Hakeem Jefferson: tech executives must decide which side of history they are on

Justin Hendrix / Jun 25, 2021

This week, the United States Senate blocked the For the People Act, a set of provisions designed to protect voting rights and prevent a variety of measures in dozens of states that burden democratic participation. The bill may come up again.

Just before the Senate took up the procedural measure, I spoke to Dr. Hakeem Jefferson, assistant professor of political science at Stanford University and also a faculty affiliate with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and the Stanford Center for American Democracy, who was one of the leaders of a group of nearly 1,000 political scientists who wrote in support of the For the People Act. Referring to the various measures pursued by Republicans in state legislatures across the country, the statement assesses that "the Republican Party’s attacks on voting rights weaken democracy for all Americans, but they disproportionately burden communities of color, the poor, young people, and less frequent voters. This is by design: the purpose of these laws is to ensure that Republican-leaning voters constitute a majority of votes cast, even if they are a minority of the electorate."

I talked with Hakeem about January 6, the ongoing threat to American democracy, and why media and technology executives need to operate with a deep understanding of American history and the core grievance that is driving the behavior of the right: white supremacy.

This conversation was part of the Tech Policy Press podcast. Subscribe here.

Justin Hendrix:

One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that I felt the diagnosis that you made on January 6th in your tweets and very shortly thereafter in your writing, really was one of the clearest diagnoses of what happened that day and why. So, could you just remind listeners where your mind was as you watched the events unfold at the Capitol on January 6th?

Hakeem Jefferson:

So I was sitting here at my desk. I just finished a phone call with a colleague and I had my TV on mute, which is off to the right of my desk. I finished this Zoom call, and I looked over and there were tons- it appeared to me- of white folks climbing various barricades. I believe by this point they had gotten to the door of the Capitol. And it was so striking to me, this image of rage-filled white Americans mostly, who had traveled from across the country at some cost to ultimately do something that I had never seen- none of us had seen in our lifetimes of course- and that is to the storm the Capitol. And news reporters were talking about this crazy event as I had now turned my attention fully to the television. And my mind, as a scholar of race and politics who thinks a lot about questions of identity, went immediately to a literature that I know quite well- which is to think about what would drive this mass of folks to the Capitol to behave in this violent way?

When folks look at that, there are many answers as I noted in the piece that I would begin writing minutes after turning my attention to the television. There are many answers that people in my business would arrive at. Many, as I noted would, talk about the way that this was a function of polarization, which has increased in the US in recent decades. I knew that others would talk about this is as a consequence of mis- and disinformation. But what was so clear to me is that this was a function of whiteness, and I want to unpack what I mean there so that everybody's on the same page.

It was not just about having lost an election. It wasn't just about Donald Trump being evicted ultimately from the White House. It was about an overriding concern that white Americans have long had in the US, and this is a concern about power. It's a concern about the maintenance of white power and white rule, as I noted in the piece. And that was as clear as day to me. It didn't take long to write the piece because it was so immediately clear, and I don't think we've seen anything since then that has made me question the argument I made that day, sitting here at the desk.

Justin Hendrix:

On the other hand, I think there's been a good amount of evidence that has reinforced that. Not only public opinion polling, but other types of evidence that has amassed. What have you seen since then that has bolstered your case?

Hakeem Jefferson:

I think what we've seen is a continued assault across the country on voting rights, on the core tenets of democracy. That includes ceding ground when one has lost an election. We see Republican attempts across the country to preserve minority rule in places where they don't have a majority of the votes. And I think all of this is evidence certainly of a belief in the Big Lie, as it has come to be called. But we should make no mistake: this is about an attempt to maintain a particular kind of white rule in the US. And I know that sounds jarring and hyperbolic to some, but these attempts to suppress the vote, to burden the franchise, to subvert elections, to gerrymander districts, such that a minority of voters can have their policy wishes rule the day- this is about race, racism.

