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Voter Suppression is an Addiction
If we could break our nasty habit, we would be a democracy
It is hard to talk about addiction. Addiction frightens and shames. It is hard to talk about the current Republican addiction to voter suppression. What can we say? I think we have to say something.
Addiction has a way of making a caricature of people. Addicts pretend to be themselves, sometimes convincingly. Addiction crowds out everything except the act. In this way, the Republicans are becoming a caricature of a political party. They do not have much of a program. They just ran a presidential campaign without a platform. Voter suppression is crowding out policy. In a democratic system, a party campaigns on policy, and it sometimes wins, and it sometimes loses. It adjusts when it loses by changing its platform, rather than by changing the rules. The Republican Party is no longer doing that. When Republicans lose national elections, other Republicans use control of statehouses to make the country less democratic.
Every addiction has a beginning. At first I say that that I just need this one hit to get me through the day. Today is an unusual day. Tomorrow I will be fine. I won't need it anymore. The same is true of voter suppression. Each election seems so important. We just need to keep our guy in office. We must hold off that challenger. We just have to preserve that majority. But one day becomes the next and the exception becomes the rule. And as the addiction grows stronger, I need a bigger hit each time. As the Republicans grow less popular, they find ever more refined ways to suppress the vote.
The addict always has someone else to blame. It is my wife, my job, my parents, my teachers, my dealer, my phone that keeps beeping to tell me where I can get the next stash. Republicans also have a scapegoat: demography. The population itself is to blame. There are too many black people, too many hispanics. The percentage of white people is going down, so we have to cheat. What else can we do? But as with the addict, this is just a self-destructive dodge of responsibility. It is not other people who are the problem. It is the addiction that is the problem. It is racism that is the problem. Voter suppression is racist: in its traditions, in its consequences, and in its intentions. If Republicans stopped suppressing the vote, they would not be seen as racist. And if they were not seen as racist, they would get more votes from people who are not white. Demography would no longer matter.
You can try to explain to an addict that life would be better on the other side. The addict loses friends, family, his job, his self-worth. Those things, or some of them, can be won back. A different life starting from the wisdom of experience is possible. People prove this every day. Many extraordinary people have recovered from an addiction. Likewise, the Republicans would be better off if they could break their voter suppression habit. If they did so, they would think about policy again -- and many Americans would like their policies. If they no longer devoted themselves to keeping people who are not white from voting, they would get more votes from people who are not white. Such a recovered Republican Party would win lots of elections, including presidential elections.
You can try to tell the addict a story like this. And sometimes it helps. Sometimes, though, the addict won't accept the premise of his own addiction. And this is the Republicans' problem. If they spend energy on anything more than on voter suppression, it is on the effort to convince themselves that they are right to keep sticking that needle in their arm. It is my medicine! It's all about fraud! This is not of course true, and no one except the addict believes it. And even the addict doesn't really believe it, not in his heart.
And that can lead to moral collapse. If I know that what I am doing is wrong, I can double down on blaming others. It becomes okay to lie to remaining friends, steal money from the family members who are generous enough to see me, maybe even steal a lady's purse or break into a car. The lying can lead to violence, as it did for Trump supporters on January 6th. My side has been suppressing votes for half a century, so I say the other side has stolen an election. My big lie is so patently the opposite of reality that I have to act it out. Someone else has to pay.
The invasion of the Capitol was a crisis, and a crisis is an opportunity. An addict might admit that he has a problem before more people get hurt. Sometimes, though, the addict misses the chance, and salves his feelings with the drug. That can feel like the only way to get through the moment of uncertainty: punch holes in the skin until that moral queasiness passes. This, unfortunately, is just what state-level Republican elected officials have done since January 6th. They are binging on voter suppression. Right now Republican state legislators are supporting over two hundred bills designed to make voting more difficult.
To be fair, the addicted party was not always the Republicans. Historically it was the Democrats. Anyone can be an addict. We all have vulnerabilities. In American political life, one of these vulnerabilities, tragically, is racism. After Democrats put the voter suppression needle down, Republicans picked it up. But what if no one held the needle? What if the country went cold turkey?
Going cold turkey on voter suppression means calling it what it is, and making it impossible. Voter suppression is racist authoritarianism. Making it impossible means starting from the principle that it is everyone's individual responsibility to vote -- and America's collective responsibility to make it as easy as possible for every citizen to vote.
This is mostly an attitude. Taking pride in high turnouts. Treating democracy as a mission rather than a game. The gaming should stop. Voter registration should be automatic. The goal should be to have every eligible American registered. No one should be purged from a voter register without being contacted. There should be no shenanigans with IDs: before you require them, you hand them out, and not the other way around. There should be no lines: it is grotesque to make people wait. If people want to mail a ballot, make it easy for them. No one should have to work on election day except the people at the polls. It should be a national holiday.
After all, we are a democracy, or we could be. If we broke our nasty habit, we could celebrate instead of feeling ashamed.