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.
I used to take heart in the changing demographics of this country. Around half the children in the United States are not white, and the statistic made me think that the nation would someday soon resemble California, where I live. This is a state in which whites are in the minority, Democrats have a supermajority in both the upper and lower houses, and no Republican holds statewide office. I imagined that it was suicide for the G.O.P. to ignore the concerns of people of color, to craft a platform based on white grievance. Surely, I thought, John McCain and Mitt Romney lost their elections in part because a party run for and by white people had no future. But there was a fundamental flaw in my thinking: demographics matter only in a democracy, in a system in which every citizen has equal power and equal access to representation. That equality is threatened today, thanks to the Republican Party’s long campaign against those who are likely to vote against them. Today’s Republicans are democracy’s enemy, and it is theirs.
Republicans won much of their current power in Congress by patiently increasing their influence at the local level. This helped them win state legislatures, which in turn allowed them to redraw districts and create unsinkable Republican strongholds, which permitted them to become a huge majority in the lower house even as their base shrank. The number of House seats held by Republicans has increased by around 20 percent since 2008. In the 2012 congressional elections, Democrats won the majority of votes but Republicans took the majority of seats — 234 to 201. In recent years, many Democrat-sponsored proposals affecting gun control, reproductive rights, and the environment failed not because they were unpopular among the electorate but because the Senate and the House were dominated by the most extreme faction of the minority party.
Time and again, Republicans have cynically whipped up fake problems to justify real attacks on voting rights. They frequently claim to be working against voter fraud, which they paint as a huge problem undermining elections across the country. (In reality, voter fraud occurs at an insignificant rate in the United States.) They have used voter caging, in which a person’s right to vote is challenged face-to-face, sometimes on the grounds that such voters no longer reside at the address where they are registered. They have instituted voter-I.D. laws, which penalize the poor, who are among the least likely to have state identification. And they have taken away the right to vote from more than 6 million Americans convicted of felonies, a policy that disproportionately affects the poor and non-white.
One of the most appalling of these projects is the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. Now in effect in twenty-nine states, the program was initiated in 2005 with the ostensible purpose of finding people who had voted in more than one location. “A whole lot of people named ‘James Brown’ are suspected of voting or registering twice, 357 of them in Georgia alone,” the journalist Greg Palast wrote in 2014. “But according to Crosscheck, James Willie Brown is supposed to be the same voter as James Arthur Brown.” When Palast was writing, before that year’s Senate races, there were 7 million people named on the list, many of them non-white; if even a fraction of them were prevented from voting, he suggested, the outcome of the races would be altered — not to mention that of the 2016 presidential race.
Reducing the participation of voters with a certain profile isn’t a side effect of such laws — it’s the point. Todd Allbaugh, the former chief of staff to a Wisconsin state legislator, was in the state’s closed Senate Republican Caucus during discussions of multiple voter-I.D. bills. A handful of senators, he told Chris Hayes on MSNBC, were “giddy” as they spoke explicitly about suppressing minority and student voters. “I heard people in a party that I’d fought for,” he marveled, “talking about how we can take people’s constitutional rights away, or at least impede them, in order to hang on to power.”
Allbaugh is the rare witness to a widespread conspiracy that is almost certainly having an impact. In last November’s election, Donald Trump won thanks to narrow margins in just three states. However, there were multiple voting irregularities reported, making it a real possibility that he did not win some or all of those states, and therefore lost not only the popular vote (which he did, by more than 2.8 million votes) but the Electoral College as well.
1 Systematic disenfranchisement in the South is also discussed in Andrew Cockburn’s Letter from Washington.
Yet even if you accept that Trump legitimately won the swing states, massive voter disenfranchisement across the nation left millions of poor and non-white Americans out of the election entirely. If those disenfranchised legions had voted, it’s almost certain the outcome would have been different. The Reverend William Barber II, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, wrote on ThinkProgress in December: “If you just register thirty percent of the unregistered black voters in the South and you get them to vote along with progressive whites and Latinos, the South is no longer solid.”1 Republicans know this, and are afraid. At this point, they are maintaining control by sheer force and chicanery. As demographics continue to shift in this country, there is little doubt that they will keep upping the ante.