It's about the desire of some- not all- some white people in this country to maintain a kind of white rule that makes impossible a multi-racial democracy. And that's what we saw on January the 6th. It wasn't just an attack on the Capitol. It was an attack on multi-racial democracy. And I think that all of the evidence that we've seen as states have passed tons of these laws that restrict the burden, the franchise, all of this is part of the same play. And we should call it what it is. It's an attempt to instill and enshrine in the U.S. something that we thought we had long overcome, which is permanent white rule.

Hakeem Jefferson. Image credit: Harrison Truong

Justin Hendrix:

You are one of now- I think- more than a hundred political scientists who have done something slightly uncommon. You've joined a letter together to argue for the passage of a particular piece of legislation. Why are these experts all so in favor of the For the People Act?

Hakeem Jefferson:

I just want to offer a brief correction. There are now more than 800 signatories on this letter, and there are political scientists to support the passage of the For the People Act. And I am one of the drafters of this statement along with my colleague, Adam Bonica, who's a professor here at Stanford, Jake Grumbach, a professor at the University of Washington and Charlotte Hill, a PhD student at Berkeley. And we were motivated to draft this letter in support of a particular piece of legislation, not just in support of democracy in the abstract, but in support of a particular piece of legislation, because, as we write in the statement, we believe that this is a do or die moment for American democracy. We have seen, as I just noted, attempts across the country to attack voting rights, to gerrymander legislative districts. We have seen attempts to subvert elections.

I lived in the state of Michigan as a grad student at the University of Michigan. And I watched in awe as commissioners on the Board of Elections debated whether to certify Joe Biden's victory. And they weren't looking to cast doubt on the votes of every jurisdiction in the state of Michigan. One commissioner noted that she would be in favor of certifying the results of the election, save the City of Detroit. Now one doesn't have to have a PhD in political science or be an expert in race and politics to know what that was about. That's about taking away a fundamental right that so many have fought and died for, taking away the voice of minority voters.

And so we put a premium in this letter on talking about the franchise, and that's not all the For the People Act does.It has things in there about campaign finance and increasing the kind of ethical accountability from members of Congress. It has provisions that do away with extreme partisan gerrymandering. It would create a floor for voting in this country. And we spend a lot of time talking about voting rights because voting rights are so fundamental to democracy. And this has been a key area where Republicans have chipped away and chipped away at this fundamental right. And we believe that this is an inflection point in this country. We believe that time is running out for those in positions of power to do something about the attacks on the franchise, the attempts at enshrining minority rule. Time is running out to do something about that.

And so I think we have gotten so many signatories on this letter, which is in support of a particular piece of legislation because they, like those of us who drafted the statement, understand that the stakes are incredibly high. And perhaps I sound alarmist in our conversation, because I think it is a moment in which we should all be alarmed. The right to vote is preservative. As Chief Justice Earl Warren said, of all other civil rights, the right to vote is fundamental. And I think a number of political scientists recognize both the history of this country and where we're headed if members of Congress don't move urgently to pass this piece of legislation.

Justin Hendrix:

You brought up a couple of things I'd like to dig into just a bit more. You brought up the Big Lie, the idea that false voter fraud claims were circulated, certainly by the President, but by also by other political elites. Over a hundred Republican members of Congress, for instance, joined in making those claims, and in some cases even valorized what happened on January 6th. What do you make of where we've got to in this country right now on perceptions of January 6th, what happened that day? Of course the conspiracy theories continue to thrive, and there's a full on effort at this point to almost erase or rewrite what happened.

Hakeem Jefferson:

It's such a good question. And perhaps I'll draw a connection, a seemingly odd connection, perhaps at the start to ongoing conversations about whatever the hell people mean when they talk about critical race theory. Most folks don't know what that is, but they know at its core, there's a truth telling about America. The opponents might not know the ins and outs of critical race theory, but they at least have enough of a sense that there's something that is unsettling about, the story, these legal scholars, and those of us who read and believe some of the core tenets of critical race theory, the arguments that we might make about the embeddedness of race and legal institutions and the embeddedness of race and racism, I should say, in these legal institutions. And there's been this attempt in recent weeks to tell a different story.

