Many Americans have Georgia on their minds these days.
The Peach State has become a kind of Rorschach test for this country. People on opposite sides of the United States’ great partisan and ideological dividing line look at the same facts and events in Georgia and see entirely different pictures.
The latest image to split the nation into warring camps is a voting law that emerged from the Georgia legislature and was signed into law by the state’s governor, Republican Brian Kemp. Kemp and his fellow Republicans say it was an election-security measure, one designed to prevent voter fraud.
If so, it’s a solution in desperate search for a problem.
Kemp himself said just weeks ago that the balloting in Georgia in the 2020 election was the safest and fairest in history. The only events that looked anything like election fraud were the calls from former President Donald Trump and his surrogates for Georgia public officials to “find” enough votes for him to win the state.
Critics point to the new law’s more draconian measures—particularly the one that makes it illegal to bring food or water to a person waiting in a long line to vote. This bit of harshness, those critics contend, is in keeping with the law’s overall intent, which is to discourage poor people—particularly poor Black people—from voting.
They see it as another sign of Republicans’ terror that power is slipping from the GOP.
Doubtless, there is some of that.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, after all, has said bills that would expand ballot access and allow more people to vote represent an existential threat to the GOP.
But this is more than a battle of the moment.
We Americans tend to think our fierce conflicts, once fought, are fully resolved.
The truth is from our very founding we have been struggling as a nation over questions of who was entitled to vote.
And who wasn’t.
In our earliest days, slaves and other people of color were denied the franchise, as were women. Often, so were men who didn’t own sufficient property.
In many ways, the first two centuries of our history were defined by savage fights to determine who could be considered fully American and who couldn’t. Who belonged and who didn’t. Who should have a voice and who shouldn’t.
Who could vote … and who couldn’t.
The skirmishing in Georgia—which has been taken up in many other states around the country—is nothing new, just a continuation of a civil war that has haunted us from our nation’s birth.
This family squabbling will not end any time soon.
The reality is there always have been Americans who believed that certain people deserved more rights, more opportunities, more freedom than others. They see the American Revolution as something limited, a rebellion designed to gain them and people like them liberty.
But not necessarily others.
That is why we Americans argue—again and again and again—over whether poor people should vote. Over whether Black people should vote. Over whether women should vote.
And over whether undocumented immigrants today have rights U.S. citizens must honor.
We like to think of these as settled questions.
But they aren’t because the American Revolution is and always will be an ongoing struggle. The idea that freedom is a birthright for all and not just some is still the most revolutionary notion around.
That is why it still scares some people right down to their socks.
We won’t ever be finished fighting these battles over inclusion and acceptance because we can’t. Freedom is something each new generation must define and defend on its own terms.
It’s not sweet, but it is nonetheless an old song that these days keeps Georgia on our minds.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.