggle is for them to have the same rights in the Constitution as white people did. So with Reconstruction, with the passage of the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments, at least for Black men, there's an attempt at equality and saying that they're going to have the same rights as whites did before.

Now, of course, it didn’t work out as intended because multiracial democracy in the South was very brief and violently overthrown. But I think basically the Reconstruction Amendments provided the opening for multiracial democracy. They validated the idea, if not the practice, of multiracial democracy. So then when the civil rights movement came around they had something to point to and they could say, “All we're trying to do is make the promise of the Constitution real.” A lot of what the civil rights movement was trying to do with a second Reconstruction was just to redeem the squandered promise of the first Reconstruction.

Can you describe how antidemocratic forces have used the ideology of minority rule to fight against multiracial democracy in the age of Trumpism?

White backlash movements keep getting stronger as multiracial democracy becomes more real. First you see the backlash to Reconstruction, then you see the backlash to the civil rights movement, then you see the backlash to the first Black president. What conservative whites are rebelling against is diversification of America and multiracial democracy becoming the norm rather than the exception.

What I argue is really behind the modern GOP push for minority rule is this fear of a country in which white people are no longer the majority. And so the projections from the US census is it’s happening by 2045, and essentially, the dominant white power structure is afraid of its power slipping away. There's been different attempts to change these power dynamics in our country, whether it was the civil rights movement or whether it was the election of the first Black president. So much about Trumpism is about preserving the power structure of the past. To me, that's what Make America Great Again is all about. It's the “Great Again” part, right? It's saying, “When was the country great?” And in my view, a lot of the people who support Trump think it's when it wasn't multiracial democracy is when the country was great, this  idealized version of America before Black people or Hispanic people or Asian Americans had the same rights as white people.

I think this fear of the changing demographics of the country is really what’s behind minority rule today. I think it’s pushed the Republican Party in a more radical direction, where they’re trying to court this white backlash vote instead of embracing the full changing demographics of the country.

You observe that the same forces driving suppressive voting policies and regressive redistricting are also behind efforts to undermine the political system with dark money. How do voter suppression and corporate electoral influence work together to undermine the fundamental principle of “one person, one vote”?

Well, it’s all about trying to give a privileged white elite more power. So the political system is being rigged so that some people have an easier path to voting than others, or some people have a much greater ability to buy elections or influence elections than others. And some people have through the redistricting process, their votes matter a lot more than other people. This is violating one person, one vote, because the political system is not structured in such a way that all votes are coming equally, or all people have the same access to influence the political process.

I think what we’re seeing is that the rich and the powerful are having a disproportionate effect in terms of being able to influence the political process. Then, of course, so many of these efforts are funded by the same people. So you have the people that are benefiting from dark money and putting money into the system are the people who are also funding the groups that engage in voter suppression, the groups that are gerrymandering, the groups that are behind the conservative takeover of the courts. For that reason, I think the efforts of minority rule are all connected because there are all these different tactics that essentially serve the same goal: to protect this conservative white elite.

What role have the courts played in these efforts? 

Conservatives have used the courts to pursue an undemocratic and unpopular and a reactionary agenda because they feel like the judiciary is the safest and quickest place to do these things, because the judiciary is insulated from political accountability in the way that the other branches of government are not. 

They were never going to overturn Roe v. Wade through the normal political channels because it was too popular.  They were never going to repeal the Voting Rights Act through the normal channels of power. They had to go through the courts to do it. So there’s been a concerted effort to put these very ideologically conservative people on the courts, so then they’ll do these radical things that then make it very hard for people to try to counteract.

I think the South Carolina decision is a great example of this, because the court didn’t just decide the case in favor of Republicans in South Carolina, it decided in such a way that makes it much harder to challenge racial gerrymandering in the future. That’s a decision that's clearly going to benefit white Republicans all across the country, particularly in the South, because they’re going to do racial gerrymandering, and they're just going to say, “Oh, we just did it for partisan reasons,” and the Supreme Court more likely than not, is going to say, “That's fine.” It's basically a green light fore white Republicans to try to disenfranchise and dilute the votes of communities of color.

