Why Racists Don’t Want Everyone to Vote
Sunday book excerpt: The Hidden History of the War on Voting
Why Racists Don’t Want Everyone to Vote
Before considering the details of how Republicans have, for the past 40-plus years, waged a war against the right to vote for all but wealthy white people (and why Democrats did the same before the GOP picked up the mantle), it’s important to understand why each party historically has worked to manipulate the electorate to its own favor.
The Democratic Party’s antipathy toward voting had roots deep in the 19th century, in the years following the Civil War. That war, and the subsequent 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution pushed through by Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans, gave pretty much all adult men, regardless of race, the right to vote.
Thomas Jefferson had founded the Democratic Party (it was then called the Democratic Republican Party, but the “Republican” part was dropped in the late 1820s and early 1830s), and throughout the 19th century that party (as opposed to the Whigs and the Republicans) was closely associated with support for slavery.
After the Civil War, the Democratic Party was where ex-Confederates and racist Southern whites found a home, because the anti-slavery faction that took over the Republican Party during Lincoln’s presidency—the “Radical Republicans” of the 1860s and 1870s—worked hard to bring about black voting rights, particularly in the South.
Right up until the 1960s, the Democratic Party was home to the most racist of our politicians and political positions. George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama in 1962, calling, in his inaugural address, for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”; he had a strong enough base in the Democratic Party in the South to challenge Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Democratic Party primary.
Then the party went through a sea change. It started in 1964 when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and it was amplified in 1965 when he signed the Voting Rights Act.
When the Civil Rights Act was brought to the floor of the Senate for a full debate on March 30, 1964, Senator Richard Russell, D-Georgia, launched a filibuster to block it. His famous statement was simple and straightforward: “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our states.”1
Millions of Southern white voters deserted the Democratic Party over the issue, along with a number of politicians. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and Virginia governor Mills E. Godwin, for example, all became Republicans when the Democratic Party embraced voting and civil rights for African Americans and other people of color.
But it was largely a regional split in the Democratic Party: Northern Democrats supported integration, while Southern Democrats opposed it. Congress reflected the split: 95 percent of Northern Democrats in the House and 98 percent in the Senate voted for the Civil Rights Act; but among Democrats representing former Confederate states, 9 percent voted for it in the House and 5 percent voted for it in the Senate. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come, zero percent of the former-Confederate-state Republicans voted for the legislation.2
Bill Moyers, who was then an aide to President Johnson, wrote in his 2004 book Moyers on America, “When he signed the act he was euphoric, but late that very night I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the bulldog edition of the Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day. I asked him what was troubling him. ‘I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come,’ he said.”3
Indeed, Johnson’s concerns came true: Within a generation, the reliably Democratic South had become solidly Republican, almost entirely over the issue of race.
Richard Nixon exploited this with his 1968 “Southern strategy,” which targeted racist Southern whites with the message that the Republican Party was their only safe harbor, now that the Democrats had abandoned segregation.
Ronald Reagan amplified the message in 1980 when he gave his first official campaign speech, focusing on states’ rights, to an all-white audience near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town portrayed in Mississippi Burning where three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered in 1964.
Donald Trump Jr. echoed the event with his coming-out speech in the same venue in 2016, in front of an all-white crowd sporting Confederate battle flags. “I believe in tradition,” Trump Jr. said. “I don’t see a lot of the nonsense that’s been created about that. I understand how some people feel, but . . . There’s nothing wrong with some tradition.”
He added, with a metaphorical nod to the Southern strategy, “It’s sort of amazing to be on this very stage where Ronald Reagan talked so many years ago.”4
The Racist Backlash to Brown v. Board
The history behind the elaborate techniques that today’s Republican Party uses to suppress black and Latinx votes is rooted in the “Massive Resistance” movement in reaction to Brown v. Board of Education that has also led to systemic resegregation.
