As Donald Trump’s poll numbers dip following poor debate performances and allegations that he sexually harassed and assaulted an ever-growing number of women, the billionaire has stepped up claims that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are conniving to steal the election with “rigged” polling places.
Seeking to distance themselves from their party’s hapless candidate, some Republican officials have denounced Trump’s remarks, pledging their faith in the American electoral system. Pundits, meanwhile, have declared Trump’s comments historically “unprecedented.”
Trump’s claims are hardly novel, however. From the outset of the modern conservative movement, the Right has waged a war on electoral democracy by alleging that poor (especially black and brown) voters, abetted by the Democratic Party and grassroots activists, conspire year after year to snatch elections from their Republican victors.
In prosecuting that war, the Right has melded practical concerns about the GOP’s electoral viability with ideological concerns about the redistributive effects of mass enfranchisement itself.
Behind every accusation of theft lurks the fear of the “47 percent” — who, as Mitt Romney put it, “are dependent upon government . . . [and] will vote for [Obama] no matter what.” If the wrong voters make it to the polls, GOP politicos and conservative thinkers have argued for decades, they will vote to funnel resources from the rich to the poor.
However repellant some GOP elites might find Trump, it should come as no surprise that the same party that ran Barry Goldwater in 1964 finds itself with another standard-bearer hyperventilating about voter fraud.
Crying Wolf, Suppressing Votes
Modern Republicans’ fixation on election fraud is inextricably linked with the conservative opposition to the Civil Rights–era expansion of voting rights.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, voting rights had not yet hardened into a partisan issue. The federal commission that in 1961 declared the freedom to vote “the cornerstone of democracy” was a creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which Democratic segregationist Strom Thurmond had filibustered and Republican Dwight Eisenhower signed into law. While Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had started pulling African Americans away from the party of Lincoln, blacks’ exodus to the Democratic Party was not yet complete. As late as the 1960 presidential election, the GOP was still winning nearly a third of the black vote.
Yet if the partisan hue of voting rights was blurred, the ideological valence of extending the franchise couldn’t have been sharper. William F. Buckley’s National Review gave voice to conservatives’ conviction that only certain Americans — namely white, well-off ones — were fit to cast a ballot.
Reacting in 1957 to southern blacks’ demands for voting rights, the National Review declared in a Buckley-penned editorial that whites were “the advanced race,” while blacks were culturally and intellectually unfit for democracy. “The claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage,” Buckley wrote, labeling assertions to the contrary “demagoguery.” (Less than a decade later, adding an inclusively interracial overtone to his anti-poor condescension, Buckley argued in a debate with James Baldwin, “The problem in Mississippi isn’t that too few Negroes can vote, it’s that too many whites can.”)
The Kennedy-Johnson years brought the Right’s opposition to mass enfranchisement to a head. After dragging his feet on voting rights legislation due to Southern Dixiecrat opposition, Kennedy came to embrace the cause thanks to the efforts of black freedom activists.
Kennedy’s transition from tepid proponent to active supporter was also driven by electoral calculations: he increasingly endorsed the view that high turnout would bolster Democrats’ long-term political prospects. Concerned that rising prosperity among whites would shift their votes to the GOP column, Kennedy created the President’s Commission on Registration and Voting Participation and tasked it with recommending policies, such as easing voter registration requirements, that would spur turnout among the poor.
Continued pressure from civil rights activists compelled President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to put many of the enfranchisement measures proposed by both commissions into law, most notably through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
From the beginning, right-wing opponents of the bill — largely a mix of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans — framed their opposition to the legislation as opposition to fraud. For good measure, they issued broader denunciations of mass democracy. A representative of John McKeithen, the Democratic governor of Louisiana, for example, told the Senate that the VRA would “open the gates to the greatest fraud and corruption in elections” before going on to describe the very idea of universal suffrage as communistic.
