On “Morning Joe,” she parried questions about a possible presidential run. On “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert surprised her by reading from one of the romance novels she has published under a pseudonym.
But on Friday, Abrams dropped in on a much quieter venue: the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Ben Franklin, which bills itself as the oldest cultural institution in the United States.
It wasn’t a stop on Abrams’ book tour. Instead, she was there to participate in an intimate two-hour conversation about the history of voter suppression with four leading scholars. It will be published next year by the University of Georgia Press as part of a new series called History in the Headlines, which aims to bring historical expertise to bear on today’s most hotly debated issues.
The Trump era has been a red-alert moment for many historians, who have mobilized in the classroom, on op-ed pages and on social media to combat what they see as the erosion of democratic norms and an attack on truth itself.
For the conversation, moderator Jim Downs, a professor at Connecticut College, had recruited what he called a “dream team”: Carol Anderson, author of “One Person, No Vote”; Heather Cox Richardson, an expert in the history of the Republican Party; Heather Ann Thompson, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Attica prison revolt; and Kevin Kruse, who has become famous for his epic Twitter threads smiting the dubious historical claims of pundits and politicians.
Before the event, they seemed galvanized at the prospect of talking with someone who has, as Kruse put it, skin in the game.
“When the email went out saying she was coming, I was like — ,” said Anderson, a professor at Emory University, clutching her heart. A few minutes later, Abrams approached.
“I just thank you for what you do,” Anderson said, introducing herself. “You just bring it, in whatever forum. You bring it.”
Asked why she wanted to take time out from her public schedule to participate, Abrams — a Democrat who has called her loss “fully attributable to voter suppression” — said she welcomed the context historians brought to what she has made a signature issue.
“I’m a little bit of living history for some of this,” said Abrams, who, had she prevailed, would have been the first black woman elected governor of any state. But mostly, she said, “I’m here to listen.”
The Library Company décor is old-school patrician (think early American furniture and dead-white-guy oil portraits), but in recent years it has emphasized its rich holdings in African-American history. Before the event, library staff members had laid out some items relating to the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote in 1870.
After the group arrived, the archival items were cleared off the table, and replaced by a bowl of Philly soft pretzels. Downs started out on a (relatively) light note, asking participants for their own early memories of voting.
Kruse, who teaches at Princeton, recalled voting for Gerald Ford in a preschool election, mostly because like his dad, Ford played golf. Richardson offered a rueful college memory of not bothering to vote in the 1980 presidential election.
Abrams, 45, flashed back to that same election, and what she said was the only “physical altercation” she ever had in school, with a classmate who called Jimmy Carter a Communist.
“I got into my first fight, Democrat versus Republican, in second grade,” she said. She paused. “I won.”
The nearly two-hour conversation, which was not open to the public, pinged back and forth between past and present. To the group, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated portions of the Voting Rights Act and freed nine states, mostly in the South, from federal oversight of elections, was reminiscent of the rollback of African-American political rights after Reconstruction.
What is different about voter suppression today, they agreed, is that it has been accomplished by bureaucratic maneuvering that makes it harder to see.
There was discussion of the battles over the Motor Voter Act of 1993, which gave rise to increasing Republican claims of widespread voter fraud. After 1993, Republicans started asserting that Democrats “are only winning because there are illegitimate voters,” said Richardson, who teaches at Boston College.
Kruse brought up the rise of “colorblind conservatism,” and pulled out his phone to check a quote from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who, during oral arguments in Shelby, called extending the Voting Rights Act “a perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
“So the Voting Rights Act isn’t about equality, it’s about giving African-Americans an unfair advantage,” Kruse said. “Which is a bizarre reading of history.”
Some of the questions felt like fact-gathering for future histories. Downs asked Abrams how she had reached the decision to make her fiery speech, 10 days after the Georgia election, announcing that she was ending her campaign but, pointedly, not conceding.
She said voter suppression was too often abetted by the “complicity” of political candidates, including the losers.
“Part of the reason voter suppression works is we’ve created this culture that says you don’t challenge the outcome of elections, unless the act is so egregious as to be absolutely clear on its face,” she said. (Fair Fight Action, a group allied with Abrams, has filed a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s election procedures and accusing her opponent, Brian Kemp, who, as Georgia secretary of state, oversaw the election, of systematically disenfranchising poor and minority voters.)
The scholars offered correctives to some popular narratives, starting with the argument, invoked often by Abrams’s critics, that Richard Nixon had graciously conceded the 1960 presidential election, for the good of the country, rather than challenge rumored fraudulent votes for John F. Kennedy.
At least that’s the way Nixon told the story in his book “Six Crises,” Kruse said. But in fact, he noted, the Republican Party had begun challenges in 11 states, before dropping them.
Near the end of the conversation, when Downs invited questions from the small group of observers, one person addressed what she called the “unspoken” political consensus in the room, raising the counterargument that focus on voter suppression was just a strategy for getting more Democrats elected.
Thompson, who teaches at the University of Michigan, warned against “fetishization” of the Democratic Party. “At every step along this historical path, Democrats” — and not just Dixiecrats — “have many times been intensely interested in disenfranchising poor urban black voters too,” she said.
Abrams noted that she had appeared in a Fair Fight Action commercial aired in Georgia during the Super Bowl alongside a Republican county commissioner. Voter suppression, she said, “can eviscerate democracy for everyone.”
If there was palpable admiration in the room for Abrams, she beamed it right back. Politicians, she told the group, “need your help.”
“We tell the same myths over and over again until they sound like truth,” she said. “Where I think historians can help preserve and actually restore democracy is to remind us of how we got it.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.