Far from overwhelming the Republican Party and sweeping it out of power, the extraordinarily high turnout of the 2020 presidential election probably saved its political prospects.
The top of the ticket lost, of course, but otherwise Republican candidates thrived, fending off very well-funded Democratic challengers and winning back seats lost in the 2018 midterm “blue wave.” The conventional wisdom for both parties — that high turnout gives Democrats an advantage — was wrong.
Losing the White House means that it is too much to call this a success, but it appears to be a foundation for future growth and a sign, perhaps, that a future, less divisive Republican president could lead the party to an outright popular majority.
Republicans should be optimistic. Instead, the party and most of its leaders have retreated into fantasy, at least in public. With few exceptions, Republican lawmakers have either embraced the president’s attempt to overturn the election results using false allegations of voter fraud, given it their tacit support or quietly watched as the effort has unfolded, unwilling to say or do anything in opposition (assuming they’re opposed). Out of 249 Republicans in the House and Senate, according to The Washington Post, 27 acknowledge Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump. Among Republican voters, likewise, most say the election was marred by fraud.
The upshot of all of this — the charges of fraud, the refusal to acknowledge the president’s defeat — is a party prepared to do even more than it already has to restrict voting. “This election has shown we need major reforms to our election systems, including voter ID laws across the nation, to protect against fraud and rebuild the American people’s trust in fair outcomes,” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida said in a statement touting a federal bill that would introduce a strict ID requirement in addition to making it more difficult to get a mail-in ballot. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas has similarly called for new ID requirements and a crackdown on mail-in voting. And Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told his Twitter followers to “look at the evidence” of fraud “and decide for yourself” while he shared a conspiratorial blog post on “anomalies in vote counts.”
The results of the election clearly show that Republicans can compete in high-turnout conditions as much as they can when there are fewer people voting. But they have convinced themselves that voters are the obstacle and that a smaller electorate is their best path back to power. Or, as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said just after the election, “If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again.”
The obvious question is why are they doing all this. The president’s decision to spread conspiracies about the election is part of the answer, yes, but the commitment to anti-majoritarian politics runs deeper than just fealty to Trump. One way to understand the dynamic at work in the reflexive Republican retrenchment against voting rights is to think of it as a habit, not in the conventional sense, but as defined by philosopher and social theorist John Dewey.
In his 1922 book “Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology,” Dewey defined “habit” as “special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilections and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts.” This use of “habit” he explained,
“may seem twisted somewhat from its customary use when employed as we have been using it. But we need a word to express that kind of human activity which is influenced by prior activity and in that sense acquired; which contains within itself a certain ordering or systematization of minor elements of action; which is projective, dynamic in quality, ready for overt manifestation; and which is operative in some subdued subordinate form even when not obviously dominating activity.”
A Deweyan “habit” isn’t simply an action that repeats itself. It is, instead, an “active disposition” that shapes one’s response to one’s environment. We don’t deliberate about many or even most of our actions, we simply react. And the exact nature of those reactions are habits, acquired through our interactions with others, shaped by the conditions set by “prior customs,” part of the embedded context of our lives.
Here’s Dewey again:
“If an individual were alone in the world, he would form his habits (assuming the impossible, namely, that he would be able to form them) in a moral vacuum. They would belong to him alone, or to him only in reference to physical forces. Responsibility and virtue would be his alone. But since habits involve the support of environing conditions, a society or some specific group of fellow-men, is always accessory before and after the fact. Some activity proceeds from a man; then it sets up reactions in the surroundings. Others approve, disapprove, protest, encourage, share and resist.”
In 2008, record turnout among young people, Black Americans and other underrepresented groups put Barack Obama in the White House. In the wake of that victory, Republicans introduced a host of new voting restrictions. “Following the Tea Party’s triumph in the 2010 elections,” wrote Ari Berman in his chronicle of the post-1960s fight for voting rights, “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” “half the states in the country, nearly all of them under Republican control — from Texas to Wisconsin to Pennsylvania — passed laws making it harder to vote.” These measures — strict photo identification rules, limits on early voting and mass purges of voting rolls — targeted the groups that got Obama across the finish line.
Few Republicans of note came out against this effort. Just the opposite: A cottage industry of voices selling the myth of mass voter fraud to eager listeners emerged on the right. And the president, of course, has used his power and platform to do the same. Years of rhetoric and legislation and propaganda have inculcated both a fervent belief in mass fraud and a particular response to Democratic victories.
Republicans, in other words, have developed a habit — an active disposition ready for overt manifestation — toward restricting the vote when met with electoral setbacks. And this reflex is so powerful that it overwhelms the evidence that Republicans might actually be better off with more low-propensity voters in the electorate.
You can probably see the irony. If, with their hold on state legislatures, Republicans successfully restrict voting access next year, they may inadvertently remove from the scene some of the voters who helped them thrive in an otherwise difficult year. This habit, in other words, won’t just harm democracy, it will harm their own partisan interests.
Then again, the Republican Party has developed another habit — reliance on our institutions of minority rule — and so far, it doesn’t seem to have the will or desire to break itself of that reflex, either.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.