Former Attorney General Eric Holder became the latest in a long line of Democrats to visit Iowa on Tuesday, giving a speech in Des Moines that increased speculation about a presidential bid.
Since stepping down as the country’s first African American attorney general, Holder has chaired the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, which focuses on combatting Republican gerrymandering efforts and making voting laws fairer. Holder emphasized the fight for voting rights in a speech at Drake University Law School, suggesting that he would make these issues a centerpiece of a presidential run.
“In far too many places, elections are not fair,” Holder said. “The system is being rigged by politicians who are willing to bend or break the rules in order to stay in power. This explains why—more than half a century after the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965—for too many Americans, the right to vote and the assurance that every vote is counted fairly remains under siege.” He called the struggle for voting rights the “defining civil rights issue of our time.”
Holder has said he’s undecided about a presidential bid and told me recently he would make a decision by early March. But he certainly sounded like a would-be candidate in Iowa. He played up his personal biography as the grandchild of immigrants and highlighted former President Barack Obama’s “upset win” in the Iowa caucuses in 2008—something he may also be seeking as a long-shot candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“I am dissatisfied, just as so many of you are dissatisfied, with the inequities that continue to divide us, the injustices all around us, and the refusal of some elected leaders to rise to this defining moment,” Holder told law students at Drake. “That’s why I cannot be silent—and I hope you won’t be silent—as our nation confronts this time of challenge and consequence.”
During an interview in Washington last week, Holder told me he wanted to see the Democratic candidates for president focus more on voting rights issues. “Democracy protection, voting rights, has broken through,” Holder said. “But interestingly, at least for now, it has not necessarily broken through with the presidential candidates. It is something that I think people who are going to seek the nomination of the party and ultimately represent the party should talk about, because it’s a winning one. Also, it’s a critical issue. It’s as important as all the other things that people are focusing on—health care, climate.”
Thank you, Jack [O’Brien], for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be with you and your classmates, with Dean [Jerry] Anderson and Drake Law’s outstanding faculty and with so many distinguished alumni and members of Iowa’s bench and bar. I’d also like to thank my friend Tom Vilsack for inviting me to join you today. Tom was my colleague in Washington, but he brought Iowa with him. The Obama administration, and the country, are better for his efforts and the perspective he brought to our work. Thank you all for welcoming me back to Des Moines. I first got to know this city and some of the friends in this room about this time of year in 2007 when I began traveling to Iowa on behalf of a long-shot presidential candidate who inspired me with his optimism and his vision for our country It was almost a year later, on a cold January night in 2008, when my friend Barack Obama pulled off an upset win in the Iowa caucuses, that the call to put our nation on a new path was first sounded. That’s why I’ve returned today: to discuss what must be a new chapter in an important ongoing conversation about the challenges we face as a nation, the progress that’s now at stake, and the future we can and must build together. Like so many of the people I’ve met in this city and across this great state, I was raised by parents who deeply loved this country. My father was a World War II veteran who, like all four of my grandparents, emigrated to the United States from Barbados. They arrived in New York City with little more than a sense of America’s history and an unwavering faith in the promise and potential of the American Dream. Their America, like ours today, was not perfect. My family faced discrimination and a legal system that did not provide equal protection to all people. But they seized every chance to improve their circumstances and enrich their community. And they never stopped believing that this nation was constantly moving toward greater freedom and fairness. They were right. The progress we’ve witnessed even in my own lifetime, and especially for people of color, is nothing short of extraordinary. I remember the pride I felt as a young child as I cheered on the first team I ever rooted for, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and their star second baseman, Jackie Robinson. I remember the awe I felt as a teenager watching the famous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” as two courageous black students, including a young woman named Vivian Malone—who later became my sister-in-law—stepped past Gov. George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama. I felt the scope of my own dreams expand the day I saw Thurgood Marshall take his historic place on our nation’s highest court. And decades later, I was very privileged to serve as our nation’s 82nd attorney general, in the Cabinet of our first African American president. When I consider the opportunities I’ve had—that my three children have today, but that my parents did not—I feel blessed beyond measure. We have had made enormous progress as a nation. Yet I recognize, as we all do, that significant challenges remain. There are still too many adults and children who face discrimination and have limited opportunities because of who they are, where they live, how they look, where they come from, what they believe, or who they love. To paraphrase Dr. King: We should be dissatisfied about that. We should be dissatisfied that so many women; Latinos; Asian Americans; Native Americans; lesbian, gay, and transgender Americans; and people with disabilities still yearn for equal opportunity and fair treatment. We should be dissatisfied that income inequality is expanding unchecked as we live through a new Gilded Age. We should be dissatisfied that so many black parents need to have the same conversation I’ve had with my teenage