Why the NAACP Cares About Campaign Cash
• Apr 16, 2016
Moyers & Company By Kathy Kiely
This week, Washington is playing host to the Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening protests in which thousands are marching on the capital — some 400 of whom were arrested Monday after a long march towards the nation’s capital from Philadelphia — to make the case for campaign finance reform, voting rights protections and the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. As they do, we’ll be reaching out to a range of experts on these issues, some of whom are participating in the actions and some of whom are not, to ask what they think it will take to effect real change.
Cornell William Brooks is the 18th chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest grassroots civil rights organization. A fourth-generation ordained minister, Brooks describes himself as a graduate of Head Start and Yale Law School and an heir and beneficiary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision won by legendary NAACP litigator (and later, Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall. He spoke about voting rights, money in politics and why he sees both as civil rights issues.
Kathy Kiely: I wanted to talk to you about all of the activities happening in April, and tell me a little bit about the NAACP’s role in this.
Cornell Brooks: Sure. The NAACP has had a historic stake in the franchise — coming into being at the turn of the century, when an infinitesimally small fraction of African-Americans in the South were permitted to vote. We led the nation well before the Voting Rights Act, in terms of securing the franchise, going back to a case called Smith vs. Allwright outlawing the all-white Southern Democratic primary, back in the days when the Dixiecrats were king, much to the detriment of the civil rights of African-Americans, but also working class people all across the South. And in that case, parenthetically, my grandfather, who when Thurgood Marshall took that case up to the Supreme Court and won in the late 1940s, mid-1940s, my grandfather subsequently ran for Congress in 1946 to get people to join the NAACP and to register to vote.
So you have a personal stake in this?
Brooks: Very much. Very much so. I grew up hearing about my grandfather running for Congress, running to get people to join the NAACP, hearing my grandmother talk about as a child seeing a Ku Klux Klan get on the bus in his robe and having her, as she put it, she got to the back of the bus without her feet ever touching the ground she was so afraid. So the NAACP has long fought to secure the right to vote, and whether that be in terms of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making real the promises of the 15th Amendment, and at every point where the Voting Rights Act was re-authorized, the NAACP has been in the forefront. Where we — in the last battle under a Republican president, George Bush, we were told that it couldn’t be re-authorized, the legislative odds were difficult if not impossible.
The NAACP has a convention in Washington. We turned the people out from our convention into the halls of Congress, and what happens? The Voting Rights Act is re-authorized on a near-unanimous and bipartisan basis. So here we are in 2016, post–Shelby vs. Holder. And we remain optimistic. Why? Because we’ve done this before. We’ve seen the Voting Rights Act imperiled in the past, in terms of re-authorization, not to the degree it is now. But we were able to secure its passage. And in 1965, I like to remind people, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, Martin Luther King and a cross section of the best of the country crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, not in 1945, not in 1955, but in 1965, which led to that Voting Rights Act of 1965. The point being is it’s the same year that they crossed that bridge with much blood, much sacrifice, it was the same year they secured the passage of the Voting Rights Act. So we don’t need to wait well into the next century to make this happen.
But, to your point, we have a traditional stake in the Voting Rights Act. It is, as I like to remind people, the closest thing we have to a civic sacrament, the right to vote, and within the ranks of the NAACP among our supporters and sympathizers, the right to vote is sacred. It is enshrined in our temple of democracy. The Voting Rights Act polls at north of 90 percent in terms of the American public regarding the Voting Rights Act as a crowning achievement of democracy.
So why do you think — given all of that history and what you’ve said about public feeling about the Voting Rights Act and the right to vote, why are we at the place where we are now?
Brooks: I think part of the challenge is there is this very dangerous mythology that has been crafted and created by people intent on suppressing the vote. For example, there’s this whole notion of voter fraud. Now, we know statistically empirically that one is as likely to meet the Tooth Fairy standing next to Santa Claus at the voting booth than encounter an actual incidence of voting fraud. We know that among literally hundreds of millions of ballots cast, a literal handful of instances of voter fraud. On the other hand, voter fraud that’s perpetuated — or perpetrated, I should say — by politicians, that we have more than a few examples of. So the point being here is we have a group of folks who created the mythology that we need government-issued photo IDs to suppress this civic scourge of voter fraud.
