Lessons for Biden on the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act
On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson sat at a desk under the dome of the U.S. Capitol and, in the shadow of a statue of Abraham Lincoln, signed the Voting Rights Act. The setting was intentional. During a time when voter suppression was virulent, LBJ wanted to show the world that voting rights were as important to the fabric of the nation as the hallowed deeds of Lincoln.
He also knew his own support of voting rights reform would hurt his standing with voters throughout the South, just as it had when he championed the Civil Rights Act the year before. But Johnson stood resolute, famously asking, “What the hell’s the presidency for?”
Now, as our nation faces a growing array of threats to voting and ballot access, President Biden might ask himself the same question.
With at least 61 bills with restrictive provisions moving through 18 state legislatures, voting rights have become urgent and imperative. Earlier this summer, Biden made a rousing plea asking, “Have you no shame?” of lawmakers intent on using the “Big Lie” about the 2020 presidential election to justify restrictions that threaten to disenfranchise millions of voters.
But so far, the president has been unwilling to support filibuster reform to pass federal protections for voting rights, leaving some civil rights leaders frustrated that Biden is not acting urgently enough, instead prioritizing issues such as infrastructure. He has deployed his Justice Department to sue states passing restrictive laws, but only comprehensive federal legislation can blunt the terrible impact state restrictions are likely to have.
For Johnson, and perhaps for Biden too, passing comprehensive voting rights was all about timing. LBJ had stripped a potent voting rights plank from the Civil Rights Act that John Kennedy was unable to pass, knowing that it would be too big to pass a reluctant Congress. Instead, he approached civil rights incrementally, using the Civil Rights Act to break the back of Jim Crow, and waited for a legislative opening for a Voting Right Act. In the meantime, he worked with his Justice Department to determine how voting rights could be upheld through existing laws and encouraged Martin Luther King to dispatch the soldiers of his movement to expose Americans to the worst of voting suppression, confident that if they saw the injustice, they would say, “That’s not right; that’s not fair.”
He was right about the latter. “Bloody Sunday,” the brutally thwarted protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., led by 25-year-old John Lewis, provided a moral imperative that Johnson seized. Addressing a joint session of Congress and the American people a week after Bloody Sunday, LBJ spoke “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” declaring unyieldingly, “It is wrong — deadly wrong — to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.”
Then he went to work on Congress, doing everything possible to tear down potential roadblocks. In LBJ’s case, it wasn’t Republicans who stood in the way as much as it was his fellow southern Democrats. LBJ had no compunctions about running over them to get the bill passed — even if it meant losing their support and turning the reliably Democrat states in the Deep South into Republican stalwarts.
Like LBJ, Biden is a creature of the Senate, one who understands and appreciates the Upper Chamber’s traditions and nuances — if anyone can effectively get a controversial bill through a polarized Senate as Johnson did, it’s Joe Biden. Of course, the president today faces a different landscape of challenges than LBJ. He holds only a whisper of a majority in the Senate and has ambitions for a vast agenda on many fronts. The Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol looms ever present in the voting rights fight, but generally it did not trigger the sustained national outrage of Bloody Sunday or the overwhelming national outcry for reform.
But what 2021 and 1965 have in common is the threat against the stability and durability of democracy itself. With Republicans seizing every opportunity to abridge voting rights to hold power across the country, rolling back the clock on one of our most sacred rights in the process, Biden faces a moment no less urgent.
The lesson of LBJ is not that he had absolute power that he wielded absolutely to accomplish exceptionally hard aims. Instead, LBJ had the courage and conviction to lever every bit of soft power at his disposal — from personally pressuring lawmakers to enlisting the grass roots across the nation to bring his cause to the fore. LBJ knew he would alienate many of the southern states — but he did it anyway. It was that important.
While Biden faces no such Faustian bargain, the cause is no less important today. The dignity of people and the destiny of democracy are once again in the balance. Reforming the filibuster, pushing relentlessly forward to pass federal legislation, and building on national outcry are all soft but effective tools at his disposal. The urgency of now compels him to use them.