Sorry seems to be…

On his or her way out of office, a UK Prime Minister will often send a small group of allies to the House of Lords.

On his way out of office, a US President will let a bigger group out of jail!

The ability to issue a pardon for a federal crime is one of the features of US Politics which can seem odd or illogical.  Why is it that this person can, despite legal cases which have lasted years, get rid of a sentence with a stroke of a pen?

Yet the power to pardon, and pardon for a wide range of crimes, is one which Presidents don’t hesitate to use.

The power isn’t new.  Appearing in Article II Section 2 of the Constitution, it provides considerable latitude to a President who wants to use it.  (Governors also have this power for State crimes, varying considerably in their willingness to use it)

The reason pardoning season often comes round just before an exit is that the President is running out of time and so needs to get all the papers signed at once.  It is also often in a President’s interest to delay action.  After all loyalty, or silence, are more likely from someone hoping for a reward.

Perhaps the most controversial pardon, albeit not one of those in the final days of a Presidency, was that by Gerald Ford of Richard Nixon.  But more modern controversies have included the sheer size of Bill Clinton’s list in the last day of his final term – a list which included some of those caught up in the earlier Whitewater scandal.

It is possible to pardon categories of individuals, as Jimmy Carter did when pardoning those who had dodged the Vietnam draft

And the President can also commute a sentence, as Obama did at the end of his term of office for whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

It is possible to pardon someone who has not yet been convicted.  This prevents the legal process continuing.  It is completely a “get out of jail free” card though.  No President can pardon someone for offences not yet carried out.

For those who have suffered injustice, these Presidential powers can be a way of righting wrongs.  And we know that campaign organisations sometimes lobby for action on individual cases.  It is possible then for an individual President, through these decisions, to send a clear message about certain types of justice.

And as this is often a final action, a pardon list forms a part of Presidential legacy in a way which can overshadow other aspects.

So Donald Trump can use his last-minute decisions to right wrongs, to make a clear statement or to reward supporters.  We’ll know very soon.

PS: For those who want to understand more about this odd feature of US Politics I recommend the Brookings Institution.

Paula Keaveney is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Edge Hill University and leads a module on US Politics.

Photo by Shealah Craighead

Two Cheers for American Democracy

The recent scenes of mob rule in Washington DC have sent shockwaves around the globe, and have been met by statements of disbelief and disapproval from world leaders. The condemnation of the insurrectionists by leading Republicans, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence, and the subsequent congressional confirmation of Joe Biden’s election as president, have provided a welcome, and necessary, reaffirmation of constitutional propriety.

At the same time, the occupation of the capitol building notwithstanding, more than half of the Republicans in the House of Representatives and eight Republican senators still voted to block Biden’s election. Subversion of the democratic process is also nothing new in the American political tradition.

From the 1870s through to the 1960s African Americans in the southern states were systematically denied the right to vote. Not by racist white mobs, but by state laws linking voter registration to poll taxes, literacy tests and ‘good understanding’ clauses.  As late as the 1950s and 1960s African Americans in Mississippi were asked questions like ‘How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap’ to demonstrate they were fit to register to vote.

Such injustices were finally ended by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which introduced strict federal government oversight of the qualifications states could impose for voter registration. The results were dramatic. In Mississippi black voter turnout rose from just 5 per cent in 1964 to 59 per cent by 1969.

In Shelby County v Holder (2013) the conservative dominated United States Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 majority that the Voting Rights Act was a historical anachronism, and that the safeguards it put in place no longer needed to be enforced. Within 24 hours of the decision Alabama, Mississippi and Texas introduced strict voter ID requirements that have since been adopted by more than thirty other states.

Such measures are justified as necessary to prevent voter fraud. In practice they have resulted in widespread voter suppression in ethnic minority communities. 25 per cent of African Americans do not possess government issued photo ID cards compared to only 8 per cent of white Americans. Voter restriction was further reinforced by other measures, including the redrawing of electoral districts to minimize the impact of non-white voters, and closing polling centres in African American communities. Regular purging of the electoral roles led to the de-registration of voters on minor technicalities or because they hadn’t voted in recent elections.

In the 2016 presidential election national voter turnout fell to 56 per cent compared to 64 per cent in 2008 and 60 per cent in 2012. In 2017 African American and Latino voters were three to four times as likely to report facing racial discrimination as white Americans during the electoral process.

But hope remains. In 2020 the polarising nature of the Trump administration energised not just his own supporters but those who opposed him. National voter turnout rose to 67 per cent, comparable to that in the 2019 UK general election. The COVID pandemic also encouraged voters to take advantage of opportunities provided by states for early voting and postal voting. Measures that, needless to say, President Trump firmly opposed. The result – two Democratic Senators in Georgia. What will happen next?

Kevern Verney is Professor of History and Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Arts and Science at Edge Hill University.

Photo by adamkaz on

Covid-19: Hollywood’s Next 9/11?

Media scholarship, cultural commentary and movie reviews regularly reflect on production contexts and their impact on possible readings of the films and shows we watch. Both 9/11 and the Covid-19 epidemic have been described by as ‘America under attack.’ President Trump has stated that the epidemic is a ‘worse attack’ on the US than both Pearl Harbor and 9/11; extending a political rhetoric that has linked 1941 and 2001.[1]

In the wake of 9/11 numerous books and articles have considered its impact on tropes, gender representations, heroic (and superheroic) constructions and visual representations of, not only terrorism, but also violence more generally. 9/11 also impacted representations of ethnicity in a binary of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Saving Jessica Lynch, for example, a US 2003 made-for-TV movie, dramatised the ‘rescue’ of Private First-Class Lynch (white, female) from an Iraqi hospital, characterised the Iraqis as sadistic savages, and of course, Islamic zealots.  

Reflecting both 9/11 and Covid-19, Dahlia Schweitzer explores a striking connection between terrorism and contagion when she writes about the spate of TV shows in the post-9/11 period, that combined the terrorist threat with deliberate viral infection. In such examples, either a virus-laden ‘bomb’ is hidden in a public place or an infected person deliberately spreads the virus within the USA; often again with racial undertones.

In 24 (Fox, Season 3, 2003-4),[2] the viral threat hails from Mexican drug barons. In, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), the virus is traced to food preparation in China. In both, the origin of the threat is placed the ‘exotic’ Global South and East – while the location under ‘threat’ is the affluent Global North. Such representations follow a narrative pattern that ‘buries the workings of colonialism.’[3]

2020 may have a similar, if not even a more pronounced impact on popular culture that goes beyond the films and TV shows that are broadly labelled ‘Hollywood.’ Yet it is likely that the stories will be told, as with 9/11, in a way that reflects dominant attitudes towards the ‘others’ responsible for the threat.

Where there is attack there is an aggressor, setting the scene for an ideal melodramatic conflict of good and evil. Based on the narratives emerging from the post-9/11 era, and given President Trump’s well-publicised Tweets referring to the ‘Chinese virus,’ we may be set to see more films and TV shows placing the blame for global threat on China specifically or fictional places conspicuously designed to mimic that nation. Such representation will serve to re-enforce conceptualisations of good and evil, rather than challenge them.

Dr Jenny Barrett is Reader in Film Studies and Popular Culture, and Deputy Director: International Centre for Racism at Edge Hill University.

[1] For example, Ebony Bowden, ‘Trump says coronavirus pandemic ‘worse than Pearl Harbor…World Trade Center’, New York Post, 6th May 2020

[2] Dahlia Schweitzer “Terrorist as Contagious Other.” In Media Res.29th November 2016.

[3] Mark Bould, ‘The Virus Has Seized the Means of Production,Boston Review, 8th May 2020.