A new documentary focusing on Abrams mixes real history with modern myths.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘ Voter suppression has become a national talking point,” a narrator says in the new Amazon documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy.
Indeed, it has. As November 3 fast approaches, conversations are boiling on the issues of voter suppression, mail-in voting (and its pitfalls), poll access in a pandemic, and voter fraud. But the national talking point of voter suppression is, at the end of the day, just a hip talking point. And it also is a myth. It has also become a very convenient, useful, and savvy excuse for Stacey Abrams’s loss in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election. All In: The Fight for Democracy, though sharply filmed, well crafted, and quite creative in its use of animation, ultimately peddles myth and delusions of grandeur.
The documentary mixes history, political science, and memoir. It is entertaining at times, but also alarming. It revisits the United States’ bloody, racist past via photographs, newsreel footage, and clips of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. It is horrific, and to be clear, this section isn’t myth. The alarming, mythical aspects are the documentary’s flirting with the “1619” interpretation of the Constitution; its full-bodied embrace of identity politics; and its creators’ genuine belief that certain states’ voting laws in 2020 are Jim Crow 2.0.
Directors Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés imply that the origins of the supposed voter-suppression crisis of 2020 lie not in racist practice alone. Rather, it begins with the very wording of the Constitution and its malicious drafters, who sought to forever exclude blacks, minorities, and women from fully participating in democratic elections. For Garbus, Cortés, and Abrams, the constitutional well is poisoned. This is a misleading view. Of course there were times throughout American history when whites — most notably, members of the Ku Klux Klan — actively barred minorities from voting in local elections. They instilled fear into black communities through lynching, and set up cruel, tautological literacy tests to vet potential voters. Women wouldn’t vote until the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. But the American founding and the Founding document are nearly perfect, if imperfectly applied across the centuries. No other country in the history of the world began with such a revolutionary piece of paper, based on such revolutionary ideas. In 2020, more freedom and prosperity have been attained by all races, creeds, sexes, genders, etc. Fill in your identity group of choice, and they will be protected by the Constitution.
The interweaving memoir scenes also reveal the ideology driving the filmmakers, Abrams, and her devoted fans. While Abrams recalls her upbringing, her vibrant civic life as a teenager, and her days at Spelman College as an activist, one quickly gets the sense that Abrams’s political ambition grew directly from her unfortunate encounters with the relics of a bygone racist era. Did you know that Stacey Abrams once burned the pre-2001 Georgia flag (she had acquired a permit to do so) because it depicted the Confederate “Stars and Bars”? Or that Stacey Abrams, the valedictorian of her high school in 1991, was denied the honor of meeting then Georgia governor Zell Miller because a bigoted cop refused to let her into the governor’s mansion? I didn’t. But these experiences were crucial. They inspired her to work for big, structural changes, even if many of the changes she sought had already taken place in the civil-rights era with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Civil-rights legislation, signed into law by Ford, Reagan, and George W. Bush, continued into the 21st century. But once the Supreme Court invalidated section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, all bets were off for Abrams and Co. But the Supreme Court’s invalidation was highly specific, technical, and justified. It has not ushered in — and will not usher in — a second Jim Crow era.
But because Abrams has decided that voter-ID laws in Georgia, for example, represent Jim Crow–level discriminatory evil, she will court radical zeal on behalf of identity politics to do whatever it takes — even if that means upending constitutional norms — to ensure voters are never “suppressed” again, in Georgia or elsewhere. By framing the issue — that some citizens supposedly do not have the capacity to register to vote under revised state laws — as a moral one, an assault on civil liberties, the powers that be can use the federal government to intervene and “save democracy” at the expense of the Constitution — or what’s left of it. (Abrams can also excuse herself for losing the election and she can have a cottage industry of voting-rights organizations and she can secure a book deal and she can be the subject of an Amazon documentary.) The whole debacle echoes Christopher Caldwell’s thesis in Age of Entitlement: American Since the Sixties:
The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible—and the incompatibility would worsen as the civil rights regime was built out. Much of what we have called “polarization” or “incivility” in recent years is something more grave — it is the disagreement over which of the constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiances of those who received it as liberation.
Abrams is channeling the energy of the “de facto constitution of 1964” big-time. Which is why, when she sees states such as Texas, Georgia, or Alabama reasserting their rights to make their own election laws without the interference of the federal government, she sees only the Jim Crow South — and for Abrams, that is a dragon to be slayed. She will forever cast herself as a civil-rights activist cut from the same cloth as MLK. In her mind, she was someone who marched on Washington in 1963, not someone who only revisited the Lincoln Memorial 30 years later as teenager to deliver a speech. The Abrams approach is to deny the possibility — and the reality — of progress, the better for her to maintain her platform. The media, celebrities, and her promoters will gladly play along with her fantasy. It’s all very grandiose, and a bit delusional, too.