OAK BLUFFS — The November midterm elections matter more than probably any midterms in the country’s history, according to the U.S. Attorney General in the Obama administration, because “our democracy is under attack.”
Warning that voting is vital to protect that fragile form of government, Eric Holder, the country’s first Black Attorney General, Thursday told a crowd of more than 300 people at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival that “the power that we have as ordinary citizens is often undervalued, devalued and not understood.”
“If we want to be at the place where we need to be (to change this nation), it’s up to this generation at this time to make sure these changes occur. We have that capacity,” he said. “The cavalry is not coming. We are the cavalry.”
And his answer to those who say getting out to vote for these vital midterms and beyond doesn’t matter? “If your vote doesn’t matter, why the hell do you think they’re working so hard to take it away from you?”
Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee aimed at creating fair voting districts, spoke at the festival in connection with his book, released in May, “Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past and Imperiled Future of the Vote.” Leading the U.S. Department of Justice (“the only Cabinet position named after an idea”) from 2009 to 2013, Holder was interviewed by Cathy Hughes, founder and chairman of Urban One/TV One, at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School performing arts center.
The eight-day festival has been marking its 20th anniversary with a series of film screenings, discussions on topical issues, and appearances by prominent names in filmmaking and other fields. The festival’s Aug. 5 opening night included a congratulatory visit from Holder’s old boss, former President Barack Obama, and former First Lady Michelle Obama — who own a home in Edgartown — to encourage the power of telling stories of the past and present.
The storytelling in the book Holder wrote with Sam Koppelman is about voting in this country, the people who have fought to expand and protect voting rights, and how to fix what Holder considers is broken — including Holder’s idea for term limits for U.S. Supreme Court justices.
In a section of that book that Hughes said should be taught to all American schoolchildren, Holder details the history of trying to get the vote from efforts by white men without property to women to Black people; the 2013 Shelby County decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that changed key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and resulted in more than 1,700 polling places being closed; and the recent gerrymandering and other moves in various states to affect who votes and how hard it is to do.
Holder described how the 2020 voting in Georgia that elected President Biden and two senators who flipped that legislative chamber to Democrats came down to 1-2% of the vote in the state, and the Black vote was key there.
Trying to control what Americans can and can’t do, particularly when it comes to voting, is “all about power,” Holder said. “Acquisition of power, retention of power and keeping power away from certain groups of people.”
How to convince young people to vote?
Holder was asked how to help the younger generation, particularly Black voters, make a difference in this year’s midterms? Make them and all potential voters understand the direct connection between this election and their lives, Holder answered.
The largest voting block in the country is young people, according to Holder. “They far outnumber my generation of baby boomers, and baby boomers have a disproportionate amount of power because they vote in substantially greater numbers." He cited the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade that had given women the right for 50 years to choose an abortion as issues he hopes will convince young people and more to vote in November.
“I don’t understand how any woman can not be motivated to vote in these elections,” he said. “Beyond that, how a Black person cannot be motivated to vote in these elections given what we’ve seen over these past few years.” He said he hopes “the attacks on our democracy by Republicans, by (former President Donald) Trump will energize everybody,” but said voting advocates have to break it down to help people understand “what’s the impact on their lives, not in the future but right now.”
“If you care about gerrymandering, if you care about women’s right to choose, if you care about criminal justice reform, if you care about climate, if you care about a fair election system — all of these things are directly tied to voting. If you want more economic opportunities, if you want the tax laws in such a way that regular folks can (be helped) and not just millionaires.”
How America got here
In a clearly partisan discussion before a sympathetic crowd, Holder on Thursday was candid and sometimes scathing in his criticism of Republican efforts to suppress particularly the Black vote and move closer to authoritarian government; of Trump (who was, he said, “singularly unqualified to be president of the United States”) and Holder’s successor Bill Barr; and of Sen. Mitch McConnell leading the moves to “steal” two seats on the current Supreme Court that rules on all types of issues affecting Americans’ lives.
“I think a large part of the attraction of Trump is about the retention of power” that connects particularly to Obama and that administration because of race, Holder said.
“The big fear is what we represent. (Obama) was brought to office by a multiracial coalition that (some opponents thought) is going to change this nation and (they would lose) lose power to this multiracial coalition.” Opponents chose to stymie Obama’s legislation and choices as much as possible, Holder said, and “to try to make sure his supporters have a really difficult time voting for him or people like him in the future. That’s what all of these laws being put in place after the Shelby case are about.”
Hughes described the Democratic party as one that focuses on “hope” and the Republican party as focusing on “fear,” and Holder said he believes Democrats need to add more fear to their message. Holder noted that in states where abortions are illegal, for example, white and wealthy people will likely find a way to get an abortion anyway, while women of color with less money will be less able to — and Republicans “are OK with that.”
“The reality is not only (that voting is important) to make the nation better, and that’s where we should be, but it also should be about the fear American(s) should have, particularly people of color, if Republicans take over,” Holder said.
Parts of his book, Holder and Hughes said, focus on people who fought to give more people the chance to vote and make it easier to vote – and people today owe them a debt.
“This book is filled with people who fought for an America that they never actually saw, but that they could imagine … people who fought to make this nation better. And hopefully they serve as inspiration to make sure we do what we can,” Holder said, urging everyone in the auditorium to regularly consider what they have done to make a difference. “When young people say ‘My vote doesn’t matter,’ (the answer is) your vote does matter, it matters a great deal and people died so you have the right to vote.”
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Former U.S. AG Eric Holder says voting vital in midterm elections