Politics

National Review Comes Out Against Democracy, Explicitly

An overhead shot of a capacity crowd at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. with a large American flag visible in the outfield.
The 2018 version of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, whose 2021 edition has been moved out of Atlanta because of the voting restrictions recently put into law by Georgia’s government. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the last week-plus, the nominally intellectual right-wing publication National Review has run three separate articles arguing that voting shouldn’t be easier to do, because if it is, stupid, ill-informed people will do too much of it. What?

Roughly speaking, we got to this moment like so:

1. Donald Trump lost a presidential election, in which Georgia was one of the states that he lost by a very narrow margin.

2. Trump and his allies in the Republican Party claimed his losses in Georgia and elsewhere were the result of fraud—a centralized plot, carried out in predominately Black areas and coordinated with foreign governments, to rig voting machines and submit fake ballots. This culminated on Jan. 6 when Trump supporters, many of whom were members of white-nationalist groups, stormed the grounds of the Capitol.

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3. Republican-controlled state legislatures and statehouses in Georgia and elsewhere passed laws rolling back automatic voter registration, mail-in voting, and early in-person voting, on the grounds that such restrictions are needed to restore public trust in the electoral system. Historically, these methods have been disproportionately used by Black voters and lower-income voters who tend to vote Democratic.

4. Many observers interpreted the Georgia law as a suppressive, racist one on the grounds that it limits methods of voting used disproportionately by Black people in response to claims about Black-led election theft that have been made most publicly by psychotic white-power militias and a former president who, polls have typically found, is perceived as racist by more than half the country. Indeed, evidence from other states indicates that Republicans have sought to limit non-Election Day methods of voting not because of any principle involving election security, but because it suppresses the Democratic and/or Black vote. It also does not necessarily make sense that the alleged problem of Venezuelan communist leader Hugo Chavez fixing the 2020 election using voting machines even though he is dead would be remedied by requiring prospective voters to travel to an office somewhere to register instead of registering them automatically.

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5. The case that the law is suppressive and racist has been sufficient to persuade a number of major corporations with business in Georgia (likely more mindful of employees and potential customers than of the merits of the issue, granted) to denounce the law. Though public opinion polling on the subject is not definitive, Republicans seem to perceive the idea that they will be seen as making a Jim Crow–style attack on civil rights as a problem, and have started responding to it. Mostly, they’ve tried to argue that only a “woke” leftist would see a link between (ostensibly security-oriented) voting restrictions and race.

National Review authors Andrew McCarthy, Dan McLaughlin, and Kevin Williamson, however, moved beyond the entire framework of election security. Instead, they suggested, it is good when restrictions make it harder for people to vote, because people should be discouraged from voting unless they’re really motivated to do it.

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Here is the nut of McCarthy’s argument:

It would be far better if the franchise were not exercised by ignorant, civics-illiterate people, hypnotized by the flimflam that a great nation needs to be fundamentally transformed rather than competently governed. Left to their own devices, many such people would not even take note of elections, much less go through the effort to register and vote. 

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And Williamson’s:

Voters — individually and in majorities — are as apt to be wrong about things as right about them, often vote from low motives such as bigotry and spite, and very often are contentedly ignorant. 

And McLaughlin’s:

The theory of what Democrats and progressives urge is that they particularly want the votes of the subset of people (mostly younger voters) who are unwilling or unable to plan ahead, and can be swept into the voting booth on a momentary enthusiasm without deliberation or reflection. The point made by Republicans and conservatives is not that these people should be barred from voting, but that the system benefits from deliberation and reflection, and so should not bend over backward to accommodate voters who are unwilling to play by the rules of adulthood.

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It might seem that the National Review is cracking under the strain of the Republican Party’s current unpopularity, which leaves it dependent on the electoral college to have any chance of defeating the large majority of American voters who would prefer to have a Democratic president and Congress. The days when the conservative movement could point to a map colored in from coast to coast for Ronald Reagan, and proclaim that their ideas were obviously winning, is long past. If you can’t win democratically, maybe it’s time to give up on democracy as a goal altogether.