Who are these people? Who wants to suppress the vote? Let’s name names.
Brooks: People who believe that they have something to lose with an electorate that is younger, more diverse, and perceived as more progressive. Now, this is a problem — where we have today going into the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. One out of every four African-Americans does not have a government-issued photo ID. Eleven percent of all Americans don’t have a government-issued photo ID, I should say of voting age. Sixteen percent of Latinos. This is no small minority, people of color problem only. This is a profound challenge and assault on our democracy. Nothing less than that.
In the marches that are going to be taking place this month, this issue is yoked with campaign finance issues.
Do you see them as connected? And why?
Brooks: Shelby v. Holder and Citizens United are two sides of one ugly coin. We have the folks who are suppressing and stealing votes before and during an election in collusion with the people buying and selling legislative votes after the election. Note this: The same people were trying to maintain power, the same people who were trying to stay in office have been given a rather clear choice — with a changing, diversifying, younger electorate, we could persuade or we could cheat. They have in fact chosen to cheat. Now, you can persuade people to vote for you, you can make better arguments, you can speak to their interests. But what do we do? We engage in this effort to suppress the vote. Now, the reason this is very much linked to the buying and selling of votes is because where Shelby essentially says in terms of impact and consequence, certain people’s votes mean less or they deserve less protection.
The Citizens United case essentially says that corporations are people, their speech deserves the same degree of protection. And in effect money is speech. Here’s what happens. You have a group of folks in legislatures, both state and federal, whose votes are bought and paid for. They stay in office as a consequence of money coming from well-heeled interests that control their votes and control their influence in elections. So we have a very effective, undemocratic instrument at work in our republic. Namely you keep certain people from voting, you gerrymander districts to ensure you have people who support your views, and then you take as much money as you can to influence people the way you want, to ensure you stay in office. And then on the way out of office as a public official, you then go to work for the very people who subsidized your entire career. It’s very efficient.
Campaign finance has not traditionally been a civil rights issue.
Brooks: That’s right.
What convinced you that it should be part of the agenda? And is it hard to convince other people in the movement of that?
Brooks: Well there’s certain civic false dichotomies. There’s this notion that you have money-in-politics/Starbucks crowd, and the voting-rights/Dunkin’ Donuts crowd. This is the false dichotomy that you have good government, limousine liberals, supporting the reversal of Citizens United and the rank and file of our democracy trying to protect the right to vote. The truth of the matter is, we are all equally — if not equally we are all affected by the corrupting power of money in politics and the corrupting effort of disenfranchising voters in terms of participating in our democracy.
Think about it this way — you have people who are concerned in the environmental movement about coal-fired plants, and they’re concerned about the dominance and the subsidization, if you will, of the fossil-fuel industry. Their interests are being stymied by money in politics, well-heeled lobbyists. Similarly, young people who live in cities like Ferguson, cities like New York, cities like Cleveland, North Charleston, any city across the country who feel like they’re being racially profiled, who feel like we have a prison industrial complex dominated by private prisons. Private prisons essentially buy off, pay off, state legislators and federal legislators.
So the point being here is no matter where you are, no matter what your issue is on the civic continuum, money in politics influences the degree to which you are able to participate and influence the trajectory of our democracy. This is very much related to the free exercise of the franchise, so the point being here this is not a working-class issue versus middle-class issue. This is an issue for the whole of the country. This is really an unprecedented coming together of environmental organizations, labor rights and labor unions, civil rights organizations, legacy organizations, and also post-millennial organizations. You have a group of young people marching from Philadelphia to DC, 99Rise, Avaaz, NAACP at 107 years old, you have the AFL/CIO, CWA, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club. The point being here is the breadth of this coalition speaks to the frightening breadth of the problem we’re up against.