Death of an election expert

Just a quick post to record the passing of Lani Guinier, a distinguished scholar of American electoral law, who died on Friday of complications of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 71. You can read her New York Times obituary here and a tribute from colleague Spencer Overton here. I haven’t seen any mention in Australian media, but I may have missed something.

Guinier was a civil rights lawyer before becoming a professor first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Harvard. A constant theme of her writing – available particularly in her 1994 book The Tyranny of the Majority – is the unfairness of winner-take-all single-member elections, and the need for some form of proportional representation to ensure protection for minorities.

Readers of this blog will find that idea familiar. But because Guinier’s work was about America, and she was herself Black, it was never a debate about minority rights in the abstract but specifically about racial minorities. As we know from more recent events, those debates can become very toxic very quickly.

Guinier discovered this in 1993 when she was nominated by Bill Clinton to be assistant attorney-general for civil rights. The conservative movement, desperate for a win against the new administration, launched a fierce attack against her, portraying her quite unfairly as an enemy of democracy and a supporter of racial quotas in elections. Clinton, taken aback by the strength of the demons that he had roused, failed to defend her and eventually withdrew the nomination.

Unlike, for example, Robert Bork, with whom her case was often compared, Guinier showed no sign of bitterness and resumed her academic career. But the success of the smear campaign against her was an ominous sign both of what Clinton was up against and of his failure to appreciate the danger.

Some of the attacks against Guinier could be explained by simple ignorance: her work was often technical, and journalists, then as now, showed little aptitude for explaining or understanding the detail of electoral law. But there was also deliberate misrepresentation, undertaken in the service of a belief that any challenge to white rule was inherently illegitimate.

Last week’s anniversary reminded us of the way the Republican Party has parted company with a commitment to truth. Lani Guinier’s story demonstrates that the roots of that problem run deep.

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