Although the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were, in theory, supposed to grant equal status and station between black and white citizens, that is not the case to this day. After the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which determined that “separate but equal” met the “equal protection” demands of the 14th Amendment, virtually every public school system in America that hadn’t already been segregated along racial lines set out to do so.
Thus, in 1953 the case of Linda Brown, a black child who’d been assigned to the all-black Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas, came before the Supreme Court. Linda had to walk past a nearer white school to get to Monroe, and her father, Oliver Brown, knowing from his own experience the impact of racial segregation on education, joined with the NAACP to bring the case to the Court.
On May 17, 1954, a unanimous Court ruled that Linda Brown should have the right to attend the closer all-white school—and, striking down Plessy, ruled for the first time since Reconstruction that separate did not, in fact, mean equal.
The white supremacist political structure, particularly in the former slave states, immediately went into a frothing fury: as the lead plaintiffs’ attorney, Thurgood Marshall for the ACLU, said, “The fight has just begun.”5 Senator James Eastland, D-Mississippi, proclaimed, “The South will not abide by nor obey this legislative decision by a political body,” defying the ruling while taking a swipe at the Court.6
Senator Harry Byrd, D-Virginia, vowed to block the Brown decision legislatively, and within 20 months he had organized what he called a nationwide program of Massive Resistance, including a collection of laws that would pull funding from any public school that was integrated. His 1956 “Southern Manifesto” was signed by 82 US representatives and 19 US senators. It urged former slave states to use “all lawful means” to resist integration of their schools.
In 1957, citing Brown, nine black students attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The backlash from local whites was so massive and potentially violent that President Eisenhower called out the National Guard to protect the students. That led to the Court’s reaffirming its stand in Brown in the 1958 Cooper v. Aaron decision.
Across the South, local groups of whites established “private academies” to educate their children. For example, on May 1, 1959—following a court order to integrate its schools—Virginia’s Prince Edward County closed its entire countywide public school system and kept it closed for a full five years.
It wasn’t until President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act that there was a specific legislative remedy for school segregation. That year, most black students still attended all-black schools. But after the Civil Rights Act passed, nearly a third of black students were attending integrated schools within five years; and by 1973, the number had reached 90 percent.7
The past few decades have seen a steady slide back from that 1973 peak, and the foundations of Brown were severely shaken in a 2007 Supreme Court case combining Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1.8 In a 5–4 decision, the Court’s conservative members agreed with Chief Justice John Roberts that “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
In other words, no more mandated busing or other efforts to bring black and white students together.
Justices Stevens and Breyer wrote—and delivered from the bench with unusual ferocity—scathing dissents much like those from a later Court in 2013 when Chief Justice Roberts proclaimed, while gutting the Voting Rights Act, that discrimination in America was essentially over and no longer needed legislative remedies.
In the years since Roberts and his conservative colleagues gutted Brown, America’s schools have been segregating again. Today, black students who go to integrated schools typically attend schools where only 29 percent of their peers are white.9
Conservative Excuses for Preventing Everyone from Voting
In late February 2019, former Maine governor Paul LePage, a Republican, went on a local radio show to talk politics. The topic of abolishing the Electoral College came up, and LePage essentially freaked out. A national popular vote for president, LePage said, would be tantamount to turning America into a “dictatorship,” and the types of people voting would prefer “the constitution of Venezuela” to that of the United States.
Why? Because, LePage said, echoing an old GOP line rarely spoken in public, if the actual vote reflected the actual public, “it’s only going to be the minorities who would elect. It would be California, Texas, Florida.” And those states are filled with Latinx and black people. Speaking of the movement to end the Electoral College, LePage said, “What would happen if they do what they say they’re gonna do, white people will not have anything to say.”10
There are basically three types of people—or three movements—interested in limiting the voting public to white people and, even at that, to discouraging young, old, and working-class white people from voting just as aggressively as they want to prevent people of color from voting.
They can be referred to with the shorthand labels of Calvinists, libertarian oligarchs, and white supremacists. There is, of course, considerable overlap among the three, but generally the arguments made—and legislation and policy advanced—reflect one of these three core belief systems.
