Jesse Jackson Jr. warned us about democracy: It's hobbling, "on one broken leg, and drunk"

Former congressman saw this all coming: a toxic combination of racism, right-wing ideology and "states' rights"

Published June 13, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., walks down the House Steps with other members of Congress following a vote on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009. (Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., walks down the House Steps with other members of Congress following a vote on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009. (Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)

"The United States is not a democracy. It is moving toward democracy," former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. explained during our recent conversation in his Chicago home. As I began to ask him to elaborate, he cut off my sentence at the knees, giving a small semantic correction — but a politically crucial one — to his already bleak assessment: "Was. The United States was moving toward democracy." 

We were sitting underneath the visual aid of what is a lifelong passion for Jackson: a large chart and timeline depicting a comprehensive theory for the interpretation of American history. Beginning with the colonial and slavery days of the 17th century and moving to the present, the timeline identifies the critical stages of American development using a nifty metaphor: the "tremor phase," "the great earthquake" of the Civil War, and everything that happened subsequent to Reconstruction, including a violent mob storming the Capitol in January 2021, with many insurrectionists waving Confederate flags, as "the aftershocks."

The chart and the book that emanates from this historical theory, "A More Perfect Union: Advancing New American Rights," co-authored with longtime civil rights activist and political strategist Frank Watkins, were both vastly ahead of their time. Jackson recalls showing the work to visitors in his congressional office in the 1990s and early 2000s, and describes the solutions that his historical framework pulls into focus, with no small measure of modesty but not without justification, as "the most progressive ever proposed" within mainstream American discourse.

Locating racism as central to the historical development of the U.S., it was "critical race theory" before the term became familiar, and an early version of the "1619 Project," many years prior to the New York Times series. In fact, when "A More Perfect Union" was published in 2001, the New York Times, along with nearly every other major publication, refused to review it. Its advantage over critical race theory and the 1619 Project is that it opens an exit from the oppressive structures of American law and power. Rather than collapsing into "Afro-pessimism," it delineates a template for a radical restructuring of society.

Jesse Jackson Jr. acquired what he calls an "orientation" from coming of age as the son of one of the world's foremost civil rights leaders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and formally studying theology and law. He was first elected to Congress, representing the South Side and southern suburbs of Chicago, in 1995, and served 17 years as a consistent advocate for voting rights, investment in public goods and services, and peace. He was also national co-chairman of the Barack Obama campaign in 2008. Following a federal investigation of his campaign finances in 2012, Jackson was forced to resign from Congress and plead guilty to one count of wire and mail fraud in connection with misuse of campaign funds. In the same period, he began receiving treatment for bipolar disorder. He ultimately served more than two years in federal prison.

Jackson rarely grants interviews these days, but is committed to carrying his intellectual and political work into the present. In 2019, he collaborated with his mother, Jacqueline Jackson, to publicize her book, "Loving You, Thinking of You, Don't Forget to Pray: Letters to My Son in Prison." They used their media appearances to discuss criminal justice reform, the moral failures of the penal system and how best to assimilate ex-convicts, especially those who are not former members of Congress, into roles of productive citizenship.

Insistent that his triumphs and failures, his imprisonment and redemption are all critical to his expansive perspective, Jackson began with his initial entrance to the Capitol when I inquired about why he saw voting rights as superior to all other issues in political struggle.

"When we got to Congress in 1995, our orientation prepared us for everything that was percolating in the body politic," Jackson said, referring to himself and Watkins. "Newt Gingrich, the Republicans and some Southern Democrats were halting all progress. We walked through the Capitol, and we saw Robert E. Lee's statue, Stonewall Jackson's statue and Gen. Joseph Wheeler from Alabama's statue. The customs of politics had come to accept that 'states' rights' was a legitimate form of organizing an agenda."

Jackson remembered, as a freshman congressman investigating why many of his colleagues felt such hostility toward the very notion of multiracial democracy, taking a tour of many Southern districts, including that of Gingrich, then speaker of the House, in Georgia. "We could see that the politics associated with the Civil War," Jackson said, "was a factor in the representatives that the people send to Washington, D.C. They merely changed the name from 'Confederate' to 'conservative.'"

