Brennan Center expert on America's decisive moment and the campaign "to end American democracy"

"Our democracy will prove... that it's resilient," says Sean Morales-Doyle. But that won't be easy or painless

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 7, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Voters cast ballots during the early voting period at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on October 18, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
Voters cast ballots during the early voting period at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on October 18, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

This week's midterm elections may be the most important in American history. At a minimum, they will be a generation-defining event in what will be a decades-long struggle to save or redeem American democracy from neofascism and its related evils.

The Republican Party and "conservative" movement are reacting to the reality that they will have increasing difficulty winning free and fair elections with broadly unpopular policies, especially as the voting population becomes more racially diverse and cosmopolitan. Their apparent solution is to drive the faltering institutions of American democracy toward a plutocratic or pseudo-democratic system of "competitive authoritarianism" where, as a practical matter, Republicans and their allies will be able to reject or overturn any election results they find displeasing.

A central part of this strategy involves targeting Black and brown voters with a 21st-century version of Jim and Jane Crow racial authoritarianism. Like its earlier iteration, this strategy involves voter suppression, racial and partisan gerrymandering, voter nullification and intimidation and even outright acts of violence by armed "poll watchers" or militia-style thugs.

This year's midterms will largely be decided by voter turnout. But the freedom of all Americans to vote — and the reasonable and necessary expectation that their votes will be counted fairly — will be greatly impacted by how much the Republican Party and its agents have rigged the system to their advantage.

To discuss these issues and more on the eve of this historic election, I reached out to Sean Morales-Doyle, a director of the Voting Rights Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. His commentary and writing have been featured in the Washington Post, NPR, WNYC, MSNBC, the Atlantic and other major news outlets.

In this conversation, Morales-Doyle shares his profound concern about the health and future of American democracy in the Age of Trump. Republicans are using false claims about "voter fraud" and "election security," he explains to selectively target Black and brown communities. Research shows that the resulting laws are not a function of mere "partisanship" but reflect an organized campaign to deny Black and brown people their votes in "red" or "purple" states and other Republican-dominated regions. In total, these laws are an attempt to weaken and delegitimate American democracy more broadly. As we saw recently in Georgia's primary races, even dedicated efforts at voter turnout and mobilization by Democrats or nonpartisan groups may not be sufficient to overcome the Republican Party's built-in advantage resulting from voter suppression.

Morales-Doyle also addresses the question of why the idea of multiracial democracy is viewed with such hostility and rage by today's Republicans and many white Americans in general, and argues that it is impossible to properly understand the broad sweep American history and politics — or the country's worsening democracy crisis — without grasping the importance of the color line. Toward the end of this conversation, Morales-Doyle warns that the 2022 midterm elections are only one chapter in a much larger struggle over fundamental questions of freedoms and rights in America, including the fundamental question of whether the rich and powerful can subvert democracy while facing no accountability.

Given the escalating democracy crisis in this country, how do you make sense of this all? It feels like a nonstop deluge.

I have mixed emotions about the health of American democracy right now. We are at a critical point in the history of our country where we are witnessing unprecedented attacks on democracy. There are more laws being passed to restrict access to voting and to interfere in elections than we've seen in generations. The same lies that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection continue to reverberate across the country. As a result, public confidence in our democracy is waning. But these attacks are reactionary. They are largely a backlash against the exercise of political power by voters of color. As the country becomes more multiracial and diverse, these attempts to end American democracy are only going to escalate. That doesn't mean they'll be successful, though.

What is the role of the Big Lie in this larger attack by the Republicans and other elements of the white right against American democracy? The Big Lie is a defining feature of fascism and other forms of authoritarianism and illiberal politics.

The goal of the Big Lie about our elections was at first specifically to keep a president who had lost an election in power. That was of course a partisan project. Then the same lie was used by Republican state legislators to justify the passage of restrictive voting laws after the insurrection. But the danger is much larger than party politics. As our research demonstrates, racism and racial resentment are a main predictor of where these types of voter suppression and anti-democracy bills are being introduced. The lies spread about our elections are designed not just to accomplish a partisan objective, but to undermine confidence and faith in our democracy. So these attacks on democracy are not just about one political party trying to hold on to power at all costs. This is a story about the centrality of race in American society, and about the future of a multiracial democracy.

