The New Jim Crow Laws Aren’t Just About Suppressing Democratic Voters

They’re also about shoring up the Republican base.

By now oceans of pixels have been spilled about the nationwide Republican efforts to suppress Democratic-leaning votes. The most recent legislation in Georgia, restricting voting in myriad discriminatory ways and signed in the shadow of a painting of a slave plantation, is only the beginning. The broad reasons for this hardly need restating for engaged readers of the Monthly: Republicans are facing a demographic doom spiral. Despite Trump’s modest gains among non-whites, people of color remain firmly in the Democratic column and represent a fast-growing portion of the population. Suburban dwellers and people in cities have shifted blue, and the compensating red-shift among rural whites is not enough to maintain a majority coalition. The younger the generation, the more they despise Republicans–nor is there any indication that Millennials are shifting more conservative as they hit their 30s and 40s. And so on.

The result is that Republicans must increasingly hold power through minority rule–both by consolidating unjust structural advantages in the gerrymandered House and the malapportioned Senate and Electoral College, and by suppressing the votes of the majority liberal-left coalition. The Republican Party had a choice to try to moderate its behavior and appeal to disenchanted voters, or to double down on unpopular white supremacy, patriarchy, religious extremism and voter suppression, on a path toward open apartheid and authoritarianism. It chose the latter. This is all open knowledge, though the mainstream press sometimes has difficulty calling it like it is.

But less widely discussed is the fascinating unfolding dynamic in the Republican base itself. Republicans increasingly need to pass draconian voter suppression laws not only to quell a growing body of opposition votes, but to keep their own base engaged. It is stated only in euphemisms and hushed tones, but there is genuine terror in the Republican establishment that conservative voters will simply tune out if these measures are not passed. The Big Lie—endlessly repeated in false, unsubstantiated and often defamatory claims by conservative media—that Trump really won the 2020 election but was denied power through fraud is particularly important in explaining this phenomenon.

As some Republican pollsters have been noting, there is an irony in the GOP’s attempts to suppress votes: Republican turnout in the 2020 election was remarkably strong. Much to the horror of more liberal Americans, Trump really did succeed where a generation of Republican politicians before him had failed: he energized and persuaded a large number of low-voting-frequency social conservatives to cast ballots for him and downballot conservatives. It wasn’t enough to save him from an even bigger onslaught of horrified anti-Trump voters, but it was enough to surprise the entire political establishment in both parties by overperforming public and private polling by several points, picking up House seats and holding unexpected ground in the Senate. The strength of the Republican turnout, the fervor for Trump among his base, the unanimity of pro-Trump opinion in red districts, the COVID-related discrepancy between Trump’s big rallies and Biden’s more tempered events, and the epistemic closure among consumers of conservative media only fueled the certainty among GOP voters that Trump must have won and must have been cheated.

The December special election result in Georgia that handed control of the Senate to Democrats was a huge wake-up call to the GOP. It wasn’t just a confirmation that the Sun Belt is slipping away from them in a dramatic realignment. It wasn’t just that Democratic-leaning voters were hyper-enthusiastic even in a special election. It was also that their own voters were disengaged as a result of Trump’s lies.  GOP turnout in the Georgia special elections was lower than expected, even though Republicans normally overperform in special elections, and it was the last chance to stop a trifecta of Democratic control of government.

But it makes sense. After all, if you wrongly believe that every major election is being stolen by nefarious forces, why bother voting? There were numerous anecdotes of conservative voters saying they might as well stay home in Georgia, since they thought the November election had been stolen from them. The conservative base’s crisis of faith in democracy was only reinforced by the surging prominence of authoritarian QAnon-adjacent hopes for a coup, and by the attempted insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. A large number of conservative voters no longer believe that their grievances can be remedied through democratic means—either because they believe that elections themselves have been compromised, or because they know their policy goals are at odds with those of the growing majority. As Greg Sargent rightly notes, the Big Lie has become a cancer on the party, damaging not only their voters’ faith in democracy but also their own future voter mobilization efforts.

The potential downside future for Republicans is frightening. Trump won’t be on the ballot in 2022, and the realigning Democratic coalition is now composed of higher-propensity suburban voters. Republicans, meanwhile, relied on strong turnout from low-propensity conservative voters in both 2016 and 2020, but got shellacked in the 2018 midterm. History suggests that presidential parties lose votes thermostatically in a midterm cycle, but there is no guarantee that those historical outcomes will hold sway in a post-Trump hyperpartisan era.

If Trump isn’t on the ballot in 2024, there is no guarantee that whoever takes up the GOP banner will be able to turn out Trump’s low-propensity base in the same way. Things could be especially dire if even the “normie” Republican voter believes conservative media lies that elections are rigged against them, coupled with a possible post-COVID economic resurgence and era of good feelings under Biden.

In short, it’s not just that Republicans have to keep the emerging Democratic majority from being able to vote and using their majority to govern. Republicans must also try to convince their base that they’ve “solved” the “problem” somehow, just to make them come back to the election booth.

There are no easy ways out of this trap for the GOP. But passing federal voting rights legislation like H.R.1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would not only make it easier for Americans to vote and help put an end racist voter suppression schemes: it would also potentially help force the GOP to de-escalate their attempts at apartheid authoritarian control, step back from the Big Lie, end dependence for survival on a low-propensity, shrinking base of social conservatives, and shift away from Trumpism and toward a vision that can appeal to a true majority of the American people. Democracy itself may well depend on it.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist, and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” and president of the Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.