son—“the talk” that so many families of color must have in order to protect their children—about how to safely interact with law enforcement. And as the brother of a retired police officer and someone who’s spent my entire career working hand-in-hand with law enforcement, we should be dissatisfied that the bad actions of a few have sown fear and mistrust of so many dedicated, selfless, honorable women and men who wear the badge and who risk their lives to keep our communities safe. We should be dissatisfied with an administration rife with corruption, stunning incompetence, and shameful intolerance. Most of all, we should be dissatisfied by that same administration’s total abdication of moral and policy leadership and its failure to address the many other urgent challenges we face: A democracy that’s under attack. A climate crisis that’s ignored. And racial and cultural divisions that are weaponized and exploited for political gain. The unfortunate fact is that even today, two decades into the 21st century, America’s long struggle—to overcome injustice, to eradicate violence, and to eliminate disparities—is far from over. The age of bullies and bigots is not fully behind us. And so much of the progress that has defined and distinguished our great nation now hangs in the balance. There is still work to do. There are still hearts to open and laws to change. And there is an urgent need for leaders who reflect—or, at the very least, understand—our nation’s core values. Instead of trying to build consensus toward common goals, some are obsessed with building walls. And far too many are willing to stoke fear and anger among a small faction of voters just to gain short-term political advantage. They are willing to separate families at our borders, to take babies from their parents, to deny the contributions of immigrants and the gift and strength that is our immigrant heritage, to exploit DREAMers as a political bargaining chip, and even to shut down our government, subjecting thousands of families to hardship for an ineffective, medieval border control solution. They question the credibility and competence of judges, erode the protections of our Constitution, and undermine the independence of both federal law enforcement and the Justice Department. They put the press at risk, labeling its members “enemies of the people.” They favor corporations over our environment, alienate our closest allies, unravel beneficial international agreements, and even flatter dictators—including the one who interfered in our elections. They demonize those who kneel in peaceful protest while defending those who march with Nazis. To them, even acknowledging the simple fact that black lives also matter is enough to spark outrage. The true outrage is that all of this—the fear they stoke, the divisions they exploit, the basic facts they wage war against every day—it all amounts to little more than a political strategy: a destructive and deeply cynical attempt to scare people and win elections. The good news is that cynicism doesn’t work for long, and that the vast majority of Americans are not cynical people. I’ve seen this firsthand. During the Obama administration, I became the first attorney general in history to visit all 50 states, and in the past year, I’ve been back to 25 states. I’ve spoken with hardworking Americans from Detroit to Atlanta, from Las Vegas to Charleston. So you can take my word for it: America is better, and America is bigger in heart, than our small-minded leaders imagine it to be. Intolerance and cynicism may appear to be gaining strength, but that’s simply not the case when our elections are fair and the true spirit of our people is accurately reflected. The bad news is that in far too many places, elections are not fair. The system is being rigged by politicians who are willing to bend or break the rules in order to stay in power. This explains why—more than half a century after the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965—for too many Americans, the right to vote and the assurance that every vote is counted fairly remains under siege. To me, this is the defining civil rights issue of our time, because it strikes at the heart of who we are as a country. The ability of all eligible citizens to have an equal voice in our democracy is not a privilege—it is a right. Yet many Republicans are doing everything they can to make it more difficult for our government to express and execute the will of the people, through brazen gerrymandering, discriminatory voter ID laws, active voter suppression, or the unnecessary purging of voter rolls. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: The first bill introduced by Democrats in the new Congress would make Election Day a federal holiday. This would strengthen our democracy by making it easier for Americans of all political persuasions to cast a ballot. So, how did Republicans respond? The Senate majority leader called it a “power grab”—because he knows the best strategy for Republicans to keep their majority is not to make their case to the people, but to make it as hard as possible for the people to vote. This isn’t just shameful; it’s antithetical to our system of representative government. Democracy itself should never be a partisan issue. But unfortunately, the strategy is working. In 2012, 1.5 million more Americans cast votes for Democrats for Congress, yet Republicans won a 33-seat majority. In 2016, despite winning fewer than half of all votes for Congress, Republicans again won a 33-seat majority. And this past November, after Democrats won the midterm elections by 8.6 million votes—the most decisive and lopsided margin since Watergate—Republican gerrymandering prevented that blue wave from becoming the tsunami it should have been by preventing many voters from being heard. That’s not fair. It’s not just. And it’s not how our elections are supposed to work. That’s why, after I left the Justice Department, I helped launch the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to stop this assault on voting rights, to restore the power of every voter to participate in our democracy, and to make our electoral system more fair. And through the National Redistricting Foundation, we’re supporting a group of individuals, from Maryland, Florida, Texas, Nevada, California, and Arizona, who are challenging the administration’s unconstitutional