The Conscience of a Conservative

It should not fall to the only black Republican senator to block a man who spent his career seeking to disenfranchise minority voters from being appointed to the federal bench.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina opposed the Civil Rights Act, calling it “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.” He opposed the Voting Rights Act. He filibustered a bill to establish a federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., accusing the civil-rights leader of “action-oriented Marxism.” He protected South Africa’s apartheid government from sanctions. He backed white rule in Rhodesia. And when he died in 2008, President George W. Bush called him an “unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty.”

It makes perfect sense that a party that celebrates a man like Helms, whose many former aides retain positions all over Washington, would nominate Thomas Farr to the federal bench. The Justice Department identified Farr, an attorney for Helms in 1984 and 1990, as aiding the Helms campaign’s effort to keep black voters from the polls. The campaign mailed postcards to some 125,000 black voters in North Carolina threatening them with prosecution if they had lived in a given precinct for less than a month and attempted to vote. Disenfranchising black voters was of the utmost urgency because Helms was running against Harvey Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte, and his campaign feared an energized black electorate. After running a campaign on naked appeals to white racism, including the infamous “white hands” ad, Helms prevailed.

Farr has spent much of his post-Helms career attempting to weaken the influence of black voters or to keep them from the polls. He defended gerrymandered maps that were drawn with race as “the legislature’s paramount concern.” He defended a North Carolina voting law that a federal court said targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” In response to the the court’s ruling finding that the North Carolina voting restrictions “constituted racial discrimination,” Farr said the decision “insults the people of North Carolina and their elected representatives by convicting them of abject racism.” Attempting to disenfranchise or otherwise diminish the power of black voters was not, in Farr’s view, cause for outrage. Rather, it was accurately describing those attempts as targeting black voters that he found offensive.

If Donald Trump’s administration had its way, Farr would be a federal judge. Senator Tim Scott scuttled Farr’s nomination on Thursday by joining his colleague Jeff Flake in opposition. Scott said he could not support Farr following the release of the 1991 Justice Department memo that “shed new light on Mr. Farr’s activities.” In July, Scott sank the nomination of Ryan Bounds, whose past writings were replete with racist generalizations. But neither of these men should ever have been nominated in the first place, and blocking their confirmation should not have rested on the conscience of the Republican Party’s only black senator. If the Republicans decide to renominate Farr when the new Senate is inaugurated, then Scott’s stand will be insufficient to stop him.

The fact that Farr came so close to being seated on the federal bench is a symptom of a greater sickness afflicting American democracy, which is that one of the two major parties has decided that disenfranchising a core constituency of its rival party is a legitimate political approach. The polarization of the two parties into one that is almost entirely white and one that relies substantially on the support of racial and ethnic minorities has exacerbated a trend toward conservatives believing that their opponents’ political victories are illegitimate. It is no coincidence that the voter-fraud conspiracies of Trump and his defenders center around undocumented immigrants or black neighborhoods—alleging criminality allows them to suggest political victories that rely on minority voters are usurpations, without saying so explicitly.

The rhetoric with which conservatives describe elements of the Democratic coalition—black voters are frequently described as being stuck on a “plantation”—denies black agency and also Republicans’ responsibility for their difficulties attracting minority voters. Suggesting that voters of color are somehow coerced or brainwashed into voting for Democrats not only justifies efforts to disenfranchise them, it means that criticism of the Republican Party’s record on racism can easily be dismissed as fake news.

Those who hold these beliefs naturally conclude that extraordinary measures are justified in order to maintain power. Whether it’s deliberately baroque voting rules, prohibitive costs to casting a ballot, voter-suppression campaigns, or racial gerrymanders, the alternative—allowing Democrats to steal elections—is ultimately worse. They’re just trying to protect democracy.

Much has been said about the diversity of the incoming class of Democratic freshman representatives, and about the corresponding whiteness of the Republican delegation. Until the Republican Party is beholden to diverse constituencies, until its base properly regards attacks on the right to vote as attacks on democracy, until it sees its path to power in appealing to minority voters rather than in disenfranchising them, it will continue to produce more Thomas Farrs than Tim Scotts. And the most basic of democratic rights—the right of citizens to cast a ballot—will continue to be contested by those seeking to restrict the electorate to their advantage. But it should not be this way, and it does not have to be.

It is a common rhetorical trope among liberals to suggest that conservative giants of the past would not recognize today’s party of Trump. But Jesse Helms almost certainly would. That’s the problem.

Farr should never have been nominated, and once nominated, the vote against him should have been 0–100. Scott’s stand against Farr was admirable. But it should not fall to him alone to conclude that a man who spent his career trying to prevent his fellow citizens from voting does not belong on the federal bench. Scott has no obligations to the American people that his Republican colleagues do not share. And one of those obligations is to defend the American people from those who would seek to infringe on their basic constitutional rights, no matter what party they belong to, no matter what their racial background might be, and no matter whom they might vote for.