The Right Is Suppressing the Vote. The Left Is Suppressing Speech | Opinion

Republicans say progressives are endangering America with cancel culture. Progressives accuse Republicans of endangering America with voter suppression. Both are right.

Faced with an evenly split Senate and an upcoming race in Georgia that could put the Senate back in Republican hands, the GOP has embarked on a widespread program of voter suppression. As the Washington Post reports,"in 43 states across the country, Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 250 laws that would limit mail, early in-person and Election Day voting with such constraints as stricter ID requirements, limited hours or narrower eligibility to vote absentee."

Most of these laws are in process, but in late March, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law a sweeping overhaul of state elections that includes restrictions on voting by mail, takes power away from the Secretary of State and ensures that partisan lawmakers control elections. In a move that seems gratuitously petty, the bill also bans handing out food or water within 150 feet of a polling station or 25 feet of a voter. (As for why you might want a cup of water, in the last election, voters in Cobb County waited in line at least six hours; in Atlanta, some voters waited ten hours.)

Kemp has at least enough of a conscience to lie about Senate Bill 202's purpose, falsely claiming that "it expands access." But other right-wingers are not so reticent about their goal, which is plainly to restrict Democratic voting so that only their side wins elections.

Arizona State Representative John Kavanagh said point blank that "everybody shouldn't be voting," and he went even further: "Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well." Kavanagh clarified that when he said everyone shouldn't vote, he was talking about people "totally uninformed on the issues"—but I doubt he had in mind QAnon believers or White supremacists.

Nor is Kavanagh an outlier in Republican circles: On April 6, 2021, the conservative columnist, Kevin D. Williamson, published an article in The National Review explicitly arguing that "the republic would be better served by having fewer—but better—voters." Or, as Ben Shapiro put it bluntly, "Not everybody should vote."

Not everybody should vote https://t.co/U1iVTs2xw1

— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) November 3, 2020

Neither Kavanagh nor Williamson define "quality" and "better." But given that Republicans represent an ever-decreasing percentage of Americans, and that an ever-increasing percentage of the electorate leans Democratic, it's not hard to see what these bills are up to: voter suppression. In Georgia, Black voters made the difference between a Democratic or a Republican senate—so the legislature responded with a bill that discourages Black voters.

It seems clear that Republicans do not intend to win by convincing more people that their ideas are better; they intend to win by ensuring that only their supporters can vote.

But if the Right no longer believes that every citizen should vote, the Left no longer believes that every citizen should speak.

Free speech, which really means the right to dissent, used to be a hallmark of American democracy. The inspiration for Norman Rockwell's 1943 painting "Freedom of Speech" came from a man delivering an unpopular opinion at a town hall. The depiction of a blue-collar man speaking his mind to a resistant but respectful white-collar audience was an an instant success because it embodied a central aspect of American identity. As Bruce Cole, former chairman of the NEH, writes, the speaker "has become not only an active public participant in democracy, but a defender of it. He is the very embodiment of free speech."

Save Freedom of Speec
Save Freedom of Speech, Buy War Bonds Poster by Norman Rockwell CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

But today, an unpopular opinion could land you in deep trouble. For example, in 2018, a medical student at the University of Virginia attended a discussion on microaggressions. Unhappy with the term's definition, this student did what Rockwell's speaker did: He departed from orthodoxy. "Is it a requirement," he asked, "to be a victim of microaggression, that you are a member of a marginalized group?" The student was told no, it was not a requirement. He then pointed out how that answer contradicted an earlier slide defining microaggressions as "negative interactions with members of marginalized groups." The panelist and the student went on to politely spar with each other.

Instead of praising the student for engaging in "critical thinking," the professor who organized the event filed a "professionalism concern card" because "this student asked a series of questions that were quite antagonistic toward the panel." Things got worse: The student was told he must undergo counseling before returning to his classes. He asked why; the University refused to tell him. Ultimately, he was suspended for "aggressive and inappropriate interactions in multiple situations." On December 30, UVA police escorted him off campus.

This story is far from unique. Over and over again, people who question leftwing orthodoxy, be they celebrities like J. K. Rowling or teachers at a private school like Paul Rossi find themselves "cancelled" for raising questions. Rossi describes how he asked his students whether defining oneself exclusively according to race is a good idea, and for his pains, his administration told him that his "philosophical challenges had caused 'harm' to students." Even worse, Rossi was reprimanded for "acting like an independent agent of a set of principles or ideas or beliefs."

It's true that most of the consequences of unorthodox thinking are not, like Republican voter suppression efforts, being carried out at the level of the state. And yet, there is something deeply discouraging about the cultural suppression we're being subjected to.

Being an American once meant privileging freedom of speech over just about everything else. It meant thinking independently, not being, as John Milton writes in Areopagitica, a "heretic in the truth" by believing something just because an authority figure tells you to believe it. "Question authority" was the meme I grew up with in the 1980s. "Critical thinking" was the buzzword I heard all the time at my university when I started teaching.

Today, if you say or write something that the woke do not like, you can expect a Twitter mob at your doorstep, demanding your immediate firing. In place of privileging the right to speak one's mind, the Left insists that certain views are acceptable, others not, and that we must all talk the same, think the same, and act the same, "marching in mutual, well-beseeming ranks," as Shakespeare put it.

Many have noted the Right's voter suppression or the Left's suppression of speech, though due to our highly politicized times, they have not been taken together. Yet combined, they form a pincer movement that threatens to undermine two fundamental principles of American political culture: voting and independent thinking.

If we cannot vote as we would, and cannot speak as we would, then who are we? What has America become?

Peter C. Herman is a Professor of English Literature San Diego State University.

The views in this article are the writer's own.