To bury Nikole Hannah Jones' brilliant 1619 project at the New York Times, to ban the teaching of these topics in public schools. And so we have- or at least some of us in this country- have this almost amazing and awesome ability to retell aspects of history that laid bare some unsettling facts about who we are. And so what we have seen- and we saw it almost immediately following the events of January 6th, but we've certainly seen it more and more as time has gone on- there's a retelling of what we all saw with our own eyes. We saw a mass of white folks carrying the flag of the confederacy, wearing Nazi insignia, carrying Trump flags, carrying the American flag which they had weaponized as a symbol of white rule, white power. We saw it with our own eyes.

It's almost laughable that we could watch this as I did, and I'm sure many of you did, we watched it and now there's a different story. ‘It was Antifa, it was Black Lives Matter activists, they were just tourists looking to check out the beauty of the Capitol.’ I mean, there's no place they won't go with the tale. And I think the scary part is there are many Americans willing to believe it, and they're willing to believe it for reasons that political scientists have documented. The reason they're willing to believe it is because it maps onto core identities, their partisan identities. For example, political elites have told them that it's true. And these are political elites they like, like the former President. And so I'm not so surprised that so many are willing to believe these lies. I mean, many believed the lie that Barack Obama wasn't born in this country or that he was a Muslim, and all of these kinds of lies. But to the retelling of January 6th, it is merely the way that we operate as Americans when we are unsettled by hard truths.

And I think the task for those of us who are in the business of telling the truth, regardless of how uncomfortable it is, is to keep telling people what actually happened. And that's why it was so important for me to get into the conversation immediately because I had a good sense of what I saw and I wanted other people to get that sense too. And so I think the hard work for those of us who recognize the lies that are being told about this stuff is to do what I'm doing right now, which is to talk to folks with platforms and audiences who might be persuaded by the arguments you make.

Justin Hendrix:

I focus on technology and media, and the relationship to democracy. And one of the things that we've talked about here of course, is the spread of lies. And a lot of folks have looked- after the fact, of course- at the media and information ecosystem. And certainly on social media, a lot of folks are concerned about the fact that our platforms seem to value the valence of information over its veracity. And that of course is perhaps, as you say, because that is what all of the individuals that are on the platforms do. What do you make of the information ecosystem and its role in this? Is it simply a mirror to what's going on in society more broadly in your mind, or is it playing a role in exacerbating the situation?

Hakeem Jefferson:

I will start by noting that this isn't my space of greatest expertise, but I will say this, that I think it's both. And it is a reflection of what is happening in the world. I often tell folks that we should be careful in making pronouncements about what the state of public opinion is, for example, based on what we see in our timelines- especially if you're a member of the academy, you should be careful to not assume that most folks think the way that you think. But we have seen the tweets of those who support the former President. We have seen the messages of a fellow Republican, and we know that it reflects a core belief. But more than just reflecting, I think who we are, there is an ability to spread information, unlike any other time in the world. I can send off a tweet and it's seen by more people than will ever read any paper that I write.

And that has its benefits for sure, particularly for those of us in the ideas business, but it comes with some costs. Everyone can be a journalist, Everyone can be a storyteller and there's so little barrier to entry. And there are few checks. And as one who believes that most speech, even bad speech, should exist on these platforms, it makes me nervous to think about the way that folks across the country can be mobilized by Tweets that say that this election was stolen, or there's something nefarious that's happening at the vote counting center, of course, in some majority minority area. The fact that you can gather people in ways that you could never before, I think these are all things that platform managers and technology companies have to be thinking about. This is way above my pay grade, but as a student of race and identity, one of the things that I do know is that identity weaponized is quite dangerous.

When people believe that core identities are under threat, they become mobilized in ways that are scary, for lack of a better word. And I think what many on the right have done, and continue to do- I'm thinking about folks like Tom Cotton, for example- what these folks do is they stir the pot. They tell people in these online spaces where everything can go viral, they tell them that your identity is under threat, that you should be afraid of these people who are coming to our shores. You should be afraid that your country is being taken away from you.