The Calvinists have a worldview similar to that of the followers of French theologian John Calvin, who adopted the precepts of a new offshoot of Christianity around 1520 in Geneva.
Central to the idea of Calvinism are the doctrines of “total depravity” and “unconditional election.” Calvinism asserted that because we are each born out of a woman’s womb, we’re all “dead” in sin (totally depraved) and unable to save ourselves. Instead of salvation coming from confession or good works, Calvin taught, only his god could decide (unconditionally elect) who would be saved and who would eventually rot in hell.11
This solved a big problem for many of the royal families of Europe in the 16th and following centuries: how to use Christianity (denial of which was a capital crime across most of Europe) to justify their absolute rule over their subjects.
If Calvin’s god decided who was to be saved and who was to burn even before birth, how then could mankind separate the saved from the sinners and the noble from the wicked?
The answer was simple: the outward sign of Calvin’s god’s election or salvation was wealth. Since his god controlled everything and man was without agency, then through “irresistible grace” (the fourth of five Calvinist doctrines) Calvin’s god’s will would be shown to all by virtue of earthly riches and political power.
People were rich and in charge because they were blessed by God and, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:4–6, chosen by him “before the foundation of the world.”
Modern-day conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will advocate a secular version of Calvinism, but instead of a distant god determining who should rule, DNA would do it: the smart should be in charge, and the dumb should keep their mouths shut and, preferably, not vote or participate in politics at all.
Herbert Spencer, in his 1842 treatise The Proper Sphere of Government, made essentially this same argument, suggesting that while happiness and safety in society were the goals of political activity, they had to be guided by people who had the best DNA (using modern shorthand) and thus should be political leaders.12 (He also argued in the treatise that government should never provide for education or health care—a conservative ahead of his time.)
Spencer’s ideas led directly to Francis Galton’s invention of the word eugenics in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences.13 Eugenics held that sterilizing or even killing of what have often been described as defective or substandard people would weed out our gene pool and improve the overall intelligence and fitness of the human race in both current and future generations.
Eugenics was enthusiastically adopted by Winston Churchill, who tried unsuccessfully to make it law in Great Britain in 1912, and Woodrow Wilson,14 who promoted it heavily in the United States during his presidency, leading every state in the union to put compulsory sterilization laws or policies into effect.15
Adolf Hitler, of course, picked up Churchill’s and Wilson’s slogans almost verbatim and applied them to Jews, Gypsies, the mentally disabled, and homosexuals (in that order of aggression), leading Germany straight to the Holocaust.16
George Will has argued that if voting is easy and widespread, we’ll experience a sort of reverse social Darwinism, causing people of poorer quality and intelligence to vote and thus screw things up. As he wrote in an article for the Washington Post in 2012, “As indifferent or reluctant voters are nagged to the polls—or someday prodded there by a monetary penalty for nonvoting—the caliber of the electorate must decline.”17,18
This perspective has a long history in American politics. Alexander Hamilton and his conservative wing among the founders and framers of the Constitution believed there must be some filter to keep out what conservative John Adams called “the rabble.”
Hamilton wrote, “If it were probable that every man would give his vote freely, and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote. . . . But since that can hardly be expected, in persons of indigent fortunes, or such as are under the immediate dominion of others,” they should not be able to exercise the franchise.19
Similarly, Adams stated, “Such is the Frailty of the human heart, that very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own.” Therefore, men without property should play no role in governance, including not being able to vote.
Adams added, “[G]enerally Speaking, Women and Children, have as good Judgment, and as independent Minds as those Men who are wholly destitute of Property.”20
Today’s version of this worldview argues that, instead of through divine predestination, poor people are poor because of defective character or intellect from birth and therefore should be discouraged from voting. And because poverty is most heavily concentrated in communities of color, they are ideally selected first for voter suppression efforts.
