In the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections, HuffPost Opinion asked writers to examine the many ways that voting ― a fundamental and hard-won civil right ― is imperiled in the United States. In far too many cases, Americans are blocked from exercising that right. This piece is the first in that series, Democracy Denied.
It was 1964, an election year. Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson and the state’s major media outlets warned of a looming “invasion.” Voting rights activists were headed to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. They were “communists,” the governor and newspapers said. Although the civil rights workers were almost 1,000 miles away, they allegedly threatened to “destroy the last stronghold of individual liberty.”
In that supposed stronghold of liberty, however, only 5 percent of African Americans had been able to register to vote ― even though African Americans were 45 percent of the state’s population. When voting rights activists, most of whom were college students who believed fervently in democracy, came to make the 15th Amendment a viable force in the state, white Mississippians, spurred on by political leaders, unleashed a wave of terroristic violence that littered the state with dead bodies.
Mississippi would only accept a whites-only power structure, no matter how many corpses it took, no matter what the Constitution said, no matter the citizenship rights of millions of Americans. Real democracy was too frightening to contemplate; only this faux democracy would do. That imperative drove the disfranchisement of black voters and, when that failed, state-sanctioned domestic terrorism.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Today, in the midst of another election fight, the unearthly fear of democracy is once again terrorizing conservative politicians. And the state, led by President Donald Trump, is once again embracing white nationalism.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
As early as 2012, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham warned that his party was “not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term,” and an “autopsy” of the GOP’s performance in that year’s elections confirmed the prognosis. The problem for Republicans is that as the party became increasingly racially and ideologically homogeneous, the electorate grew more and more diverse and comprised an ever larger share of potential voters. Even more chilling for the GOP, despite rampant voter suppression, which it has applied with “almost surgical precision,” black voter turnout has skyrocketed. Fueled in large measure by the work of civil society and African Americans’ disdain for Trump, black turnout in the 2017 Alabama Senate special election was 25 percent higher than it was in the 2016 election.
The hard-core demographic facts of the GOP have tied the party into a Gordian knot: Republicans must advocate for democracy, but because of the party’s right-wing policies, their only path to victory requires undermining that very democracy. For example, Brian Kemp, the Georgia secretary of state and Republican candidate for governor, recently voiced concerns that his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams’ formidable voter registration efforts posed a considerable risk to his election ― “especially,” he remarked, “if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote.” He has done what he can ― purging voter rolls, putting tens of thousands of registrations in electoral limbo, shutting down polling places and opting not to update voting machines that are changing ballots cast for Abrams to votes for himself ― but he and Abrams are still in a statistical tie.
With no real policy accomplishments on which to run, Trump and Republican leaders have concocted an immigration crisis to “rile up their base,” warning of an “invasion” from Central America, replete with “unknown Middle Easterners” (or, to translate the dog whistle, terrorists).
With no real policy accomplishments on which to run, Trump and Republican leaders have concocted an immigration crisis to ‘rile up their base.’
Right-wing conspiracy theorists blamed billionaire George Soros for financing the immigrants’ caravan north. That lie was affirmed by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who claimed a video he posted on social media, which received more than 1 million views, proved Soros was paying to have Hondurans join the trek to the United States. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, added that a trio of wealthy Jews, including Soros, were funding a range of nefarious activities in an attempt “to BUY this election” for Democrats.
It sounds a lot like Mississippi in 1964. The Republicans have taken great pains to define this group of hungry and impoverished men, women, children and babies, as “left-wing agitators” who are conspiring with powerful and nefarious outside sources to destabilize a supposedly pristine electoral process.
In Georgia, in Kansas and in Missouri, Republicans are whipping up fears of this “invasion” to convince their base that the election will be “stolen.” Kemp has worked to persuade constituents that “radical Stacey Abrams has declared that illegal immigrants are part of the ‘Blue Wave’ and will help deliver victory for her on November 6th in Georgia.” An AP fact check found Kemp’s claims to be “wrong and inaccurate,” but instead of correcting the record, he made television ads that amplified the lies. In Kansas, Kris Kobach ― who has been in court multiple times for voter suppression ― has found that stoking this fear “motivated his GOP base” as he runs for governor. Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley used the caravan of immigrants to formulate a series of slurs about Sen. Claire McCaskill’s purported willingness to leave the United States open to an invasion from the south.
This Republican-manufactured fear of invaders is not only manipulative and unscrupulous, but also, given the rise in hate crimes since 2016, lethal. By late October, Graham’s “angry white men” were more than just riled up and motivated, they were murderous. African Americans, Democrats and Jews ― those who the GOP claimed had benefited from, engineered or financed the electoral threat to the United States ― were targeted for elimination. Pipe bombs, gunfire, and carnage stretched from California, to Kentucky, to Pittsburgh, to New York. Just as they did in Mississippi in 1964, the bodies are piling up.
Even after the deaths and the assassination attempts, Trump and the GOP are “in lockstep” and aren’t letting up. Ron DeSantis, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate in Florida, spoke ominously about “the threat posed by ‘Soros-backed activists.’” The Michigan Republican Party depicted the billionaire as “looking to rig Michigan’s elections.” And one major Republican super PAC aired an ad “highlighting the caravan, claiming that it is ′full of gang members and criminals.’” The GOP’s fear of democracy has to be dressed up like a fear for democracy; it is all they have.
Former Trump aide Sam Nunberg saw the phony “invasion” as “manna from heaven” that would turn out Republican voters to the polls, but there is nothing heavenly about the state of American democracy right now. Millions of the nation’s own citizens fear the very concept of one person, one vote. Yet, as a black minister in Mississippi retorted in 1964, that kind of fear ― based on lies, based on racism, based on undermining democracy ― can make you “so low, you’re going to need a step-ladder to climb into Hell.”
Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.