OW VOTER SUPPRESSION CHANGED PARTIES
After the Civil War ended in 1865, whites in the former confederate South overwhelmingly moved to the Democratic Party. They certainly were not going to be Republicans. From their point of view the Republican Party led by Abraham Lincoln had been responsible for the destruction of their homes and property, their whole way of life really. Thousands of their men had died and the lives of their next generations ruined.
Whites in the South were certainly not very kind to the freedmen, the former slaves, who they came to believe were somehow the cause of all their troubles. Whites certainly had reason to be unhappy. The South had been overwhelmingly agricultural before the war. The more industrial north with its army had marched into the South and, in order to defeat them, had physically ruined the agricultural base of their former prosperity.
At first, many of the former slaves, particularly in areas where they were the majority, became active in politics. That ended quickly. The Democrats used a crude form of voter suppression to reduce the black vote. Former slaves had to pay a poll tax (head tax) to pay for the cost of elections. Whites did too but they could more easily afford it. Later, there were reading requirements. Voters had to read and interpret a section of the Constitution for a small white selection board. Black voters almost always failed. For those who persisted there was intimidation and sheer terror.
The sheer terror may have been reduced but, essentially, the white Democrats remained in control right up until the reforms pushed through by Lyndon Johnson after 1964 began to threaten white control (Franklin Roosevelt had pushed through his New Deal programs in the thirties but in order to get them passed he had as much as possible left the South alone.). Johnson, himself a Southerner, was determined to finally disturb the old order.
By 1968, more than twenty years after Roosevelt had died, it was clear to Republicans that they needed to add to their traditional coalition of farm owners, small towners, and professionals if they were ever to regain real control of the government. They opted to go after white southern Democrats. Republicans argued that conservative southerners , “like the boll weevil, were looking for a home”. It was their famous Southern Strategy.
Republicans hoped to benefit that year because southern Democrats were split. George Corley Wallace (former multi-term governor of Alabama) ran in the South as an independent Democrat against the regular Democrat, the very liberal Hubert Humphrey. Republican Richard Nixon managed to win even though Wallace carried most of the South. Wallace tried again in 1972 but he was shot and paralyzed during his campaign. The Southern Strategy paid off in 1972. Nixon carried the white South.
After 1972 the white South moved rapidly to the Republicans. It is frequently said that the Republicans captured the white South. The truth is that the White South captured the Republican Party. In order to hold them, Republicans became more conservative, more dominated by religionists. And they learned racist politics from George Wallace. Wallace died in 1998 but his symbolism and racist dog whistles, much subdued, live on.
What has happened is that voter suppression has crossed over. Voter suppression has followed southern conservatives to the Republican Party. As whites moved to the Republicans, black and Hispanic voters have moved to a resurgent, more liberal southern Democratic Party. Southern two party politics, particularly in national elections has become increasingly competitive.
That means that Republicans need to suppress voting among potential Democratic voters. At its purist that means arguing for imaginary vote fraud. After endless efforts to find Donald Trump’s “millions and millions” of fraudulent votes, virtually none have ever been found. The fact that fraud has not been found has not stopped conservatives from demanding official identification papers, photographs, birth certificates, anything to prevent those most hesitant from voting. Republicans have a huge program for this fall’s election with the goal of fielding 50,000 Republican poll watchers whose real purpose will be to try to intimidate those most fearful into not voting.
Vote suppression is a conservative phenomenon. Conservatives have for the most part become supporters of tax laws and government programs benefiting those already wealthy. They have nothing to offer the middle class or those less well off. It is difficult to gain and hold the vote of people to whom you offer nothing. It is much easier to win by suppressing the voters of the other party.
Donald Trump may have done ordinary Americans a favor. Most voters wish those in government well. Conservatives in office who quietly go about their work can offer people nothing and be reelected. Donald Trump has not been quiet nor has he done much work. By making conservative dysfunction so obvious, particularly in light of his lack of seriousness about the pandemic, many of his supporters may feel that the veil has been torn away. They may finally be ready to vote for office holders who will really serve them.