One of his first efforts to confront the sacralization of states' rights was to lobby for the inclusion of a Rosa Parks statue in the Capitol building. It was not until 2013 that the effort succeeded, and the civil rights hero was able to stand alongside men who committed treason in what is purportedly a pantheon of the American democratic tradition. Jackson explained, with audible disgust in his voice, that Nancy Pelosi recently told a reporter about how he had "tried" to remove the statues of Confederates from the Capitol.

"Jesse tried?" Jackson asked in response. "Well, how long has Chuck Schumer walked past those statues? How long has Nancy Pelosi herself walked past those statues? You see, it isn't about the statues. It is about the politics that they legitimize — the politics behind them that signal it is acceptable for those figures to be there." 

"It is business as usual," Jackson said, summarizing the Democratic Party's complacency on both matters of symbolism and substance, "They do not understand or appreciate the existential threat facing democracy."

To acquire a sophisticated understanding of American democracy, Jackson argues that historical knowledge is a non-negotiable necessity, particularly "the history of the American Negro." While making it clear that he has no desire to "elevate Black history above anyone else's history," he argued that the unique usefulness of Black American history is that it clears away the fog that obstructs the view of America's ongoing conflict between authentic democracy and various forms of white supremacy and rule by the rich.

"We should legitimize the perspective of women's history in the United States. We should legitimize Native American history. We should legitimize labor history, and LGBTQ and immigrants, and down the list," Jackson said. "They all offer important, even essential perspectives. We're all fighting for civil rights." His voice rises almost to a shout, slowly drawing out the words "civil rights."

"However, I will argue that it is the history of the Negro that shows the formulation of the government as other histories cannot," he continued. "It will show why states left the Union. It will show why states are added to the Union — some slave, some free. It will show how the nation itself expands. It will show movements like popular sovereignty. It will show why statues were being torn down last summer, and why a mob stormed the Capitol in January of 2021. It alone will show the history of the struggle to add the 14th Amendment — a citizenship right and a personhood right — and therefore the privileges and protections of the Constitution apply to you because you are within the borders. You have to come through the history of how the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were added to the Constitution, and you have to go through the history of the Negro to get there, in order to understand the formulation of the United States government."

Jackson acts as docent for a history that the Democratic Party, most mainstream commentators and — as he is quick to point out — even some civil rights organizations have either failed to grasp or chosen to ignore. The history renders the following conclusion inarguable: American democracy is inherently flawed, given its systemic advantages toward the white majority and moneyed class, and "states' rights" functions as a disguise for the reactionary politics of white supremacy. Republican strategist Lee Atwater was famously brazen in his acknowledgement of the latter point, once telling an interviewer, "You start out in 1954 by saying, N***er, n***er, n***er. By 1968 you can't say n***er — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff."

Progress toward racial equity, labor rights and social justice continually collides with "states' rights" road blocks. Voting, Jackson argues, is the most salient example, because it is the foundation of democratic participation, but also because it determines who — and, by extension, what conception of society — gains authority over the decision-making processes that govern people's lives.

The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which removed federal oversight from voting policies in former Jim Crow states and opened a pathway for all the voter suppression laws those states have adopted in 2021, demonstrated that under the current states' rights system the universal franchise is forever in jeopardy. Beyond the Shelby case, the Voting Rights Act itself is inadequate. As a consequence of its insufficiencies, Congress has made five amendments to the act, and has had repeatedly extend its provisions. The obvious and frightening question then becomes, what will happen if or when Congress decides to weaken or even end the Voting Rights Act? 

"I remember when Reagan supported an extension of the Voting Rights Act for 25 years," Jackson said, "Well, hell — he's been dead that long. So, here we are again trying to extend civil rights protections, in the form of voting, in an environment that isn't as tolerant as Reagan's was."

Karl Marx explained that capitalism carries the tools of its own demolition. Its dual reliance on extreme inequality and widespread consumption installs a crisis at its center. Similarly, American democracy will exist in permanent cycles of crisis — experiencing "aftershocks" of varying severity — as long as it allows "states' rights" to undermine the exercise of democracy. From the Electoral College to myriad forms of voter suppression, the veto power of the states, especially in the hands of oligarchs and white nationalists, endangers all efforts to improve the nation.

