Last Sunday in Selma, Alabama, Hillary Clinton opened a speech at the Brown Chapel AME church with a Bible verse. “This is the day the Lord has made,” she began. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it. And then let’s get to work.”
Members of the historic church know something about work. Fifty-four years ago, on March 7, their sanctuary was the starting point for black protestors who marched from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights. White-controlled state and local governments had no plans to allow black voters access to the polls. On their 54-mile journey to the state capital to demand that federal law be followed, while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge just six blocks away from Brown Chapel, the freedom fighters were brutally attacked by white law enforcement.
At the anniversary celebration this past Sunday — intended to honor a defining struggle of the civil rights movement known as “Bloody Sunday” — the former presidential candidate focused on the rampant voter suppression that continues to undermine the black vote, particularly after Shelby v. Holder unraveled voting protections in states with historic patterns of discrimination.
Drawing parallels between the South and elsewhere throughout the country, Clinton took the opportunity to assert that changes to the Voting Rights Act can make a “really big difference” in states like Wisconsin, where she said between 40,000 and 80,000 people were “turned away from the polls because of the color of their skin.” She lost the state to Donald Trump, in what was the first time a Democratic presidential nominee lost to a Republican there in 30 years.
But this paints an incomplete, if not wholly inaccurate, picture of Clinton’s Wisconsin loss. And until the Democratic Party reckons with what happened in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, it’s doomed to repeat history.
The attempt to analogize the Southern struggle for voting rights with her fate in Wisconsin subordinates some uncomfortable, and likely more relevant, truths — in the service of a narrative offered by an element of the Democratic Party that would prefer to see cheating and illegality, rather than politics and policy, as the causes of its collapse. That narrative glosses over a remarkable, decadeslong decline in black economic conditions and political disillusionment outside the Southern, black Democratic firewall.
Wisconsin embodies these trends perhaps more acutely than anywhere else in the country.
After having had three years to grapple with the realities of a vital Democratic base in the Midwest, it seems Clinton still hasn’t learned her lesson. If this is any indication of the party’s 2020 strategy, it may be handing Trump another victory.
“It’s like the soul left it. There’s no life,” Earl Ingram Jr., 64, told me, describing a once-thriving black, middle-class community that bordered the former A.O. Smith factory site on West Hopkins Street in Milwaukee. Ingram was a union worker who assembled car frames for the company. We stood next to one of the lone remaining buildings, an empty concrete tower that housed A.O. Smith’s research and engineering arm. On a sunny day last fall, the golden hour cast an amber light beyond the shadows of the formidable building, but there was little else that glistened. Most of the factory site was torn from its foundation and replaced by a sprawling field of yellowing grass. The nearby commercial strip that once bustled with mom-and-pop stores had become a collage of wooden boards and abandoned sidewalk churches.
As if corporate managers were all carbon copied on a memo, they plucked their manufacturing facilities from Milwaukee’s urban core and dropped them into foreign countries and Southern states, a trend that accelerated through the 1980s and ’90s. A factory job had meant union labor, including high wages and benefits that disproportionately benefited the city’s black, male population. In 1970, 73 percent of working-age black men in Milwaukee were employed, and half of them worked in manufacturing. By 2010, only 45 percent of working-age black men had a job. Offshoring directly undermined black labor and killed hopes of economic prosperity that many black families sought after leaving the debt servitude of the South.
Today, according to research by sociologist Marc Levine, Milwaukee’s joblessness rate among black men in their prime working years is higher than any major city’s in the country. The median black household income in the state is about half that of whites, the third-highest disparity in the country. Jobs were essentially replaced with prisons, giving Wisconsin the highest black male incarceration rate in the U.S.
In the face of disintegrating economic conditions, some of which could be attributed to the Democratic Party’s own neoliberal strategy, liberal legislators fumbled. Wisconsin’s Republican interests grew mightier with funding from the rich and white all over the country, including Charles and David Koch, the notorious billionaire fossil fuel industrialists who buttressed the political ambitions of former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Yet — as Dan Kaufman notes in “The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics” — Democrats failed to counter the conservatives’ vast political infrastructure with one of their own. Instead of broadly advancing progressive candidates and interests, according to Kaufman, Democratic leaders discouraged grassroots action amid Walker’s attack on collective bargaining, though protestors defied their orders. They also made “a fundamental political calculation to move rightward and support Republican priorities such as welfare reform and school vouchers,” Kaufman wrote in his book. In the face of extreme wealth and income disparities between Wisconsin’s black and white residents, state Democrats have taken the black vote for granted, as Milwaukee community activist Angela Lang told NPR last fall.