Language is critical here. There is a national discussion about why "democracy" is important, especially "multiracial democracy," and why it is something to be defended and preserved. In the most basic terms, what do we mean by "multiracial democracy," and why is it a good thing?

We live in a multiracial society. Therefore, we should want our democracy to reflect that fact. Of course, from before the founding of our country, with slavery and other forms of oppression and exclusion, America did not reflect the will of all people. It was a very small fraction of the people living in this country who actually had access to the franchise and other types of political power.  Across the centuries, we have made a great deal of progress toward a democracy that actually takes all people's voices into account. American democracy is still a work in progress, because it still does not reflect the whole electorate. It is still not a democracy that is fully reflective of the electorate. Ultimately, race does matter in how our society functions. As such, American democracy needs to take account of that full context.

Based on the level of support for Trump and the Republican Party more generally, the data shows us that there are tens of millions of Americans, overwhelmingly white Americans, who reject multiracial democracy. Why is this?

Fear of change is a large part of it. America is quickly becoming a more racially diverse society. There are people, many white people and some others, who fear that change. Some of that fear is rooted in xenophobia and fear of difference more generally. The disinformation, outright lies and misrepresentations of facts about race, our changing demographics and what that means for politics and the future of the country is also a large part of that fear. The myths of a "stolen" 2020 election and these fantasies about nonexistent voter fraud are an example of how these lies and disinformation can be used to manipulate segments of the American public and their fears about the country's changing racial demographics.

What is "racial resentment" and how is it different from racism? That is an important distinction that the average American may not be familiar with. Isn't that distinction essential to understanding the current democracy crisis?

The word "racism" or "racist" means different things to different people. To me, that language captures many different forms of prejudice, including institutional and structural bias that may not appear on the surface. For many Americans, when they hear the word "racist" they think of racial slurs or consciously disliking an entire group of people because of their skin color. Social scientists developed the concepts of "racial resentment" and "symbolic racism" to conceptualize and measure how racism in today's society is often more subtle and more deeply coded than that. Of course, with Donald Trump and before him the reaction to Barack Obama, we have seen more outright racism that complicates how we think about and discuss race and racism in this country.

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These attacks on American democracy have been described as being a new type of Jim Crow oppression or segregation. How do we locate the present-tense crisis relative to that ignominious past?

When many Americans think about Jim Crow, they summon up these images of firehoses and dogs and racist signs about bathrooms and water fountains. As a society, America has rejected Jim Crow and that type of white supremacy, which means that many Americans look at the world and think that type of discrimination is anachronistic.  

There's no denying that the wave of laws we've seen enacted to restrict access to voting in the last decade is unlike anything we've seen since the Jim Crow era.

There is no denying, however, that the wave of laws we've seen enacted to restrict access to voting in the last decade, but particularly in the last couple of years, is unlike anything we've seen since the Jim Crow era. The Supreme Court played a key role in this by gutting the Voting Rights Act. Are today's attempts to nullify and suppress the votes of Black Americans as obvious and dramatic as what we saw with Jim Crow? Usually not. Instead, vote suppression today tends to involve the layering of many smaller restrictions on top of one another, imposing bureaucratic and procedural burdens that add up.

Sometimes, though, these restrictions are just old-style suppression in a new guise, like the pay-to-vote requirement that Florida has imposed on people with past criminal convictions. It's a modern-day version of a poll tax, complete with a racially discriminatory impact.   

How do these efforts to suppress and nullify the votes of Black and brown Americans through the Big Lie and "election security" bills fit into the Republicans' overall strategy? Of course, Black and brown Americans are a key part of the Democratic Party's base. But as you said earlier, the Brennan Center's research shows this is about more than pure partisanship.

