British Association for American Studies


Event Review: ‘Voters of the Future’, Northumbria University, November 21, 2022

The American Politics Group’s ‘Unfolding our Shared Future’ event series commenced with a welcoming and analytically rich event at Northumbria University on November 11th discussing ‘Voters of the Future’. The ‘Unfolding Our Shared Future: Challenge, Possibility and Potential in U.S. and U.K. Politics’ series, supported by BAAS and the U.S. Embassy in London, will visit eight universities across the U.K. during this academic year, covering topics including ‘The Future of Security’, ‘A.I. & Internet Regulation’, ‘The Climate Challenge’, ‘The Next Pandemic’, and ‘America, Europe, and the Future of History’.

The American cultural attaché Christina Tribble commenced proceedings by praising BAAS and the APG as exemplar products of the special relationship. These associations, Tribble suggested, “grapple with the special opportunities we share”. Indeed, Tribble argued that American Studies could also be considered “future of British Studies”, a reflection of both nations’ struggles with attempts to foment conflict using misinformation on social media.

For an academic event focusing on recent U.S. politics, the evening was remarkably buoyant. This owed partly to the good humour of the compere Professor Brian Ward (Northumbria University) and partly to the recent mid-terms, where fears of a ‘Red Wave’ proved overstated. Indeed, Dr. Patrick Andelic (Northumbria University) then channelled the lessons from his co-edited work Midterms and Mandates: Electoral Reassessment of Presidents and Parties to explain ‘Why Midterms Matter’. Andelic noted that the terminology ‘mid-term’ only came into vogue in the 1920s as the electoral calendar gradually pivoted around contests for the increasingly powerful Executive branch. Indeed, he warned that the term ‘mid-terms’ poorly describes the election of 35 senators, 435 Representatives, 39 state and territorial governors, and countless city councils, mayors, and ballot initiatives.

Still, Andelic argued that mid-terms matter because they offer a litmus test for confidence in the President and the incumbent party, especially in a media landscape increasingly concerned with narratives as opposed to facts. As evident in the immediate post-mid-term speculation over 2024’s Republican Presidential candidates, even Trumpworld’s most untraditional candidates like ‘Dr. Oz’ only temporarily displaced presidential politics’ status as the greatest show in town.

‘Voters of the Future’ concluded with an insightful panel discussion chaired by Professor Caron Gentry, an expert on International Relations and Northumbria’s Faculty Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Arts, Design, and Social Sciences. The two guest discussants—Dr Richard Johnson and Stephanie L. Young—reflected Unfolding our Future’s intention of uniting academia and politics across the Atlantic.

Dr. Richard Johnson (Senior Lecturer in U.S. Politics and Policy, Queen Mary University, London) focused on racialisation in politics, outlining his concept of ‘racially-polarised partisanship’. Johnson powerfully illustrated how access to the American franchise has historically been shaped in partisan terms, often via racial logics which ensured that legislation written to advantage one party—particularly the ostensibly ‘race-neutral’ literacy clauses key to Jim Crow—inevitably advantaged one race over another. More recently, race and political allegiance have become increasingly intertwined. Biden’s 2020 coalition featured 87% of Black voters, 65% of Latinx voters and 61% of Asian Americans. By contrast, President Trump gained 58% of white voters including a majority of under-30s, Catholics, Evangelicals, men, women, low-earners, and high-earners. [1]

President Lyndon Johnson meets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Wikicommons.

From voter I.D.s to absentee voting allowances, all this means that the rules of the electoral game have become increasingly contested, eroding faith in the democratic process. Before 2022’s mid-terms, 57% of Democrats, 38% of independents, and 29% of Republicans polled believed that elections reflected the will of the people.[2]  Johnson then detailed how racially partisan state voting legislation had previously been prevented by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required states with histories of discrimination to seek approval from the federal government before modifying their electoral processes. This clause was nonetheless struck down by the 2013 decision Shelby County v. Holder, opening the way to escalating attempts to use courts to roll back federal monitoring of state elections. Partisan reforms could be further accelerated by the pending Moore v. Harper, which may allow state legislatures to pass electoral laws even if they are inconsistent with state constitutions.

All participants agreed that the story of 2024 will be greatly influenced by the Supreme Court, Wikicommons

This ostensibly arcane debate over ‘independent state legislature theorem’ thus conveyed Johnson’s primary warning: American democracy is as young as it is fragile. In a world where voting decisions are increasingly informed by negative partisanship—e.g. fears of the opposing party gaining power—Johnson argued that this realisation can only benefit American politics.

The audience was then delighted by an engaging presentation by Stephanie L. Young, a former advisor to the Obama Administration and the Executive Director of ‘When We All Vote’, a nonpartisan voter registration initiative created by Michelle Obama. Young too advocated for improving understanding of the electoral process, noting first the disproportionate celebration of the fact that 27% of voters aged 18-29 participated in 2022’s mid-terms, the second-highest in three decades. [3]

A November 1867 wood engraving by A.R. Waud illustrating African Americans voting after Reconstruction, Library of Congress.

Young traced a rich vein of Black involvement in electoral politics to the Reconstruction period, when some 4 million African Americans voted and 16 African Americans were elected to Congress. Yet following the construction of Jim Crow voting legislation, American democracy was only given a second chance after the Voting Rights Act. Young explained how the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which enfeebled the Act, was justified by an erroneous belief in a ‘post-racial’ America. Acting to the detriment of young voters and voters of colour, Young suggested that this judgement was primarily motivated by fears of ‘another Obama’.

Young thus suggested that arcane holdovers from nineteenth-century politics, such as elections being held on Tuesdays, indicate that “this [the electoral process] was never for us”. To this dilemma, she recommended support for the Freedom to Vote Act, which aims to protect voters who have historically faced discrimination. President Trump’s election had at least provided Americans “an opportunity to talk about what we don’t want to talk about”.

During the Q&A with the online and in-person audience, eyes turned to the future, particularly 2024’s Presidential race. Dr. Johnson estimated that four-fifths of votes might already be decided, leaving the critical battles to be turnout and winning over independents, particularly in those few swing states—Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Arizona—likely to decide the election. Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act was also celebrated as the Biden Presidency’s critical legacy, a long-term investment in infrastructure that Johnson lamented has been all too rare in recent British politics.

The evening closed with a speech from Professor Philip Davies, the chief organiser of the Unfolding our Future series. Davies hoped that this series would provide a unique opportunity to “bring questions of transatlantic and global significance to communities across the county to stimulate debate in a wide variety of areas”. The APG, the only organisation of its kind in Europe, intends to both survey broad issues (e.g., voter suppression) and foster trans-Atlantic connections which may help those interested in American politics understand these debates in a more personal way.

After a half-decade in which U.S. politics has become increasingly mired in existential angst, the ‘Unfolding our Future’ series appears expansive, outreach-focused, and perfectly timed. If the Anglo-American comparison (e.g. the Elections Act 2022) could be investigated further, ‘Voters of the Future’ offered a reassuring and measured reflection on recent events. An enticing introduction to this ambitious series, Northumbria University established an extraordinarily high benchmark for the seven events to come.

[1] https://www.edisonresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Edison-Research-2020-Election-Recap.pdf

[2] https://edition.cnn.com/2022/07/21/politics/cnn-poll-elections/index.html

[3] https://circle.tufts.edu/2022-election-center

About the Author

Tom Cryer is a second-year LAHP-funded PhD student at UCLÕs Institute of the Americas, where he studies memory, race, and nationhood in the twentieth-century United States.