Libertarian oligarchs make up the second category of people who argue against widespread voting rights (although it’s not limited to the oligarchs). Libertarianism and objectivism are inherently and openly in opposition to democracy, referring to the system as “mob rule.”21
Scottish lawyer and historian Alexander Tytler (1747–1813) is often quoted as expressing a similar sentiment. A meme attributed to him began circulating around the time of Reagan’s first election (which was about 200 years after the establishment of the United States) and exploded across the internet during the 2000 election:
The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.
In fact, this was delivered as part of a 1943 speech by Henning W. Prentis Jr., former president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a group that, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, more recently has been heavily funded by the libertarian Koch brothers.22,23
This misattributed quote has had a remarkable impact and endurance, spawning a generation of libertarians and conservatives who love to cite the deadly “Tytler Cycle.”24
Libertarianism fundamentally rejects the ability of the citizens of a nation to “vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury” by simply banning the spending of such taxes on anything other than an army and police force. With objectivism, author Ayn Rand tried to wrap a similar sentiment in moral terms, saying that “moochers” and “looters” really have no right to lay their hands on the wealth produced by the “producers.”
If one believes that people will always vote to take away from the “job creators” and give to the indigent voters, then there’s a coherent and somewhat circular logic to the entire hypothesis, which makes it particularly seductive to young people born into the upper classes or with considerable privilege.
For this reason, Republicans made the “they must have skin in the game” argument every few years to object to everything from Medicare in the 1960s, to virtually every social welfare program to come out of the Great Society, to the Affordable Care Act in 2009.
For example, Walter E. Williams wrote in the conservative publication Townhall, “A very disturbing and mostly ignored issue is how absence of skin in the game negatively impacts the political arena. It turns out that 45 percent of American households, nearly 78 million individuals, have no federal income tax obligation.” Calling this “a serious political problem,” Williams concluded that “Americans with no federal income tax obligation become natural constituencies for big-spending politicians.”
Williams—one among thousands of conservative writers who express similar sentiments online—wrapped up his op-ed by musing that “[s]ometimes I wonder whether one should be allowed in the game if he doesn’t have any skin in it.”25
White supremacists make up the final group of people who don’t think everybody should have a right to vote. To justify this, they make several arguments, but all, at their core, boil down to the notion that white people are the superior race and thus should retain the majority of political power in the nation.
Most white people, particularly those older than 30, grew up exposed to racist cowboys-and-Indians shows, minstrels, and a century of movies that portrayed black people as the bad guys and white people as the winners and saviors. As a result, most white people carry a good dose of unacknowledged and often even denied-but-there-nonetheless belief in the superiority of their own race.
For example, Kali Halloway compiled research that demonstrated rather shocking, but provable, realities that have grown out of this.26 College professors, for example, are more likely to respond to identical letters requesting mentorship from people with white male names than from people with names associated with nonwhite groups or women.27
White people experience less empathy when seeing black people in pain,28 and emergency room personnel give lower doses of pain medications to people of color;29 this belief that black people experience pain less acutely than do whites begins, among white people, around the age of seven.30
A UCLA study found that white people across the board, including police officers, were more likely to assume criminality when a person was black;31 and black men, on average, get 20 percent longer prison sentences than white men for identical crimes.32
When, in a Stanford study, white people were told that laws like three strikes were more likely to harm black people than white people, their subsequent support for criminal justice reform dropped measurably.33 And multiple studies have found that light-skinned African Americans are perceived as smarter and more competent than darker-skinned persons.34
The problem of this deep cultural (and, perhaps, human) racism that’s built into all of us comes at the level of voting and governance when cynical and exploitative politicians use race as a weapon to divide people from one another, or to justify making it easier for one race to vote than another. Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” epithet about black-run countries, and comments to his former attorney Michael Cohen that black people are stupid, are well-known examples of this more modern version of the openly racist public and media language of previous generations.
More subtle were Richard Nixon’s “law and order” and “silent majority” campaigns, designed explicitly to mobilize white voters, a policy that has since become a staple of Republican (and some Democratic) politics.