This past November, as election results dashed expectations of a resounding “red wave,” liberal columnists rejoiced at the relative docility with which defeated Republicans accepted their fate.
With the exception of Kari Lake, who waged a months-long legal campaign to overturn her loss of Arizona’s governorship, virtually every big-name Republican candidate who tried to “Stop the Steal” in 2020—from Senate candidates Blake Masters of Arizona and Don Bolduc of New Hampshire, who stridently argued that “Trump won” in 2020, to Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who himself breached the barricades during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot—chose to concede rather than futilely rage against the dying of the light.
Liberal columnist Brian Beutler of Crooked Media rejoiced at this seeming change of heart among Republican election truthers. “These candidates recognize the jig is up,” he wrote in a New York Times column in the aftermath of the election.
“While lying about the 2020 election might be useful as glue to hold together the Republican coalition, … these candidates might have realized that it is also a suicide pact for their party. They may reason that they underperformed relative to other Republicans because the voting public identified them as enemies of democracy, and aligned to punish them.”
The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells shared a similar outlook. While acknowledging that our democratic crisis is far from over, he wrote,
“[T]here is room for a more modest kind of optimism. The events of last week suggest that the most direct kind of challenge to the electoral system—a pressure campaign to alter results—requires very specific conditions. … This doesn’t mean that the threat is gone. But it does suggest that we might see election denialism a little bit less as a permanent feature of American politics, and a little bit more as a product of a very particular set of circumstances, and a very specific personality. More than ever, the crisis seems likely to live or die with Trump’s political career.”
While I shared these writers’ relief about the relative grace with which these candidates accepted their defeats compared to Trump, I stop short of the notion that Republicans writ large are coming to recognize either the tactical or moral good of honoring democratic norms. In fact, some Republicans would endorse an end to democracy before accepting the defeat of the conservative political project, and, if you listen closely, you’ll notice that they don’t hesitate to say it out loud.
The reaction to the 2022 election in the conservative media sphere indicated a subtle but unmistakable rhetorical shift. Rather than claim that a bunch of people voted illegally or that voting machine software was rigged and that the election was therefore illegitimate—as Trump and allies claimed in 2020—many Republicans are now suggesting that a bunch of the wrong people voted legally, so the voting process is illegitimate and must be altered.
Though their candidates performed the bare minimum ritual of acknowledging the will of the voters, several figures in conservative media and government have begun to make much clearer their desires to roll back the clock on voting rights by decades or even centuries, proposing measures that are either covertly or very overtly designed to curtail the political power of young people, racial minority groups, poor people, and women.
Some argued for the disenfranchisement of millions of young voters. “Raise the voting age to 21,” said Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of the anti-Muslim group ACT For America, in a tweet the day after the election that received more than 37,000 likes. It’s something she has advocated repeatedly, saying again last month, without a hint of irony, that we must “raise the voting age to 21 to preserve democracy.”
Gabriel’s position is moderate compared to some of her contemporaries: Peter Schiff, an arch-libertarian radio host and former Ron Paul strategist, called for an increase to 28, saying, “Today most 18-year-olds never had a job and still live with their parents.”
Consider One America News host Addison Smith’s response to a post-election discussion on The View in which the commentators discussed how young people had impacted the election results. Sunny Hostin said that young voters “delivered key wins for the Democrats” and that Republicans wanted to raise the voting age to 28 years. (Young voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out at the second highest rate in 30 years, and voters between the ages of 18 and 24 went 61 percent for Democrats.) Smith defended Schiff’s sentiment, agreeing that “If you aren’t old enough to smoke a cigarette, you shouldn’t be old enough to select the leader of the free world. “Eighteen years old, in my view, is way too young.” He simultaneously accused The View’s “clucking hens” of “fearmongering” about the possibility of raising the voting age, saying with a chuckle that an increase in the voting age wasn’t going to happen, “as much as I personally would love that.”
While it’s tempting to view the mass disenfranchisement of young people as mere wish-casting by disgruntled media flamethrowers, the idea that these young voters are illegitimate participants in democracy was also seeded by a star Republican Senate candidate. Georgia Republican Herschel Walker, when asked about voters born after 1990, said “most of the people today haven’t earned the right to change America.”