Voter suppression and nullification through legislation that is labeled as being about "voter fraud" and "election integrity" is not just a story about partisanship. This is a story about race and racism. There is a lot of overlap between partisanship, race and racism, but they do not overlap perfectly. The Brennan Center's new study reinforces that race matters, independent of party. 

It is not areas controlled by Republicans where we're seeing activity to restrict voting rights, it is specifically those parts of the country where the Republican Party dominates and where there are high levels of white racial resentment. It is specifically the whitest parts of the most diverse states. 

What is the impact of these restrictive voting bills? These laws have a disproportionate impact on voters of color. The laws also impact the voting power of Black and brown people, including Native American voters on tribal lands, in a deleterious way, even when higher turnout is accounted for. For example, we saw some of the highest voter turnout in a decade in the Georgia primary. It would be an incorrect conclusion to then say, as many did, that therefore these restrictive voting laws did not have the effect of suppressing the votes of Black people in Georgia. You can't draw conclusions like that from top-line turnout numbers. And if you dig just below the surface, the difference between turnout among white voters and Black voters was larger than it has been in a Georgia primary in a decade.  

We saw some of the highest voter turnout in a decade in the Georgia primary. But if you dig below the surface, the difference in turnout among white and Black voters was larger than it has been in a decade.

The rhetoric that is used to spread the Big Lie and to legitimate voter suppression laws is implicitly and explicitly racial. It is not a coincidence that when Donald Trump says that the 2020 election was stolen, he says it was stolen by voters committing fraud in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee. He doesn't have to say more than the names of those four cities for the racist message about Black people and other minorities committing voter fraud to be communicated. In addition, when Trump lost the popular vote in 2020, he blamed it on immigrants. Again, race is central to the attack on democracy. 

When Trump tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election, it culminated in an attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists. Political scientists have shown that the white people who attacked the Capitol came from areas of the country that are experiencing more racial and demographic change. One does not have to be a student of American history and racial politics to see the obvious role that racism plays in these attacks on American democracy. 

If the Republicans, Trumpists and others who believe in and are enforcing the Big Lie were to get their way, what will American democracy look like in the future?

If these anti-democracy forces were able to penetrate every part of our government and our courts, our system of checks and balances would be gone. People in power could stay in power as long as they like, and nothing would hold them accountable to you. There would be no reason for them to make decisions about your life that are responsive to your demands and needs or your community's.

What do you think will happen in this week's midterm elections?

If these anti-democracy forces were able to penetrate every part of our government and our courts, people in power could stay there as long as they like. Nothing would hold them accountable.

I think our democracy will prove yet again that it is resilient in the face of these new attacks. I believe most voters will go to the polls this year and have a typical, safe, uneventful experience. And the counts will be fair and accurate, with candidates with the most votes winning. I am glad to see high turnout in some parts of the country, but I am worried about the fact that the gap in turnout by white voters and nonwhite voters persists, and is in fact growing in many places. I am glad that for a lot of voters, voting rights and democracy seem to be high-priority issues. But I am worried about the new obstacles that voters face in some states and the impact those obstacles will have, such as burdensome new requirements for mail voting.

What should the American people be prepared for after these midterms are over?

As I said before, we are in a critical moment for our democracy. In the 2020 election, we saw how strong our democracy can be. It persisted and even thrived in the face of a pandemic and an unprecedented attempt at an insurrection. But it sustained a major blow and has continued to suffer attacks in the two years since. At the same time, we're seeing a wider and deeper awareness of the need to protect and strengthen our democracy. We must build on that so that we can overcome the new obstacles to the ballot box, the flood of heightened violent and racist rhetoric and the attempts at election sabotage. We have a collective decision to make: Are we going to turn out, vote, embrace our multiracial democracy and ensure that it survives? Or are we going to let fear and lies get the better of us and our democracy? I believe we will make the right decision.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Brennan Center Democracy Elections Interview Jim Crow Racism Republicans Voting Rights