The only permanent solution is to demote — or finally destroy — the corrosive concept of states' rights. "I understand why people don't want to talk about the long-term solutions," Jackson said while acknowledging the "impracticality" of what he is proposing, "But the short-term solutions keep presenting themselves over and over again, and failing over and over again."

The 10th Amendment delegates authority to the states on matters that the Constitution does not explicitly address. Therefore, to nationalize a right, the Constitution cannot remain silent on the question of whether or not that right exists. "In America, a human right has to be in the Constitution. That's how and why we have a strong press, strong religious freedom and strong right of assembly," Jackson said.

If Americans genuinely want a strong franchise — a universal right to vote and equal protection of that right for all citizens — we must pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that right. The first section of the resolution that Jackson introduced in Congress in 2003 states, "All citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, shall have the right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides. The right to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, any State, or any other public or private person or entity." The amendment would vest authority in Congress to "enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Only a constitutional amendment could create one national standard of voting rights, under one system, impervious to interference from racist and self-serving state officials. Jackson reminded me that the TSA was created only in 2001. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, political leaders agreed that to ensure the safety of travelers and prevent similar crimes in the future, it was essential to centralize airport security procedures under a single federal agency. Voting policy and practice, Jackson argues, could operate under similar federal protocols and regulation.

"We took airport security from the states and turned it over to the TSA," Jackson said. "My amendment would take voting from the states and turn it over to a machinery that has thousands of vote counters, poll workers and technology that are incorruptible by local officials.

"We can no longer have the governor of Texas overseeing elections his way, the governor of Georgia doing it his way, the governor of Florida doing it his way," Jackson added. "That's a problem for democracy. Voting must have constitutional protection if we are going to call ourselves a democracy."

In the short term, Jackson supports the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but cautions that even if they are passed, the crisis will not be over. He offers the grim prediction that "as soon as the For the People Act or John Lewis Voting Rights Act passes, you'll see 20 state attorneys general challenge it." After those Republican objections, those laws will "run through a legal gauntlet where one of Trump's judicial appointments will hear the case." It might eventually arrive at the Supreme Court where, as Jackson puts it, "Amy Coney Barrett and the Supremes will say, 'Stop in the name of states' rights.'"

"We should support the For the People Act and the John Lewis Act, because we want our democracy to hobble into the future, even with one broken leg and drunk," Jackson said. "But we should really work to make it so that our democracy can finally stand tall."

In Congress, and in the book that he wrote with and Frank Watkins, Jackson also proposed amendments to guarantee Americans the right to health care, a clean environment, a quality education, housing and other rights enumerated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Using the vocabulary of rights to support progressive goals of equality, justice and environmental sustainability could provide an overarching argument that can unite the multiple factions of the American left. If Republicans in the early 2000s, including then-President George W. Bush, could propose and promote a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage, Democrats should overcome their deficit of imagination at least enough to discuss big ideas that can help create a better country and a better world. Even if those ideas are unlikely to succeed in the short term, they can create a sense of mission — and any movement without long-term goals will surely fail.

In terms of the survival of American democracy, the risk of failing to act on voting rights is potentially lethal. The law currently offers no preventive measures against states' rights sabotage. In "The Sun Also Rises," Hemingway describes the stages of going bankrupt as "First, gradually. Then, suddenly." Americans have ignored the gradual for so long that we now face the terror of the sudden.

During my conversation with Jackson, I spelled out the nightmare scenario that historian Timothy Snyder, political scientist Anthony DiMaggio and others have recently described. Here's a quick summary: Republicans regain control of the House and Senate in 2022, and several pro-Trump Republicans are elected as secretaries of state in Electoral College swing states. In the 2024 election, President Biden (or another Democrat) wins several of those states by narrow margins, but Republican officials, claiming "irregularities" and fabricated "fraud," refuse to certify the results. So a candidate who lost both the popular and electoral votes becomes president, and the United States is no longer a democracy. 

When I finished outlining the hypothetical scenario, I asked Jackson, "What, right now, could stop that from happening?"

He answered without hesitation: "Nothing."

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" and the forthcoming, "Exurbia Now: Notes from the Battleground of American Democracy." He lives in Indiana. 

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