That sentiment is not as marginal as one might imagine. When polled on Twitter, 68 percent of Schiff’s audience (which appears to be mostly made up of conservatives and libertarians, judging by the comments) agreed with his idea to raise the voting age to 28, an act that would effectively kick nearly 17 percent of the electorate off the voting rolls.
Other Republicans blamed “ballot harvesting”—a scary-sounding term used to describe the process (legal in 26 states) of voters willfully handing their ballots to a third party, often local activists or campaign staff, to be brought to an official polling place—and the use of drop boxes as primary culprits in their losses. During and after the 2020 election, these methods were subject to a number of harebrained efforts to cast doubt on their legitimacy—from Project Veritas’ sorry attempt to fabricate wrongdoing by bribing a Minnesota community activist into falsely stating that he bought votes for Rep. Ilhan Omar, to Dinesh D’Souza’s sneakily edited and factually distended film 2,000 Mules. These efforts belie the facts: a survey of election officials found no evidence of drop box-related fraud or stolen ballots in 2020, and fraudulent absentee ballots are an extremely rare occurrence.1(Several of Trump’s own advisors and appointees, including former Attorney General William Barr, advisor Jason Miller, and campaign manager Bill Stepien, have even testified before Congress that, in the midst of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election result, they told the president that they could not find evidence of the claims he was making about mail-in voter fraud and that he had lost the election.)
But after 2022, some conservative commentators and Trump administration officials began to publicly lambast the use of drop boxes and ballot collectors in swing states not because they could be used to collect fraudulent votes, but because they could be used to collect real votes from those they deemed unworthy of participating in democracy. Stephen Miller, former Trump speechwriter and noted fan of V-Dare’s white nationalist polemics, lamented on Twitter in late November 2022 that “a core societal dilemma posed by ballot harvesting is that elections will increasingly be decided by the least engaged and least interested voters.”
Tim Pool, a conservative YouTube commentator with more than 1.33 million subscribers, made similarly disparaging remarks about mail voters, tweeting at Republican Senator Josh Hawley, “You’ll never win again as long as ballot harvesting and universal mail in voting exist. Democrats rely on ignorant voters…”
It doesn’t take an extreme leap to figure out what kinds of voters Miller and Pool are belittling here. A quick look at data from Florida and Georgia shows an overwhelmingly clear pattern in who is most likely to utilize ballot drop boxes, which are the typical destination for ballots given to collectors.
A Dartmouth study of six Florida counties found that “restrictions on drop boxes will fall disproportionately on Black voters, voters affiliated with the Democratic Party, and younger voters,” by increasing the distance to boxes and increasing the length of lines on election day. “The more black a county,” the study says, “the greater the drop box rate among VBM [vote by mail] voters.”
Another study by the University of Florida’s Daniel Smith reviewed data from Manatee County in 2020 and found that “Black voters, Hispanic voters, and voters with disabilities were more likely than White voters to drop off their ballots at the 24/7 locations after hours.”
After 2020, Florida and Georgia introduced new laws reducing the number of these sites and limiting the ones that remained to only be open during times when election offices are open, making them less accessible to early voters who work long hours.
“This is going to have an impact that is disparate for different types of voters. Voters who may be working normal, nine-to-five jobs who cannot drop off a ballot during those times when they’re working, or who have family issues that demand child care,” said Smith, in testimony against the law last February.
The same was true of Georgia—already notorious for its hours-long lines in urban areas on previous election days. A quarter of voters saw increased travel times to reach drop boxes in 2022 after the number was reduced by a heavily contested state law. In metropolitan Atlanta, four majority-Black counties had more than three-quarters of their drop boxes shut down. As in Florida, Georgia’s drop boxes were more likely to be used by Black voters: more than half of all drop box votes in 2020 occurred in the Atlanta Metropolitan area, where about 50 percent of the voters are people of color.
While overblown claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud were common during the previous election, Miller and Pool’s comments do not reflect that concern. Rather, they seek to propagate an image of mail-in voters themselves—who, again, are vastly more likely to be poor, Black, and disabled—as an impressionable, benighted mass who are too “ignorant” and apathetic to deserve equal representation. While using class and race-neutral language, Pool and Miller devise systemic changes to simply make voting more cumbersome for those deemed undesirable—ending mail-in voting, closing drop boxes, and anything else that gives the pesky rabble an easier say in how their country is run.
Others have no time for such technocratic chicanery and are willing to be much blunter about their desires to purge the voting rolls to cloister political power into the hands of a wealthy, white supermajority.
