The University of Rhode Island Honors Colloquium welcomed journalist and political author John Nichols Tuesday night as the program’s third-to-last guest speaker, who gave a passionate speech about inequality in politics throughout American history.
Nichols commanded the audience’s attention through the entirety of his speech, and leading listeners through the political history of voting and wealth inequality in America. Throughout the speech, Nichols referred back to a proverbial “room,” which contains all the people who have the right to vote, and detailed how the room filled throughout history.
“White, wealthy, land-owning, Protestant males would gather in rooms much smaller than this [auditorium],” Nichols said. “They would gather in rooms of maybe 30 to 50 people. When they had those elections, and those wealthy white guys gathered in that room, everybody else was there. People would gather around outside, and they would listen closely as the votes were cast and the winners were announced.”
Using this vivid imagery, Nichols led the audience down the path of historical voting inequality, first by outlining the American Civil War, and expressing his disapproval for the inaccuracies told by many historians.
“By historians in this country, the Civil War is taught horribly,” Nichols said. “There are a lot of people who teach that in the North, they were afraid that they were going to lose Alabama and Mississippi. But if you read the diaries of the soldiers that fought in that war, they knew what they were fighting for. They were fighting to end slavery.”
Using this topic, he went on to explain the inequality that former slaves continued to face, especially the inequality in their ability to vote, and the inequality that their descendants face today. Nichols explained the many Amendments involving voting rights over the years, and continued to give historical examples of how more and more groups fought their way into the “room.”
“There are so many forms of inequality, and we know them,” Nichols said. “The story of the American Experiment is the story of a struggle. Not by the elites, but by those who were disenfranchised. They elbowed their way into that room.”
Nichols moved on to a more modern issue of inequality in politics, in the form of income inequality, and more notably, the effect that large money and corporations can have in the political process by pouring their wealth into the political discussion.
“We have created a system where we allow corporations to yell louder than those in that room,” Nichols said, expressing frustration. He furthered this discussion of money polluting politics by outlining issues with things like Citizens United, political attack ads, and corporate involvement in the political process, as well as corporate involvement in media.
Nichols rounded out the end of his speech by bringing the audience back to that “room” once again. He urged to the audience the importance of change, and the importance of all the fighting that has made it possible for so many disenfranchised groups to make their way into the “room.”
“That room can get so crowded, because it should be available to everyone, not just a couple of rich white guys,” Nichols said. “Brothers and sisters, America wasn’t founded to be a narrow country. America was founded to be a great, big country where every one of us gets to call out for that better future that ought to be a reality.”