In 2000, when the recount in Florida was under way and the outcome of the election remained uncertain, well-dressed men and women showed up to disrupt the process. These were not spontaneous protesters but Republican operatives and paid participants; their wardrobe gave the event its name, the Brooks Brothers Riot. The party feared that if the recount went forward, Al Gore might win the state, and thereby the presidency.
When the 2016 election was challenged by the Green Party’s Jill Stein, the party intervened again. Nick Shapiro, a Bay Area software executive, returned to his native Detroit to assist with the recount in December. He told me that the Republicans were out in force. At the vast Cobo Center, where Shapiro was assigned to work, each table had at least one Republican observer standing by, equipped with a script that they used to contest every single precinct. There were only a few observers present from the Green Party. Shapiro told me that the election officials at the table he was monitoring were prevented from counting a single vote during his first four-hour shift.
The problems the Michigan recount was intended to address weren’t negligible. Optical-scanner machines had recorded 75,000 “blank” votes for president, a higher number than in previous elections; these ballots were never manually inspected to decipher the voters’ intentions. People sometimes purposefully leave portions of their ballot blank, but machines also sometimes fail to count ballots that have been marked. In addition, Detroit officials claimed that eighty-seven of the city’s optical scanners had broken down during voting, and there was a discrepancy in many Detroit-area precincts between the number of paper ballots on hand and the number of people who were recorded to have voted. All this, in a state where Trump’s victory came down to 11,000 votes. Yet a Michigan law prevented recounts in precincts with such discrepancies, which meant that a record number of precincts in this Democratic stronghold were excluded from the process. In the end, though, neither the Republicans’ ground-level sabotage nor the bizarre regulation mattered; an obliging judge called off the recount after three days.
The anomalies and irregularities in Michigan are hardly exceptional. Voting systems in the United States are rife with problems, their methods often shoddily designed, their standards inconsistently applied. When you add the effects of human and machine error to those of massive disenfranchisement, our elections appear neither representative nor fair.
Some Republicans have argued for a more inclusive approach, but they are not leading the way. The party isn’t changing its strategy in order to win a majority; it is intensifying its efforts to suppress that majority. It has committed itself to minority rule. As the non-white population swells, Republican scenarios for holding power will look more and more like those of apartheid-era South Africa — or even the antebellum South. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, is infamous for his efforts in the 1980s to persecute black voting-rights activists and intimidate hundreds of black voters. In the next decade, either the Party of Lincoln will force us to backtrack for decades, perhaps a century, or we will overcome its obstructionism and walk forward. If anything redeems this nation, it’s the idealism that has for centuries moved abolitionists, suffragists, Freedom Riders, and their like to stand up for the country’s principles — to risk, sometimes, their lives. Hundreds of activist groups have formed in the wake of the election, beginning projects to register voters, renew voting-rights campaigns, and organize local power to influence national policy. The NAACP’s Barber calls this era the Third Reconstruction.
On January 6, the final drama of the Electoral College unfolded, as the states delivered their electoral votes in a joint session of Congress. That cold winter day in Washington, seven legislators, five of them people of color, spoke out against the proceedings. James McGovern, from Massachusetts, mentioned “widespread violations of the Voting Rights Act.” “People are horrified,” said Barbara Lee, a congresswoman from Oakland. Yet as police arrested onlookers shouting objections from the gallery, Vice President Biden gaveled her and the others down.
It’s worth remembering that democracy has always flourished not in the citadel of government but in the campaigns to open it up, to make it more than it has been. The dream arises on the outside, but it is about being allowed in. May we pry open the doors, unlatch the windows, let the breeze blow through.