While some Republicans believed that the Voting Rights Act could help break the Democrats’ stranglehold on the South, many conservative members of the GOP saw an enlarged electorate as a long-term liability. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, argued that the act would mean the “end of the democratic processes and the republican form of government that we have so long enjoyed.” Conservatives like Republican Indiana Supreme Court justice Harold Achor fretted that Democrats would “out-promise” Republicans in dispensing public money — and “the more of these people who are pressured into registering and voting, the greater our party will suffer.”
Even moderate Northern Republicans who didn’t outright oppose voting rights sought to limit the franchise to the well-educated and well-off. A GOP alternative to the Voting Rights Act proposed by Michigan representative Gerald Ford and Ohio representative William McCulloch would have allowed states to administer literacy tests.
While the pair argued that the quiz could be “fair and nondiscriminatory,” literacy tests had long been key voter suppression tools in the GOP’s toolbox. Future Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist, for instance, worked for Operation Eagle Eye, a 1960s-era Arizona GOP operation that challenged the legitimacy of black and Latino voters at the polls. Then, as now, Republicans couched their support for erecting voting obstacles in terms of voter integrity, with Illinois congressman Robert McClory predicting that in cities like Chicago “fraud would be multiplied many times if the illiterate is going to be given the right to vote.”
When President Jimmy Carter proposed a slate of voting reforms, including same-day registration, the Right pounced. Conservative outlets like the Heritage Foundation and Human Events raised the specter of mass fraud, with the former predicting that the legislation would allow “eight million illegal aliens” to vote and the latter warning of “widespread fraud in key urban centers.”
As usual, the legislation’s predicted effects on the GOP’s political fortunes weighed heavily on conservatives’ minds. Republican strategist Kevin Phillips noted that less restrictive voting laws in Wisconsin and Minnesota had boosted turnout and helped Democrats win those states in 1976. He guessed that Carter’s reforms would have a similar impact at the national level, since “most of the new participants, drawn from low-middle and low-income groups, will be Democrats.”
Human Events called the bill “Euthanasia for the GOP,” and Ronald Reagan’s Citizens for the Republic newsletter dubbed it “the Permanent Democratic Majority and Incumbents’ Protection Plan of 1977.”
Indeed, Reagan — doyen of modern conservatism and icon of Never Trumpers — just as surely laid the groundwork for Trump’s “rigged” election histrionics.
Beginning in the 1960s, Reagan used critiques of mass voting as a rhetorical ballast for his excoriations of the welfare state, predicting that democracy would cease to exist when “voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury.” Like many on the Right, Reagan took the logical next step, stridently opposing laws that made it easier for low-income Americans to cast ballots.
“Liberals have made a hobby of carefully nursing the myth that millions of Americans are somehow kept away from the polls because it is so ‘difficult’ to register,” Reagan wrote. But nonvoters, he asserted, were largely “those who get a whole lot more from the federal government — in various kinds of welfare — than they contribute to it.”
As a result, conservatives argued that it was good for the country that such people stayed away from the polls — and perhaps even better for the Republican Party. “The saving grace of the GOP in national elections,” Reagan’s future White House communications director Pat Buchanan noted, “has been the political apathy, the lethargy, of the welfare class. It simply does not bother to register to vote.”
Paul Weyrich, the cofounder of the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, expressed a similar sentiment in 1980, saying, “I don’t want everybody to vote . . . Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
For decades now, Republicans have tried to put Weyrich’s insight into practice. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush vetoed the “Motor Voter Act,” a bill designed to make it easier for Americans to register to vote and harder for states to purge voter rolls. Pushed by leftist scholar-activists Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, the legislation was denounced by Bush for “expos[ing] the election process to an unacceptable risk of fraud and corruption without any reason to believe that it would increase electoral participation to any significant degree.”
Eventually, Bill Clinton would sign the bill into law, with Piven and Cloward standing behind him. But the legislation was an isolated instance of buttressed voting rights in a decades-long conservative attack on the franchise.
The last decade has seen especially fierce assaults from the Right. Aided by conservative organizations like True the Vote, the right-wing press has ginned up phony fears of fraud perpetrated by everyone from undocumented immigrants to the New Black Panther Party.
