It’s during the homestretch of campaigns that political parties often reveal their deepest identities, and that’s never been truer than it is this year. What really distinguishes the Democrats from the Republicans this fall isn’t their ideologies, their platforms, or even their candidates, though there’s contrast aplenty in each of those. What really distinguishes the two parties is what they’re actually doing in the campaign’s final weeks.
The Democrats are trying to get out the vote.
The Republicans are trying to suppress it.
To be sure, Republicans have something of an operation to turn out their vote, but Donald Trump has failed to focus on building it—raising the funds, hiring the managers, directing his zealots to pound the pavement. Instead, he’s all but directed his zealots to pound black and Latino voters at the polls, should they have the presumption to show up to vote.
But we shouldn’t blame this all on Trump. Republicans as a whole don’t really emphasize voter mobilization these days; they emphasize voter suppression. A few Republicans thought it didn’t have to be this way. In the wake of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, the Republican National Committee looked at the nation’s changing demographics and recommended that the party cultivate more voters of color—Latinos and Asians (the two groups whose numbers were most rapidly rising) in particular.
But the party didn’t want to go there. Its leaders continued to oppose immigration reform. Its base made a white nationalist the party’s presidential nominee. Given the mounting number of black, Latino, Asian, and mixed-race voters, however, that all but required the party to do what the Southern Dixiecrats of yore did to win elections: block non-white voters’ access to the polls.
And so, as my colleague Eliza Newlin Carney has written, Republican state governments are devising all manner of ways to keep blacks and Latinos from the polls. Since night-riding and cross-burning having become counter-productive (high risk of negative publicity), they’ve been requiring voters in suspect (high minority-density) precincts to present original birth certificates and the like. Or they disallow university students’ identification cards, passing a law saying that only drivers’ licenses or gun permits will suffice (that was a ploy in Texas). Or they purge eligible voters from the rolls, cut back on early voting sites, or don’t provide minority polling places with sufficient ballots or voting machines.
What’s important about all these ploys is that the party adopted them before Donald Trump became its nominee—indeed, before he announced his candidacy. Ever since 2013, when the Supreme Court’s five right-wing justices struck down the Voting Rights Act’s provisions requiring states with histories of racial discrimination to get Justice Department clearance before changing their voting requirement laws, Republican-controlled states, Northern as well as Southern, have busily been devising election statutes that are precision-engineered to suppress minority voting. (Indeed, since the completely foreseeable consequence of the Republican justices’ decision was to bolster Republicans’ prospects of winning the White House and Congress, what the justices were effectively doing was to shore up the prospects for continued right-wing dominance of the Court.)
In the past several months, a number of lower federal courts have struck down many of the obstructions to voting enacted by Republican-controlled states. They’ve ruled that the states have to enable prospective voters to get the identification cards they need to vote, or to open sufficient polling places in minority areas. It’s increasingly clear, however, that many of these states are defying these rulings. In Wisconsin, local officials failed to issue temporary voter IDs, as ordered by a court. In Georgia, the state government has simply refused to process roughly 100,000 voter registration forms. In Indiana, the state police have cracked down on black and Latino voter registration drives, claiming voter fraud is afoot, though they have resolutely refused to produce a shred of evidence to substantiate their claim.
These are the strategies of a party that has realized it can only win by suppressing votes. From the end of Reconstruction until the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, that was, of course, the strategy of the Jim Crow South, enforced not merely by county clerks and registrars but by the Ku Klux Klan as well. What’s happened in recent decades, however, is not just the shift of the white South from Democratic into Republican ranks, but also the Southernization of the Northern Republican Party. The transformation isn’t confined matters of voting. The Northern Republican Party now fully embraces the South’s historic opposition to worker rights, with such states as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana enacting right-to-work laws. The Southern states’ fiscal policies—low taxation and inadequate public spending on even the most basic of services—now prevail wherever Republicans govern. Nationwide, the Republican Party now subscribes to the same public policies that used to be confined to the Jim Crow South, and inflames the same hatred and fears that Dixiecrats once stoked to ensure their hold on power.
Thus the final two weeks of this epochal election: Democrats are doing their damnedest to turn voters out. Republicans are doing their damnedest to keep young and minority voters from voting at all. This—never mind Clinton and Trump—is the essence of American politics in 2016.