The ground was fertile for Clinton to dig in and excite black Milwaukee voters once inspired by Obama’s messages of hope and change. However, she canceled a planned Green Bay, Wisconsin, appearance, reportedly because of concerns about the optics of a splashy campaign rally after the Pulse nightclub massacre. Even without a grand personal appearance, her team made relatively few efforts to connect with voters on the ground in Wisconsin throughout the entirety of her campaign. As Vox reported, Clinton opened 40 campaign offices in the state. This was just over half of Barack Obama’s total of 69 offices in 2012. “In Milwaukee County, the largest source of Democratic votes in the state,” read the Vox report, “Clinton opened only four offices compared to Obama’s 10.”
In the summer of 2016, less than three months before the general election, frustrations among black residents boiled over in days of unrest after the police killing of Sylville Smith. The spark lit by Smith’s death was all that was needed to engulf some of Milwaukee’s black neighborhoods in flames, already teeming from the pressure of persistent racial inequality.
With voting rights on the brink and a frustrated community over the edge, this was even more reason for Clinton and her team to campaign hard in Wisconsin. They didn’t. And in November 2016, the black voter turnout rate dropped from 79 percent in 2012 to 47 percent, the lowest black voter turnout in the state’s recorded history.
Years later, instead of studying how these myriad factors likely contributed to her defeat, the party seems intent on avoiding substantive critique of their failings, while Clinton has perpetuated misinformation that renders her blameless.
Her Selma remarks, as a preliminary matter, were simply inaccurate. As the Washington Post noted, Wisconsin was not a state covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act preclearance requirements. So changes to the Voting Rights Act had no effect on Wisconsin. Further, Wisconsin’s voter ID law passed in 2011, before the Shelby decision. Given that the legislation went into effect in 2016, after years of being stalled by litigation, Democrats had several years to arm themselves with the appropriate tools to combat possible voter suppression and make genuine efforts to organize black voters.
The limited academic research that directly assesses Wisconsin’s voter ID law on the black vote is inconclusive as to its effect on Clinton. A University of Wisconsin-Madison study estimates that black nonvoters in Wisconsin were more affected by the voter ID law in comparison to whites, but it also shows that lack of interest in the candidates was a much more frequent reason why nonvoters stayed home. Fourty-two percent of respondents, across race, said they were unhappy with the choice of candidates or issues or that they simply were not interested. Responses indicating possible voter suppression — long lines, not being able to get an absentee ballot, not having an adequate ID, or being told at a polling place that their ID was inadequate — made up a combined 5 percent of the responses.
Census data released after the election also provides some insight about national trends of lower black turnout. In a survey of over 2.5 million black nonvoters around the country, an estimated 20 percent of them did not vote because they “did not like candidates or campaign issues.” This comprised the highest share of respondents’ answers. The second-most frequent reason at 19 percent was that they were “not interested.” “Registration problems” and “inconvenient polling place,” comprised a total of 7 percent.
The voter ID law realistically had at least some effect in Wisconsin, and a single suppressed vote is one too many. And with an election in the state decided by just under 23,000 votes, any single factor was arguably decisive. But Clinton has used this possibility — this likelihood, even — to make a conclusive assertion about the general election itself. Priorities USA, the Super PAC that backed her campaign, created the oft-cited study on the impact of the state law. Political scientists have noted that the study, which is not peer-reviewed, is riddled with methodological flaws. Among them, it estimates that Clinton lost 200,000 votes, based merely on a calculation of increased turnout in states with non-strict voter ID laws. The study does not survey Wisconsin nonvoters. It does not control for factors that could have contributed to lower turnout. It simply extrapolates a conclusion about the impact of a voter ID requirement based on voter turnout averages in other states.
The same University of Wisconsin study found that voter suppression was also evident in 2012. Voter suppression, of course, has been a factor in every election cycle since the 1860s. It is a deplorable fact of American political life. Yet the sole focus from Clinton on people who were deterred from voting, combined with zero focus on the greater pool of black voters who likely stayed home because they weren’t interested in voting for her, suggests a warped approach. It’s an approach that sees black votes as a Democratic birthright that was stolen by Republicans, rather than as something to work for and earn.
While Clinton name-checks Stacey Abrams to compare the deleterious effects of voter suppression, Georgia’s former gubernatorial candidate engaged marginalized communities for years with her own organizing operation, fought long battles against the state’s right-wing political operatives on a progressive platform, and emboldened black people in oft-forgotten rural counties.
On a daunting route to demand voting rights, the victims of Bloody Sunday risked their lives. They walked 12 miles a day, sleeping in fields in Southern towns rife with racist rage. Any day could have been their last. Instead of doing a semblance of the organizing that activists have done against voter suppression, Clinton simply coasted on their legacy, a far cry from “getting to work.”