And so I think that places like Facebook and Twitter have to be in conversation with those of us who understand how dangerous this stuff is, and I'm not calling for greater policing of speech necessarily. But at the very least there has to be an understanding of what happens when people engage this kind of information. And what happens unfortunately, in its most violent form, is what we saw on January 6th. And I think we've moved too quickly away from this.

I'm bad with time, but we are what, six months away from this event and already it's fallen to the wayside in so many people's thinking. Even as you were asking me to have this conversation about January 6th, one of the thoughts I had was, ‘that seem so long ago. That seems so out of the news.’ What are we doing here? But it should be headline news every day. We should still be talking about it. And it's so crazy that we aren't.

Justin Hendrix:

That kind of leads me I suppose, into my next question. The social media platforms on some level have said we'll make our decision about whether to let Donald Trump back on this platform when we believe that we can assess whether the danger has passed. So Facebook pushed him off for two years and then said, they'll assess the situation at that time. YouTube still may let him back on when they assess the danger has passed. Twitter of course has pushed him off permanently. How would you answer that question? If Susan Wojcicki from YouTube was in the room with us, or Mark Zuckerberg. Has the danger passed?

Hakeem Jefferson:

I don't think we've seen any evidence of that. I think it's a good question. I too read this and I wondered, what does it mean that the danger has passed? I mean, we have a significant portion of this country that believes the lie that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. They believed it so much that they stormed the Capitol of the United States. They continue, along with elite support, to tell this lie. And I haven't seen a weakening of the belief. Sure, ultimately Republican elites will go on the media and say, ‘Well, Joe, Biden's the President. End of story.’ It's not the end of the story. There is a core constituency in this country for racial resentments, a core constituency for the politics of white identity, and a core constituency opposed to the tenants of multi-racial democracy. So unless I've missed something, none of that has changed since January 6th.

My sense is that we're actually moving into this period, these conversations about critical race theory, the 1619 project, and all of this, which too, by the way, is about whiteness. It's about a desire to protect oneself against a different kind of threat, kind of identity threat, to deal with what are the negative stereotypes and the like that attach to whiteness. We have, I think, a perfect storm for exactly the kind of thing that we saw on January 6th. And I say not to be alarmist, but if you're paying attention, little has changed. Congress hasn't even gotten on the same page with respect to investigating what happened on January 6th. So no, I don't think the dangers have passed. And I think we are too certain that because of how wild it was that it can't happen again in some form or another. And I guess I'm just not quite there yet.

Justin Hendrix:

You mentioned a separation of the concept of polarization from the underlying grievance, this white identity grievance. Do you see any efficacy in trying to address polarization or address asymmetric polarization? Or do you think we should be more full on simply addressing this underlying issue?

Hakeem Jefferson:

I really think this is a hard question. I've been reading the polarization research for some time- since I was in graduate school. And with great respect to my colleagues, I really don't know if political scientists have gotten the best sense that so much of what motivates this polarization is not just a difference in policy attitudes, or even what we call affective polarization- this idea that people on one side just don't like people on the other side. And perhaps this is an intellectual bias of my own, but I think underlying some of the core motivations of the right in this country is a commitment to a kind of racial order that has been, in the eyes of many, disrupted.

And so I walked through in The FiveThirtyEight essay this idea that we talk a lot about in political science that relates to a theory of group position. I won't bore listeners with a long read of group position theory, but the core argument of this theory advanced by Herbert Blumer, a noted sociologists back in the 1950s, is this argument that those that exist at the top of a social hierarchy- we're thinking about race in particular- really want to maintain that position. And that's the core thrust of the theory. And insofar as we care about racism and the like we needn't just think about the hearts and minds of white people, we need to think about what their desires are.

What is the desire of one who exists in this position of such great privilege? It is to maintain that power and that position. And so I can't make sense of American politics without thinking about this as a core feature of the belief set of the politics of many white Americans. Not all white Americans, so don't write in to me- but for many white Americans, the core tenets of the belief structure is desire to maintain power and position. And so you can't understand American politics without thinking about that, nor can you understand polarization without thinking about it. And so you asked me an impossible question, which is what to do about it. Where should we focus our attention?