Elected Republicans, far from dispelling these unfounded rumors, have used their positions to lend them the patina of official respectability. Throughout the George W. Bush administration, party officials cried wolf about potential voter fraud as part of a concerted strategy to make the public believe such chicanery was rampant, going so far as to fire US attorneys who refused to play along and investigate nonexistent incidents.
Throughout the 2008 campaign, John McCain, the GOP’s supposedly moderate nominee, falsely alleged in campaign commercials and debates that the left-leaning grassroots group ACORN was “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy” by working to steal the election for Barack Obama.
The brazen rhetoric didn’t let up in the years immediately preceding Trump’s supposedly unprecedented assault on American democracy. “Election fraud is a real and persistent threat to our electoral system,” Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus wrote in a December 2011 op-ed for CNN that advocated voter ID laws. “[And] Democrats know they benefit from election fraud.”
And that hysteria didn’t stay confined to the rhetorical, of course. Over the past decade, Republican governors and state legislatures have instituted dozens of measures making it more difficult to vote, from cumbersome ID requirements to reduced polling place hours.
In 2013, Republicans administered the coup de grace. The conservative Supreme Court majority it had devoted years to winning struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, opening the door to even more draconian voter suppression legislation.
Mass Democracy and Social Democracy
In recent years, in language often reminiscent of their right-wing forebears, conservative thinkers have seemed perhaps even more willing to drop all pretenses and express their outright contempt for democracy.
The National Review’s Kevin Williamson, sounding much like William F. Buckley, groused in 2012, “The sacramentalization of the act of voting represents the worst of the democratic impulse and contributes to the ongoing conversion of our republican institutions into so many tribunes of the plebs.” Longtime anti-ACORN fearmonger Matthew Vadum echoed Buchanan and Reagan in a 2011 American Thinker piece titled “Registering the Poor to Vote is Un-American,” claiming that expanding voting was really about “helping the poor to help themselves to others’ money.”
Taking the Right’s view of poor voters to its logical conclusion, conservatives like Ann Coulter and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, among others, have come out in favor of reinstituting literacy tests at the polls; right-libertarians like Jason Brennan have proclaimed their wholesale opposition to democracy.
This is the anti-democratic petri dish that spawned Trump. For years, conservative media outlets, right-wing writers, and GOP politicians carefully built up the voter fraud myth in order to win support for restrictive voting measures. Their intent was to depress turnout among groups unfavorable to Republicans. But along the way, they helped push the GOP base to conspiratorial heights, contributing to Trump’s odious emergence.
Republicans’ selective amnesia shouldn’t fool anyone. They don’t want their long-term strategy to be tainted by a sure loser. Come 2018 and 2020, however, they’ll return in full force.
One particularly worrying development coming down the pipeline: a 1982 consent decree barring the GOP from engaging in Eagle Eye–type intimidation tactics — such as “posing as law-enforcement officers and demanding voters’ IDs, sending out intimidating mailings to minority voters, posting misleading or intimidating signs, or standing at the polls to challenge minority voters’ rights to a ballot” — is set to expire next year, meaning that the 2018 midterms could be the first time Americans experience the full weight of conservative anti-voting efforts since the 1970s.
The Left needs to be ready, not just to expose such strategies for what they are, but to fight to lower voting barriers for workers and the poor. Boosting their numbers at the polling stations, though not transformative on its own, is a precondition for the success of social-democratic politics.
The Right understands that depressed turnout serves both its partisan and its policy interests. Nonvoters are to the left of voters on issues like paid sick leave, free community college, a financial transactions tax, and spending on the poor. Where the Right goes wrong is in viewing such opinions as illegitimate, as somehow more injurious to democracy than the well-heeled banker voting to lower his taxes.
The Democrats, though sometime-supporters of voting rights, can’t be trusted on the issue either. They’ve shown themselves all too willing to sacrifice the grassroots organizations (like ACORN and labor unions) so instrumental to registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.
That leaves the Left. Progressive organizations are the only ones with both the enduring incentive and the ideological commitment to advocate for an expanded franchise.
Mass democracy can’t stop at the voting booth. But it’s a good place to start.