And the avenues for challenging these things keep closing because the Supreme Court has already weakened the Voting Rights Act on multiple occasions. It’s already upheld partisan gerrymandering. Racial gerrymandering was one of the last avenues open to people, to civil rights groups and others, to challenge discriminatory voting maps. Now that window seems to be narrowing. There’s some debate over how much it’s narrowed, but it certainly has narrowed. This court has proven itself hostile to voting rights over and over and over and I think it's really a textbook example of an undemocratic court then making the country more undemocratic through its decisions.

You argue that state legislatures have functioned as both laboratories of democracy and oligarchy. Can you discuss this duality and the role that state legislatures, particularly in the South, play in building an inclusive and sustainable democracy?

State legislatures are incredibly powerful, and it’s always amazing to me that more people don't focus on them because I think they really are probably the most powerful state body in which you can’t name a single person who serves in them. They have both an incredible amount of power, but they also have this anonymity as well that, a lot of times, is an oversight compared to the amount of attention that the President or the Congress gets. They've been laboratories of both democracy and oligarchy because states and state legislatures in particular have a tremendous amount of power. So in some states, we’ve seen state legislatures move in a more democratic and a more progressive direction. But in other states, we've seen them move in a much more reactionary direction. The South is a case in point because I think pretty much every southern state except for Virginia has a unified Republican government.

That means that the state legislatures are the focal point of Republican extremism in a lot of places, North Carolina included. And that becomes the laboratory for the Republican Party to push all these radical policies. It’s always the state legislatures that are coming out with the most radical policies on abortion or on voting rights or on other issues and that's the test case. That’s where the Republican party tests out its most radical policies. Then if they like them, they export them to other states. So that’s why you see a lot of states have passed similar laws restricting voting rights. A lot of states have passed very similar laws restricting abortion rights, restricting labor rights.

It's clear states are paying attention to what other states are doing, and many Republican-controlled states, particularly in the South, are moving in lockstep to make sure that their states push the envelope as far as they can. Then, because of gerrymandering, it’s hard to have a lot of competition. Take North Carolina, it's pretty much a 50-50 state, or close to it, has lots of competitive elections on a statewide basis. But the legislature has a Republican supermajority because they’ve drawn their own districts in such a way that just insulates them from political accountability. That makes it hard for them to moderate. I think, generally speaking, there’s very little incentive for these legislatures in most places to moderate because they’ve so gerrymandered themselves that all they're really worried about in most places is a primary challenge, if they're worried about an election at all.

You have written extensively about American politics and voting rights for over a decade. As we approach another consequential presidential election this fall, which will determine the next phase of American democracy, what keeps you optimistic and concerned about the possibility of a multiracial democracy in this moment of deep democratic crisis?

What makes me optimistic about multiracial democracy is that America has moved, generally speaking, into a direction of embracing multiracial democracy. There have been a lot of hiccups, but if you look from Reconstruction to the civil rights movement to the election of Obama to today, the country has become a lot more multiracial, a lot more democratic. I think the country in general wants multiracial democracy to more or less be the norm.

The thing that keeps me up at night is that I think a lot of people are overlooking the threat of authoritarianism and the danger that it could pose if the authoritarians take power. The election has become, in many ways, a popularity contest. That,  to some extent, is missing the forest for the trees. I get that a lot of people view the election as Biden versus Trump, and they might not be happy with either choice. But I think that the bigger story of the election is that one party is more or less committed to democratic norms, and the other party is more or less not committed to democratic norms. I think it’s very scary to imagine what would happen if a party that has radicalized against democracy gets control of these democratic institutions again.

I’m very concerned about what a unified Republican takeover of the government after 2024, combined with Republican control of all these states, would mean for democracy in America. My guess is that democracy would look quite a bit different than the democracy that we think we have today.