Because I study what is seemingly an intractable problem in this country- the problem of American racism- I always acknowledge the progress that we've made thanks in large part to activists on the ground. But I will admit that at the core of my own beliefs is not the desire to spend a lot of my own time trying to change hearts and minds. I think that's important work, important persuasion work, but I think we should be interested in designing systems that don't rely on the goodwill of good people. And so that's why I, along with my colleagues, drafted the letter in support of HR 1.

It's why I think- as does my colleague, Jake Grumbach and his work that thinks about the way that democracy is backsliding in the states- that there's a role, a significant role, for federal power and elections and the like. That's why I care about a voting rights act that holds states accountable that want to burden the franchise. Because though I study public opinion and I'm an expert in public opinion, my own strong belief- as one who cares about justice- is that we spend so much time thinking about hearts and minds and less about the real work of politics, which is to make it impossible for members of Congress to say no to what is good policy that would strengthen American democracy.

So that's where I think efforts ought to be spent. None of this question of whether we should spend our time trying to get white people to not be so strongly attached to their racial identity, or not so attached to their desire for power, privilege, and all that comes along with that. I think we have to do some of that hard work to stop these people who would go storm the Capitol, but I really think our efforts would be better spent working to advance the cause of justice through policy that changes the structure so that we're not so dependent on the goodwill of these folks in the first place.

Justin Hendrix:

I wonder if there isn't something there also for tech executives who are thinking about how to design massive systems that channel discourse, and dialogue and debate on some level, and if they shouldn't be thinking that way as well.

Hakeem Jefferson:

I think these companies have to ask themselves ‘at what cost.’ And this is what we sign up for in liberal democracy: for expensive speech, speech that makes me cringe, speech that makes me uncomfortable, speech that I would not express myself or even surround myself with folks who would. And so I want to state my position as a strong defender of speech, even bad speech. But, and this won't come as a surprise to your smart audience, but no right is absolute. And these platforms- though I think they perceive themselves as democracy-enhancing institutions- they have to think about the balance between providing a space where anything goes, or in caring about other tenants of democracy. Free and fair elections, the rights of the most marginalized. And these rights are often at tension with one another. And so there are no easy answers.

I tell my students all the time, and you'll forgive me or you'll edit this out, but shit's complicated. And so I don't want to pretend that there's an easy answer to this very hard question. But I think more than they have, media elites, social media executives have to be thinking about the trade-offs. The stakes could not be higher. And I think that is what was laid bare on January 6th. And we've seen some changes. I mean, Facebook now has this [oversight board] that looks, and checks out, and decides what to do about this or that. But they've got to decide, ‘what speech are we not willing to platform?’ As these tech execs remind us often they are private organizations, private entities. The protections that I have about speech are protections from government intrusion on that speech. And of course we want these platforms to be as democracy enhancing and the like as they want, but to lean on this idea that to police speech on these platforms is beyond the pale is too an overly simple answer to a hard question.

Hakeem Jefferson:

And so I don't have the answer today, but I think it requires that these folks have a good sense of American history, or they have a good sense of what the stakes are. And these stakes are real. I mean the civil rights movement, isn't that distance from us. And the kind of backsliding that we're experiencing right now is real. And so I think folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and others have to ask themselves what side of history do I want to be on? And I think that is the question that should animate the decisions that they make. And they're used to making hard choices. They make choices that I sometimes don't agree with. They're willing to restrict rights in countries where they want markets. That's a decision that I think is troublesome.

They have to stop pretending that the easy answer is just to say, ‘support speech period,’ because that's as easy as saying ‘ban the speech’ in the first place. And so it's complicated, but I'm heartened at least that perhaps one of the silver linings, though I think there are none to what we witnessed, is that perhaps these folks- who I think are often very smart in the domain of tech, but have a loose handle on the realities of American history- perhaps they have been brought up to speed in some way or another. So at least this trade-off is clear to them that it was, say, on January 5.

Justin Hendrix:

Hakeem Jefferson, thank you very much.

Hakeem Jefferson:

Thanks man.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...