Through racial grievance politics and voter suppression tactics, the GOP has clung to power by cultivating a fearful minority of white voters.
The dominance of white voters in American elections is under threat. Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and those of Native American descent now represent a growing and active part of America’s electorate. If the demographic forecasts are accurate non-whites will constitute a majority of voters by the middle of the present century, if not sooner, and already do so in California, the country’s most populous state.
In terms of recent electoral choices, the Republican party (GOP) has become the majority preference of white voters, especially older ones. If the electorate had been restricted to whites as it effectively had before the mid-1960s, not only would Donald Trump have been elected president but so would his GOP predecessors: George Herbert Walker Bush (1992), John McCain (2008) and Mitt Romney (2012). Previous GOP presidents, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan had pursued successfully a ‘southern strategy’, winning the support of white voters from the eleven states of the old Confederacy. Despite his jovial demeanor, we should remember that Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign from Philadelphia, Mississippi – the infamous site where three civil rights workers had been killed by racist law enforcement officers in earlier years.
Now, and in the near future, this GOP appeal to a master race (Herrenvolk) of whites may very well ensure the party’s defeat; both in presidential and congressional balloting. If there was a way to return the franchise to whites to the exclusion of other groups, or skew it to strongly favor them, the GOP’s increasingly stark demographic picture might be altered. What is to be done?
The answer GOP strategists appear to have come up with is voter suppression, or modifying the rules of voting so as to minimize the impact of non-white voters. Redrawing state and congressional legislative districts in such a way as to minimize the impact of minority votes, or gerrymandering, is the most obvious technique. But there is a substantial list of other means at the disposal of GOP decision-makers, some legal, while others rightly belong under the label ‘dirty tricks.’
Here are some examples of both practices: reducing the number of polling places in areas with large minority populations; reducing the number of hours polls are open; so-called ‘ID laws’ requiring photographic evidence the would-be voter is who they claim to be; closing state departments of motor vehicles’ (DMV) offices in areas with large minority populations, seemingly to inhibit ethnic minority citizens from obtaining appropriate documentation to identify themselves; eliminating ‘same day’ registration and voting; overturning sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, permitting federal authorities to investigate state-level voting procedures in states with long traditions of voter discrimination (Shelby County vs. Holder 2013); “robo-calling” minority group members to misinform them about the polling times for the next election; or by falsely alleging that representatives of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) would be present at the various polling stations to check on the identifications of Latino voters.
These tactics have proven to be relatively effective. Among other things, they have maintained a substantial gap between the number of seats GOP candidates have won in congressional and state legislative races on one hand; and its share of the popular vote on the other. The composition of the U.S. Senate has been mis-apportioned from the beginning. The U.S. Constitution stipulates that each state elects two senators, no matter its population. This means states like California and New York, with large populations, whose voters consistently elect Democrats, receive the same number of senate seats as states with small populations like Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, where the GOP dominates.
This system, as presently constituted or manipulated, rewards the Republican Party and its overwhelmingly white electorate. But it also contains a serious contradiction, at least in the long-run. GOP officials from President Trump on down are severe critics of a ‘woman’s right to choose’. Opposition to legally-approved and medically performed abortions have been a cornerstone position for Republicans since the Court’s Roe vs. Wade (1973) decision.
Along with forced sterilization, at least in the United States, abortion, contraception, and other family-planning techniques were supported in the early 20th century by the country’s then-Protestant dominated elite – as a means of limiting the number of children poor people would have. The poor were perceived as having both low intelligence and high fertility. To quote Julian Huxley, “Contemporary advocates for birth control exhibit no awareness whatsoever that the Lessina birth control pill or anything like was always conceived in the context of ‘eliminating the unfit’ i.e. eugenics…. Eugenics, in turn, was seen as human control of human evolution, and was always tied into discussions on population control.”East European immigrants. Among other things, they worried about the political consequences of their apparently unchecked growth. As these immigrant populations acquired the vote, the weaker would be the Brahmins’ control over the reigns of power. Family planning was one tactic to limit this seemingly inexorable decline.
In the long run, this project failed. The numerous descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants came to dominate politics in New England; those interested might see Robert Dahl’s Who Governs or Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah.
This history feels particularly pertinent to the current situation. Influenced by evangelical Protestants, in the first decades of the 20th century, Boston Brahmins were worried about the apparently unlimited growth of the families of Irish and from the South and those Catholics who adhere to the Church’s teachings elsewhere, the GOP’s office-holders seek to outlaw or restrict access to abortion for women throughout the country. To the extent they succeed in doing so, they may very well be sowing the seeds of their own electoral demise.
All things being roughly equal in terms of current voter preferences, the more young Latina and African-American women are denied the right to choose, the more children they are likely to have. In turn, as their children reach adulthood and voting age, the more likely the GOP’s share of the electorate is likely to shrink. In short, in supporting ‘right-to-life’ policies, Republican strategists may unintentionally have defeated themselves.
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Nevada. See his profile here.
© Leonard Weinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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