Using Donald Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen as their motivating rationale, Georgia legislators, as has now already been widely reported, rammed through a suite of voter suppression laws yesterday.
In addition to imposing restrictive voter ID requirements, curtailing early voting, closing polls at 5:00 pm, eliminating drop boxes, and more, the new law also greatly expands the legislature’s control over the election process in the state. For example, whereas heretofore the secretary of state served as chair of the state election board, now this position will be appointed by the legislature. Remember that Secretary of State Brad Raffenperger, a Republican, refused to buy into Trump’s “big lie” and would not bend to Trump’s pressures to “find” enough votes to out him over the top in Georgia. A legislature sympathetic to Trump would have been empowered—and is now so empowered—to appoint a chair that very well might have been amenable to Trump’s wishes.
Additionally, the bill also enables the legislature to take over the administration of county elections, meaning, for example, that the legislature could assume control of, say, administering voting in Fulton County, a heavily Democratic county that played a significant role in electing Joe Biden as well as Democratic Senators Raphael Warnock and Joel Ossoff.
These measures alone would seem not only to suppress voters by making voting much more difficult but also to allow Republican legislators to decide elections apart from the voters.
So why take this other and seemingly unnecessary step of also making it illegal to provide food and water to people waiting in line to vote?
It is so clearly outrageous and over the line. Giving people waiting to vote a bite to eat or a little hydration has nothing to do with voter fraud or ensuring a fair and free election.
So why include this outrage, this seemingly gratuitous twist of the knife? The mission of voter suppression and of empowering the legislature effectively to decide the election was accomplished in the bill.
In part, Adam Serwer’s October 2018 piece in The Atlantic, “The Cruelty Is the Point” provides some insight into this legislation that seems gratuitously inhumane. He tell us, “President Trump and his supporters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear.”
He elaborates this psychological function of cruelty for Trump and his supporters, explaining that their community “is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them,” finding “in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.”
And there’s more in Serwer’s analysis that helps us understand the clear distortion of the law to secure political power at the expense of a healthy democratic process and society. He explains the principle at work, writing,
“Only the president and his allies, his supporters, and their anointed are entitled to the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it. The rest of us are entitled only to cruelty, by their whim. This is how the powerful have ever kept the powerless divided and in their place, and enriched themselves in the process.”
The cruelty is yet another tactic of division.
Certainly, this bill’s departure from the bureaucratic language of process to the stark language that criminalizes providing a fellow human being waiting in line a drink of water is, we have to recognize, an act of rubbing this legislation in the face of its targeted enemies. It is an added and excessive insult, a deep dehumanization aimed at reminding people that their lives do not matter.
And it is more than dehumanizing.
It is also an emphatic re-assertion of the Republican agenda to destroy any ethos of mutual aid in American culture and society.
We should not forget how important it is to Republican ideology and governance to remove any shred of mutual obligation people might feel toward one another.
Republicans refused to support the American Rescue Plan Act, with Senators such as Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell, among Republicans generally, insisting against reality itself that Americans were simply not experiencing dire need.
But more to the point, even when Americans are in need, a core feature of the Republican belief system has historically been that it is not the role and responsibility of government to meet that need.
Similarly, Republican lightning rod Newt Gingrich, in the height of the Great Recession in November 2011, dismissively admonished Occupy Wall Street protesters to “take a bath” and “get a job,” while around the country, from 2009 through 2012 the country witnessed the following scenes: in May 2012, 20,000 people applied for one of 877 jobs at a Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Alabama; in Summer 2011, 18,000 people applied for one of 1,800 jobs at a Ford plant in Louisville; also in 2011, more than 41,000 people applied for one of 1,300 jobs at a new Toyota plant in Tupelo, Mississippi; in 2009, 65,000 people applied for one of 2,700 jobs at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.
Republican attitudes during the economic shutdown resulting from the coronavirus pandemic have been different. Despite the absence of jobs, Republicans are still loath to provide aid, believing people should somehow get a job and pull themselves by their bootstraps.
This Georgia legislation extends this Republican ethos even further. Not only is it not the government’s role to model mutual aid and extend relief to its citizens, it is criminal for people to act according to an ethos of mutual aid as well.
This sweeping legislation isn’t just about suppressing the vote; it’s about prohibiting collective care and action, criminalizing any sense of human solidarity, any acting upon the recognition that others’ lives matter.
Grotesque as this legislation is that outlaws sharing food and drink with fellow citizens in the practice of our democratic rights, it is not gratuitous.
This type of inhumanity aimed at eroding any ethos mutual aid is central to the Republican agenda.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.