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The GOP’s moral trap

The Republican Party has shattered the longstanding norm that political power should be used with restraint rather than weaponized and taken to its lawful limits. It’s about to pay the price.

Elephant stepping on a ballot box.Lesley Becker

There was a time when the Republican Party had the moral high ground. Founded in the 1850s on the principle of restoring the nation’s governing ideals, it stood for equality for Black Americans. For their part, the Democrats were the party of Jim Crow. Later, when the GOP was hijacked by the robber barons, Theodore Roosevelt and other progressives fought to return the party to its founding principle. Even as late as the 1960s, a moral impulse led Republican lawmakers, without whom the bill would have failed, to support the Civil Rights Act.

Democracies depend on norms — unwritten rules about how leaders and citizens should behave. One norm is forbearance — the idea that political power should be used with restraint rather than weaponized and taken to its lawful limits. Such norms have little standing in today’s Republican Party.


There was, for example, no constitutional barrier to prevent Wisconsin’s outgoing Republican governor, Scott Walker, in consort with the state’s Republican Legislature, to strip the governor’s office of power before the incoming Democratic governor could take office in 2019. But it violated the longstanding norm of American politics that the outgoing party accept the change in power that comes with losing an election.

North Carolina’s Republican Legislature pulled the same stunt in 2016, when the state’s voters elected a Democratic governor. Republican state legislatures, assisted by computer models, have also pushed gerrymandering beyond ethical limits. In Wisconsin’s 2018 election, Republican candidates received only 45 percent of the popular vote but won 63 percent of the state Assembly’s seats. In a 2019 5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling, the five Republican appointees on the court held that Wisconsin’s rigged system did not violate voters’ constitutional rights.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was designed to end the voter suppression that had long plagued America’s elections. It worked as intended until Republicans began devising schemes to keep minorities from voting. In 2017, North Dakota Republicans enacted a law that requires voters to have written proof of a residential address before they are eligible to vote. The law targets Native Americans who live on rural tribal lands, which don’t have street names and numbers on all of their roads. Here, too, the Supreme Court’s Republican appointees in a 5-to-4 decision allowed the policy to stand.


The idea of disenfranchising minority voters was hatched by the Republican-controlled legislatures of Indiana and Georgia. Enacted in 2006, Indiana’s law required residents to have a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport, in order to register to vote. Republican legislators knew who they were targeting. Minority group members, young adults, and people of low income — all of whom tend to vote Democratic — are less likely than other Americans to have a passport or driver’s license.

Thomas E. Patterson

Since then, roughly 30 Republican-controlled states have enacted voter-ID laws. Some were forced to reenact their law after a court struck down the first attempt. Pennsylvania’s first try required applicants without a government-issued ID to travel to a state motor vehicle office to get one, even though nine of the state’s counties didn’t have an office and the office in nine others was open only one day a week.

Although Republicans say that voter IDs are intended to prevent voter fraud, there is no evidence for the claim, and their real purpose is clear. As longtime Republican political consultant Carter Wrenn said: “Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?” Republican lawmakers in Florida and Pennsylvania slipped up and publicly said that their aim was to suppress the Democratic vote.


Republicans are playing with fire. Voter suppression lengthens the memory of the suppressed. The votes of Black Americans are now all but lost to the GOP. Latinx voters vote 2 to 1 Democratic. Asian-Americans, who not that long ago sided with the Republican Party, are now one of the Democrats’ most loyal voting groups. Muslim Americans are five times more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.

It could take a generation for Republicans to regain the trust of the nation’s minorities, and the GOP can ill-afford to wait. By then it may be too late. In less than three decades, minorities will be a majority of the US population.

Thomas E. Patterson is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. This series is adapted from his book “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?