The Roots of Today’s Authoritarianism Come From a 19th Century Supreme Court Ruling


Alabama is an arch defender of this racially polar political order. In 2022, a three-judge district court found that the state’s proposed redistricting map diluted minority votes, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. It ordered Alabama to create a second majority-Black congressional district or “or something quite close to it” so that Black voters would “have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.” In a 5-4 ruling, the court in Milligan rejected Alabama’s arguments for a reinterpretation of the Act and ordered it to follow the lower court’s decision.

Instead, this state — where “Heart of Dixie” is still required messaging on all license plates — defied the court with a new map that did not create a realistic possibility for Black voters to elect a second congressperson. That led the annoyed lower court to direct an independent expert to redraw the map. Then Alabama filed an emergency request with the Supreme Court it had just defied, asking it to stay the independent expert’s work while it pursued yet another appeal.

Last month, the court denied this emergency request, clearing the way for a fairer map to be put in place by the 2024 elections.

Without judicial policing, politicians now beholden to a MAGA politics of white grievance will squelch rather than encourage competitive multiracial districting. Had the Roberts court not eviscerated the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provision in 2013, in which the federal government had to pre-approve changes to voting practices of covered jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination, the courts would not be embroiled with so much defiance.

Democracy and voters suffer. Gerrymandering has created a tight racial architecture to southern politics that encourages extremism. In the Milligan case, the court noted that in Alabama “on average, Black voters supported their candidates of choice with 92.3 percent of the vote” while white voters supported Black-preferred candidates with 15.4 percent of the vote.

Gerrymandering insulates politicians. They don’t have to compete much or at all for voters that might think differently than they do. Those voters can be ignored and cease to be a factor in holding politicians accountable. Autocracy flourishes as fake or engineered supermajorities can impose their will on all who disagree.

For example, two-thirds of the people in states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act support that expansion to cover more low-income adults — but can’t achieve the policies they want through politics. The ten remaining non-expansion states are all Republican-red controlled, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Nationally, solid majorities also support stricter gun safety laws, reproductive autonomy for women and other policies that a gerrymandered U.S. House of Representatives will not enact. Insulation from political competition also encourages a brazen willfulness in which MAGA extremists can hold the entire nation and the common good hostage when they don’t get their way. Thankfully, the Voting Rights Act is designed to address situations where history and present habits create racial polarization.

On October 11, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Alexander v. South Carolina Conference of the NAACP. Black voters in the Palmetto State also convinced another three-judge district court that the legislature had engaged in illegal racial gerrymandering when it cut thousands of Black voters out of the state’s 1st District. South Carolina is asking the court to second-guess the lower court’s finding that race was a predominant factor in the map it chose to draw.


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