Easy Chair — From the March 2017 issue

Tyranny of the Minority

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Think of our democracy as a house we built in 1776, big enough only for Christian, property-owning white men. Over the next two centuries, various groups struggled to make it bigger, with space for people of other faiths or no faith, people of color, poor people, and women. Imagine then that someone stole a shingle, or a nail — first one, then another. After many such small thefts, the structure weakens. The roof begins to fall in; whole rooms are torn down, the wreckage is carted away; eventually, all that remains is a skeleton.

Democracy, as the historian Sean Wilentz wrote, depends on “the many” — on the power of ordinary people “not simply to select their governors but to oversee the institutions of government, as officeholders and as citizens free to assemble and criticize those in office.” In its eagerness to return the house to its original size, the Republican Party eventually began to dismantle the edifice itself, overriding any efforts to make it more spacious and secure.

The dismantling started in the 1960s, when the two main parties reversed positions on civil rights. Lyndon Johnson led the Democrats toward stronger alliances with people of color and with women. The Republicans, meanwhile, won the South with the Southern Strategy, that euphemistically named program to gain the support of white Southerners by stoking their racial fears. Justification for the approach had been offered years earlier by William F. Buckley Jr. “The White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically,” Buckley wrote in 1957. “For the time being, it is the advanced race.” On the basis of that “advanced” status, Buckley decided, a decision to wrest control from the majority “may be, though undemocratic, enlightened.” At its most ideological, the withdrawal from the democratic experiment has served white supremacy; at its least, it has been a scramble for power by any means necessary. Even as the civil-rights movement and the Voting Rights Act sought to undo Jim Crow, a new, stealthier Jim Crow arose in its place.

Writing in The New Republic, the journalist Jeet Heer explains that Buckley’s fledgling conservative movement recognized that by persuading disgruntled whites across the country to vote according to their racial and ideological rather than economic interests, it could gain “reliable foot soldiers” in its larger project of undermining the left. In wooing white voters, Republicans rejected — indeed, ejected — non-white constituencies, who found their only and imperfect home with the Democrats. And where Democrats have been wavering and inconsistent in their desire to expand democratic participation, Republicans have been firmly committed to limiting it: rather than attempting to win the votes of people of color, they attempt to prevent people of color from voting.

They have not been particularly secretive about their goals. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who was an early supporter of Donald Trump, has deplored the effects of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, because women tend to vote in favor of social programs. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist and adviser, once “mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners,” according to the New York Times. His interlocutor noted that such a move would exclude a lot of African Americans. “Maybe that’s not such a bad thing,” Bannon replied. Trump, meanwhile, has openly gloated over the number of black people who didn’t vote in 2016.

Republicans’ furious and nasty war against full participation has taken many forms: gerrymandering, limiting early voting, reducing the number of polling places, restricting third-party voter registration, and otherwise disenfranchising significant portions of the electorate. Subtler yet no less effective have been their efforts to attack democracy at the root. They have advanced policies to weaken the electorate economically, to undermine a free and fair news media, and to withhold the education and informed discussion that would equip citizens for active engagement. In 1987, for example, Republican appointees eliminated the rule that required radio and TV stations to air a range of political views. The move helped make possible the rise of right-wing talk radio and of Fox News, which for twenty years has effectively served the Republican Party as a powerful propaganda arm.

Democracy thrives best in a society whose water is drinkable, whose schools impart a decent education, whose denizens have adequate incomes and hope for the future. People have less time, less energy, and fewer resources to participate in civic life when they lack reliable access to food and shelter, when they are overworked and scrambling to stay afloat, when they have been burdened with immense debt by the cost of an education or housing or health care, when they have been criminalized, marginalized, terrorized.

You and I are equal in theory to people like Thiel and Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and G.O.P. supporter, but not in practice. Their wealth buys them influence, and lately that influence has only increased, as Republicans have pushed to open the floodgates for money in politics. They are creating economic inequality — which inevitably results in social and political inequality.

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