Take Darren J. Beattie, another former speechwriter for President Trump, who complained a week after election day, “In the past, you had to own land, be literate to vote. Now you don’t have to give a shit in any way, let alone be actually invested in the country for the DEM harvesting, turn-out machine [to] do the work for you.” Again, fraud is not the concern here. It’s the dreaded “turn-out machine”2 by which those crooked urban ward-heelers commit the grievous crime of telling poor people to vote and then helping them to do that. The bastards!
Of a similar mind is Jesse Kelly, a hard-right podcast host whose program has featured guests such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Scott Perry, Lauren Boebert and other Republican congress members. He tweeted in August (before cravenly deleting) a similar dream that voting should be limited to “Men between the ages of 35 and 65 who own property,” before making his goal abundantly clear: “Complain all you want,” he said. “But your country would be BLOOD red if that’s who voted. And your government would be tiny.” (Kelly’s position on taking away women’s right to vote is shared by RedState editor Erick Erickson, who tweeted in May that “given the hysterics and histrionics” about the impending Supreme Court decision to end the federal right to an abortion, “I’m starting to think we need to repeal the 19th amendment. These people are nuts.”)
A charitable reading of these tweets would invite the possibility that these men are just staggeringly ignorant of the history of literacy tests and land requirements as ways to enforce rigid racial and class hierarchy in government. But let’s not kid ourselves.
Most people who took high school U.S. history, and surely a Duke-educated political operative like Beattie and a historical podcaster like Kelly, have at least a passing knowledge of the long, sordid history of literacy tests. They were one of the most effective tools used by the Jim Crow South to prevent Black voters—who were disproportionately illiterate due to substandard educational facilities and poverty that forced them into the workforce at younger ages—from exercising political power until they were finally abolished by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A literacy test instituted today would cleave off a huge chunk of the electorate: 21 percent of Americans have “low” English literacy levels. Just as in the past, adults with low literacy are vastly more likely to be poor and, in part due to persistent, wide gaps in educational funding, more likely to be immigrants and people of color.
Beattie and Kelly’s property requirements would surely swoop up many of the voters that the literacy requirements missed. According to the Department of Agriculture, Black Americans own only 1 percent of the rural land in the country while 98 percent is owned by white people. In fact, the nation’s five largest landowners—all white billionaires, you may have guessed—own more land by themselves than all of Black America combined. Homeownership rates are similarly stratified, with a 29-point gap between White and Black. Even a cursory bit of context makes it clear that these men want to relegate a large percentage of this nation’s poor and minority populations to second-class status.
As with the voting age, there is some conservative constituency for this sort of mass disenfranchisement. Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire, whose show became the fastest growing conservative podcast in 2022 amid his crusades against transgender and abortion rights, asked his audience in a poll in 2021, “Should there be some kind of test to prevent uninformed people from voting?” 61 percent voted yes.
Among modern conservatives, Walsh is perhaps the most visible figure to, in his own words, have “unapologetically advocated for making voting harder and available to fewer people,” something he has called for since before the 2020 election. “The country,” he said back in 2019, “would be transformed for the better overnight if turnout went down by 80 percent.” Walsh has gone on countless tirades against universal suffrage, which he argues leaves our country “held hostage by non-contributing ignoramuses who shouldn’t have a say in anything.” To no one’s surprise, one may prove to Walsh that they are not a “non-contributing ignoramus” and worthy of the ballot by being a “taxpayer.” This is, of course, a metric that, if adopted as a standard for voting, would bar many people whose households bring in less than $40,000 per year.3
Such statements from across the conservative media sphere may appear to show the conservative worldview mutating into a more overtly antidemocratic posture. In fact, it’s simply a return to a more ancient, visceral right-wing tradition of expressing contempt for the threat posed by underclasses asserting political power. Even as Republicans have taken to posthumously singing the praise of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. (and even occasionally claiming him as one of their own, though less than half, according to a 2023 The Economist/YouGov poll, believe his birthday should be a holiday), the mechanisms of modern-day voter suppression have been deployed for a long time. We’ve seen it in the disproportionate closure of polling places in heavily Black and Latino areas across red states in the South since the 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We saw it in the files recovered from the late Republican gerrymandering czar Thomas Hofeller, which revealed the use of racial statistics to systematically carve up districts with heavy minority and student populations. And we see it every day on a macro level in the halls of our ludicrously unrepresentative Senate, whose allocation of two seats to every state allows one voter in very white Wyoming to have 80 times the power of one voter in the much more racially diverse California.
