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National Issues

The Tanner Doctrine—and from the Chief of the Voting Rights Section, No Less PDF  | Print |  Email
By Bob Bauer   
October 10, 2007

This article was posted at Bob Bauer's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.


Such a performance by John Tanner, Chief of the Voting Rights Section. It is not that he could not have put together a defense of the Department’s reading of the constitutionality of ID requirements—nothing persuasive, perhaps, but dignified enough to be delivered with what is called a “straight-face.” It is possible to be wrong without being silly; insensitive without being callous; blunt without being flip about the costs of particular policies.  Tanner passed on all those possibilities.


Once Tanner suggested that minorities do not share in the same inconveniences IDs present for the elderly, because minorities do not grow old enough to be elderly, he gave his listeners little reason to hear anything else.  As show-stopping cruelties go, this throw-away line of his would be hard to surpass. And yet it would be too bad if the rest of the presentation, taped and transcribed, were ignored. Tanner made a spectacle of himself, but he also squeezed out of his presentation a revealing glimpse of ID politics and “equal protection” policy in this Administration, and as would be seen in this line:

People who are poor are poor. They're not stupid. They're not helpless.

Mr. Tanner put these propositions one alongside the other to get across a point that he is unwilling to state directly. Each proposition stands on its own, of course, beyond even the tautological limitations of the first one, holding that the poor are poor. Linked as they are here, without the meaning of the link made at all explicit, Tanner is saying something but not saying it. He is hoping for an impression; and yet he is accepting no responsibility for his true meaning, which is never brought out.


The impression he hopes to create is this: that he, Tanner, is just as sympathetic to the poor as their defenders, and maybe more so. He believes them to be capable; he refuses to see them as helpless. The poor are just like us, Tanner wants us to think, and we know perfectly well that is not all that much a burden—not in cost, not in effort, and not in understanding the need—to obtain identification. 


To appreciate his true meaning, it is important to retrieve the context, which Tanner omits from his analysis, and to recall  that which has rendered necessary this ostensible defense of the capacities of the poor. The government has acted to put the poor to this test: Tanner is speaking on behalf of requirements imposed, quite intentionally on “people who are poor.” As the lower court pointed out in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the poor have been singled out for a reason, which is that they have certain political preferences, and it is supposed that with a little additional pressure—more cost, more inconvenience, experienced keenly by those who are poor—their political impact can be blunted. 


This does not make the poor either “stupid” or “helpless.” It  makes them a target.  Hence Tanner is defending a proposition very different from the one that he expects to leave, in hazy and misleading outline, with this audience. This is the proposition: that the poor can be singled out on the front end, subjected to unequal treatment, but once the government has attacked, it can exploit the principle of equality to insist that they are up to the challenge. Stated another way: the poor are not equal enough to be protected from government discriminatory action, pursued for political purposes; but they are so equal in their capacities for clear thinking and self-help, that the government is off the hook. And its representatives can pronounce their respect for the very population that their principal is harassing. 


Tanner’s seminar on equal protection is notable, not only for the more sensational reliance on actuarial statistics to comfort minorities with the thought that early death will limit their travails. The poor can handle it, he is saying: they can handle whatever the government can throw at them. Tanner was telling the poor: we have confidence in you. Best of luck.


To which might be replied:

People who are poor are poor. They're not stupid. They're not helpless.

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