Gaming Elections is a Conservative Political TraditionRoundup
tags: conservatism, elections, political history, George Wallace, Donald Trump
John S. Huntington is a professor of history at Houston Community College and is working on his first book, Dissent from the Right: Ultraconservatism and Modern American Politics.
Donald Trump pulled out all the stops attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election, from bullying legislatures to filing bogus lawsuits to encouraging a violent insurrection on Jan. 6. In Trump’s funhouse-mirror world, election tampering is permissible because the other side is doing it already, thus his actions, no matter how brazen or unethical, are justified. And loyalty to Trump’s “Big Lie,” the idea that Democrats stole the election, has become a central pillar of GOP politics.
Why have so many conservatives stood by Trump over the past year as he has actively attempted to overturn an election? The answer is because engineering elections is part of their political heritage.
Conservatives have spent generations attempting to exploit arcane and anti-democratic electoral structures to carve a pathway for minoritarian rule. This history can be traced back to voter disenfranchisement during the Reconstruction era, or even further, to the property-based requirements of the early republic. But we can find the roots of our bout with illiberalism, the one on display in the modern GOP, in the conservative backlash to the civil rights movement.
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, White Southern Democrats violently manipulated the electoral process to suppress Black voting and gain control of state legislatures, courthouses and police forces to implement Jim Crow segregation. The mid-20th-century civil rights movement aimed, in part, to curb these anti-democratic legacies.
In 1948, Democratic liberals championed a robust civil rights platform at their party’s national convention. Then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey demanded that Democrats “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” White Southerners smoldered with rage and, after the Democratic Party adopted the plank over their protests, they responded by plotting to abuse the nation’s political structure and engineer a conservative outcome.
After storming out of the convention, Southern Democrats formed their own far-right splinter faction, the States’ Rights Democratic Party, better known as the Dixiecrats, which became a third-party vehicle for opposing President Harry S. Truman, integration and modern liberalism in general.
Exploiting the electoral college formed the crux of the Dixiecrats’ strategy. The party created its own ticket, headlined by South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond, which supplanted Truman’s national Democratic ticket on the ballot in four Southern states. In other states, Thurmond ran as a third-party candidate.