But when average conservatives—who typically don’t imagine themselves to harbor prejudices of any kind—defend this state of affairs, they usually have a justification that obscures the wider motive: Polling places, they will argue, are not shuttered to stop certain voters, it’s just a tragic consequence of strapped state budgets. The redistricting did not have a racial motivation but was simply a garden-variety “partisan” gerrymander. The structure of the Senate is just what the Founders wanted!
Now, conservative pundits and officials are allowing the subtext to become text and simply admitting the obvious: the voters are the problem and they must be dealt with.
Part of this can be explained as a basal reaction to a shocking electoral defeat (much like liberals blaming Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 on Russian interference rather than the fact that she was a lousy, uninspiring candidate). But Republicans are also grappling seriously with the reality that they are on track to become a permanent moral minority on most salient issues. Sixty-one percent of Americans now say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, meaning that the draconian laws passed across red states after the repeal of Roe v. Wade are far out of step with the populace. Three quarters believe that the wealthiest Americans should pay higher taxes, in opposition to the Republicans who passed Trump’s massive tax cut for the rich in 2017. Sixty-seven percent support a ban on assault weapons, which congressional Republicans have nearly uniformly voted against. More than half of voters say they want a public health insurance option or a single-payer program. Besides Trump’s failed effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act, Republicans have repeatedly stated their intent to cut what little federal healthcare subsidy already exists under Medicaid. The list goes on.
To stand any chance of keeping their political project alive for the long term, there is only one logical solution for the truly ideologically committed conservative: to permanently alter the electorate. The past election reveals that nibbling around the edges through piecemeal, though ever-widening, voter suppression is not enough to attain a mandate even with every normal indicator (an unpopular incumbent president, inflation, and crime increases) seeming to break in Republicans’ favor.
The pundits who have taken to openly promoting mass disenfranchisement are among the first to openly recognize that in the long term, mass democracy is a losing battle for their vision of the world. They are attempting to seed the rhetorical ground for a return to the past, when democratic participation was the domain of the well-to-do, whose wealth, skin color, and manhood gave them dominion over the nation’s “ignorant” masses.
Contempt for the average voter is, in fact, foundational to the conservative worldview as articulated by some of its foremost intellectual sages for decades. Indeed, what is being conserved but the power and political influences of entrenched elite interests (as well as traditional hierarchies of class, gender, race, or property ownership)? This lineage be seen in libertarian writer Jason Brennan’s 2016 book Against Democracy, in which he plainly argued for the rule of a small sliver of “Vulcans”—the most putatively “knowledgeable” among us—over the vast majority, who either don’t care about politics or are too easily swayed by emotion and partisanship.
It can be seen in the musings of tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who donated more than $30 million to Republican Senate candidates Blake Masters and J.D. Vance and has been one of the largest benefactors to the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ron Paul. Thiel himself has said he “no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible,” going on to say that “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” Thiel has also bankrolled the projects of so-called “neoreactionary” writers, most notably the self-described “anti-democracy” blogger Curtis Yarvin who has argued that the democratic system should be abolished and replaced with an absolutist monarchy run by a charismatic “startup guy” (who he may have in mind is anyone’s guess).
One might recall more vulgar expressions of the same idea from cable news yahoos as well. In 2016, Bill O’Reilly, while defending the electoral college on Fox News, very tellingly stated his concerns that “the left wants power taken away from the white establishment. They want a profound change in the way America is run.” They were tears he’d cried before when Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election: “The white establishment is now the minority,” O’Reilly lamented. “The demographics are changing. … It’s not a traditional America anymore.” More recently, the successor to his timeslot, Tucker Carlson, has long decried President Biden’s supposed efforts “to change the racial mix of the country … to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here.”
Going back further, one can see the idea of natural political hierarchy espoused by some of conservatism’s greatest heroes. 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, in The Conscience of a Conservative, defined his ideology in strict opposition to the premise of fundamental human equality. Deriding proponents of a graduated income tax—by which the richest pay a greater percentage of their wealth—he lamented:
“Their aim is an egalitarian society—an objective that does violence both to the charter of the Republic and the laws of Nature. We are all equal in the eyes of God but we are equal in no other respect. Artificial devices for enforcing equality among unequal men must be rejected.”