attempt to play politics with the 2020 census. Let’s be clear: Getting an accurate census count isn’t partisan. This critical effort should appeal to our shared values. And it should unite Americans from across the political spectrum. So it’s disappointing that we can’t seem to persuade Republicans to join us. I would welcome their help, and I’ve repeatedly asked for it. But I haven’t found much engagement, or any meaningful partnership, from those on the other side of the political aisle. Perhaps they’re just too busy figuring out how to “make America great again.” You know, every time I hear that phrase, I wonder: When, exactly, do they have in mind? When do they think America was great? What time period do they want to wind the clock back to? What century? What decade? What year? Certainly it was not when people were enslaved. Certainly it was not when segregation was the law of the land. Certainly it was not when women were disenfranchised, or when LGBTQ Americans were denied their most basic rights. This sort of thinking, this “make America great again” mindset, is not only flawed. It’s rooted in a fear of the future. And it’s inconsistent with who we are and who we’ve always been as Americans. Americans have always embraced the possibility of an uncertain future over the comfort of a lived past. It is this attitude that has made the American nation—in its totality, despite its imperfections—truly exceptional. And unless you are descended from native people or from those who were brought here by force, it’s what inspired you or your ancestors to set out for our shores in the first place. Like my own parent. Like the people I’ve met here in Iowa and all across the country, my reverence for America runs deep. Yet after spending my career as a prosecutor and a judge; as a US attorney; and, for six years, as attorney general of the United States, I am clear-eyed about the realities we face, and about the fact that America’s promise of equality, opportunity, and justice has not yet been achieved. I am dissatisfied, just as so many of you are dissatisfied, with the inequities that continue to divide us, the injustices all around us, and the refusal of some elected leaders to rise to this defining moment. That’s why I cannot be silent, and I hope you won’t be silent, as our nation confronts this time of challenge and consequence. Together, we must call out and throw out public officials who seek power by bringing out the worst in us. Now, in that effort we must seek civility—but not at the expense of either truth-telling or the protection of treasured principles. The fact is: America is at its best when we face difficult questions and hard truths. America is at its best when we open our arms and widen the circle of opportunity for everyone who loves this country enough to make it their home. America is at its best when our politics reflect this country’s bold and generous spirit, and when our leaders summon the vision to lead us toward a brighter future and the resolve to deal honestly with the world as it is, not how they imagine it to be. Think of how Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, held our nation together as political divisions were spilling into violence and splitting it apart. America had never faced such a crisis. Yet Lincoln responded with moral clarity and with unwavering strength. He called this nation to enormous, bloody sacrifice in the hope that our Union might be preserved and the evil of slavery abolished. Iowa sent over 10 percent of its population to fight to create a free America—more than any other state—and lost over 2 percent of its population in the struggle. Lincoln’s true genius wasn’t his political savvy, his skill as a public speaker, or his mastery of the law. It was his capacity to ultimately see all Americans as human beings: as citizens who deserve dignity; as individuals whose rights must be protected; and as women and men, all created equal, who have roles to play in advancing our great American experiment.
The effort of Lincoln is now ours to take up. It is yours to take up. After all, you share his profession. You will soon be much more than students of the law; you will be stewards of our justice system, which means you will come to know firsthand that the law is not an abstraction. It is an instrument of justice. It is a force that affects people’s lives, for good or for ill. And it is a powerful tool for transforming our society into one that serves the interests of the many rather than the few. How you will use this tool and how you will rise to this moment in history is up to you. Will you accept and be satisfied with things as they are? Or will you dare to envision a better world and spend your life helping to create it? The law is an instrument not merely to make a living but also to make a difference. Your obligation is not to do well but to do good. Throughout history, our nation has been elevated by leaders, and very often lawyers, who have reached for something better, who summoned our better angels: by standing up for the rule of law, by fighting on behalf of the vulnerable, by tearing down walls of division, and by leading the struggle for equality. The capacity for monumental change is within us. It is within you. So I ask you to join me in rededicating ourselves to America’s enduring values, to our common goals, and to our collective responsibility—as lawyers and as citizens—to serve the country we love. I urge you not to give in to disappointment, frustration, or anger. Because I still believe what my parents so often told me as a child: that America’s best days are yet to come. As I look around this room, especially at the young people who will soon begin their legal careers, I have no doubt this is true. I stand at this great law school this afternoon knowing that though we are separated by decades in age I am united with all of you in important ways. Our country has come a long way since the years I was at law school, yet it is still in need of talented, young lawyers like you. Today more than ever we need to lift each other up, empower one another to make our country a better place, and dedicate ourselves to the creation of that more perfect union. I am optimistic that together, we can create a nation that is finally true to its founding ideals. I look forward to working with all of you in this great endeavor. Thank you.