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Theories about moving the ballot box out of the easy reach of the masses also belong firmly within the magazine’s intellectual tradition. Here’s what the National Review’s founder and guiding spirit, William F. Buckley, had to say in 1957 on the subject of how widespread the franchise ought to be:

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If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened . It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority…Millions who have the vote do not care to exercise it; millions who have it do not know how to exercise it and do not care to learn.

Sounds familiar! Unfortunately for the magazine’s current editor, Rich Lowry, who defended the Georgia law this week under the headline “Anyone Using the ‘Jim Crow’ Charge as a Political Weapon Should Hang His Head in Shame,” Buckley was specifically defending Jim Crow when he wrote it. His argument was that given “the median cultural superiority of White over Negro,” it was only appropriate to prevent Black people from joining a political majority that might favor things like integrated education—that, in the face of such a possibility, “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 magazine would make similar arguments for years about the white apartheid government in South Africa.

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The National Review’s current writers, contorting themselves to prove this is not another Jim Crow–apartheid thing, are forced to argue that making it more time-consuming to register and cast a ballot is important because it selects for literate and civic-minded voters, as if free time on a given Tuesday, and the ability to navigate paperwork-heavy bureaucracy, are traits with an ethical valence. (Is it clear that someone who votes by default on the customary day is necessarily more civically engaged and informed than someone who has gone to the trouble of figuring out how to take advantage of expanded voting options like drop boxes and early voting days?) Writes McCarthy: “If voting is as crucial as the Left says it is, people should be proud to exert the close-to-zero effort that is called for. Indeed, doing so is a source of pride for those who care about the country.”

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Williamson takes things even further with this nuclear holocaust of an analogy: “There would be more voters if we made it easier to vote, and there would be more doctors if we didn’t require a license to practice medicine. The fact that we believe unqualified doctors to be a public menace but act as though unqualified voters were just stars in the splendid constellation of democracy indicates how little real esteem we actually have for the vote, in spite of our public pieties.” But “we” don’t act one way or another about unlicensed or “unqualified” voters because “we” don’t recognize those categories. Williamson et. al treat the celebration of an egalitarian electorate as a contemporary fad along the lines of TikTok, but the idea that voting shouldn’t have anything to do with alleged signifiers of intelligence and seriousness is, in fact, the culmination of centuries of consideration and agitation done by Americans who believed in perfecting the concepts of “all men are created equal,” “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and “one person, one vote.” Williamson’s idea that “the vote” exists somehow apart from—and must be protected against—the voters is a rejection of the basic concept of self-government.

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There are centuries of grounding behind the idea that restrictions making voting more difficult—particularly those imposed in the American South by almost unanimously white legislators and executives—have racially discriminatory effects and are sometimes explicitly discriminatory in intent, a well-established body of knowledge that the National Review authors dismiss as hyperbolic, woke fantasy. There is also a lack of evidence, within our laboratory of democracy, that states which have made it unusually difficult to register and vote are run more competently or responsively—New York state stands as a very strong non-partisan counterexample, something McLaughlin actually admits, then ignores.

We can go on. The minority rights which Williamson claims to be concerned about are already a central feature of the American system, and are often the kind of thing that the National Review complains about when cited by, say, criminal defendants and non-Christians; McCarthy seems confused about whether China, which basically operates on the elite-consensus system he proposes, but also serves as his reflexive example of a place where it would be oppressive to live, is good or bad; McLaughlin, meanwhile, makes the incredible claim that “Republicans and conservatives,” the people who were just convinced by various online hoaxes to smash through the Capitol taking selfies in an effort to extend the presidency of a man who watches 16 hours of cable TV every day, believe to an extent that Democrats and liberals do not that the electoral system “benefits from deliberation and reflection.”

Ultimately, though, the relevant question is not whether these arguments are tight, well-considered, and commensurate with American values, but whether they’ll spread beyond the creepy, colonialist pages of the National Review to influential and quasi-respectable conservative figures like Mitch McConnell and Samuel Alito. Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to imagine: Unlike the stories about Hugo Chavez and Dominion voting machines, the National Review’s new/old theory of civics has the benefit of not requiring its supporters to believe in an ever-shifting set of myths and conspiracies about how the other side got its votes to count. They just have to tell themselves there’s no reason to count those votes at all.

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