Central to Goldwater’s worldview was the primacy of property ownership as a vector for political freedom, so much so that he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the grounds that it would “embark the Federal Government on a regulatory course of action with regard to private enterprise in the area of so‐called ‘public accommodations.’” In practice, Goldwater was saying that the right of business owners to discriminate against any group they disliked was of greater importance than the right of people to be treated equally. Essentially, though, Goldwater was justifying racial and economic inequality by refusing to support laws which would end Black people’s second-class status, which made them less likely to own property in the first place.
Consider National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. In 1957, as the fight for Black voting rights in the South built firepower, he wrote and published an essay entitled “Why the South Must Prevail” in his fledgling magazine. “The central question that emerges…” Buckley said on the question of voting rights,
“is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. … The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.”
His answer to that question was also yes. “If the majority wills what is socially atavistic,” Buckley continued, “then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened.” Democracy, in Buckley’s vision, was only a useful tool insofar as it worked to enforce a “civilized” set of social mores. When it erred, it was incumbent upon the elite to right the ship and assume power undemocratically. To Buckley, the social order proposed by Southern Black people, where they would be anything other than a mass of politically docile wage laborers, was a threat to the material interests of the entrenched property-owning plantation aristocracy that profited from their disempowerment. Hence the need to emphasize their supposed “backwardness” and intellectual inferiority to their more refined white rulers.
In a similarly fraught era of political mobilization and discontent with the status quo, when the elite grasp on power feels a bit more tenuous than it once did, our modern cohort of anti-democrats are excavating the same fundamental ideas expressed by their ideological forebearers. At their core, these conservatives believe that there is an elect who are of the proper intellectual stock to rule and an unwashed mass whose role is to follow without asking questions.
But more than anything, these attempts to roll back the voting rights of average people demonstrate a fear of obsolescence at the heart of the conservative movement as they realize that many of their goals could never be fully realized with majority consent. It’s a fear perhaps best articulated by Trump himself last year in response to a failed bill designed to make voting easier. The Freedom to Vote Act would have made election day a federal holiday, allowed early voting for two weeks before election day, allowed voting by mail with no excuses, require that states make voting accessible for people with disabilities, allow more types of voter ID, and allow same-day registration. Trump said: “The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”4
For the Republicans who seek to restrict voting, the method has never really been the issue. It has always been about the “levels.” It’s up to us to recognize the severity of the threat to democracy here. At a time when American voter turnout remains consistently low compared to many nations, we must continuously work to expand “the levels,” not shrink them.
According to a survey conducted by the Associated Press of election officials in both Democratic and Republican-led states, “None of the election offices in states that allowed the use of drop boxes in 2020 reported any instances in which the boxes were connected to voter fraud or stolen ballots. Likewise, none reported incidents in which the boxes or ballots were damaged to the extent that election results would have been affected.” Data from the conservative Heritage Foundation indicates that between 2000 and 2020, there were 204 documented cases of fraudulent absentee ballots, roughly seven per year across the entire country; criminal convictions in these cases round out to “about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast,” according to Amber McReynolds of the National Vote at Home Institute and Charles Stewart III of MIT. ↩
Instead of trying to restrict turnout, other Republicans have taken the 2022 midterms as evidence that they need to get better at utilizing mail-in voting and ballot collection to turn out their own voters. Former Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow has said that instead of disparaging it, Trump “ought to tell people to start their mail-in ballots immediately…Don’t Stop! Republicans have to learn how to play this game too.” Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, meanwhile, has praised an effort by around 200 churches in California to collect ballots from congregants, using “ballot harvesting to beat the left at their own game.” Human Events editor Jack Posobiec has likewise said that “Republicans should put ballot drop boxes in the back of churches in every state where it’s legal.” ↩
The idea that rich people are burdened by taxes and that poor people don’t pay taxes is, of course, a classic conservative talking point which tends to focus on federal income tax. But lower income people pay payroll and sales taxes, among others. ↩
Trump was reflecting a concern previously articulated by Paul Weyrich, a Heritage Foundation co-founder and progenitor of the religious right. Speaking of his fellow Christian conservatives, he said: “How many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government? They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Here, Weyrich was expressing a view in line with the conventional wisdom in political science that Republicans typically fare better in low-turnout elections (though, more recent studies have called that idea into question). ↩