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It couldn’t happen here, unless it already is

Voter intimidation is increasingly a part of the U.S. political landscape

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has endorsed a special police force to investigate voter fraud, which critics fear will be used to intimidate people from voting at all.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has endorsed a special police force to investigate voter fraud, which critics fear will be used to intimidate people from voting at all. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Censoring what you say and do? Trembling in fear that you are being surveilled, with your words and actions reported to “the state”? Looking over your shoulder in case a government-sponsored militia decides to swoop into your precinct as you attempt to cast a ballot, just to guarantee you’re not trying anything “funny”?

If that sounds exactly like the scary scenarios U.S. Olympic athletes were warned not to comment on as they ventured into unfriendly Chinese territory, you would be right.

Unfortunately, though, America’s best can expect some of the same conditions when they return to the good, old USA, no translation needed.

It is true that China, with its control of social media and intrusion into the lives of its citizens, presented a dilemma for countries, including the United States, that wanted to compete on a world stage and also appear concerned about human rights abuses. You can’t expect athletes who’ve maneuvered down icy slopes all their lives to bear the brunt of political maneuvering, so no judgment is coming their way.

But you can chide an America that would rightly stand firm calling out the sins of other countries, while ignoring the changes that are transforming what touts itself as a model into something unrecognizable to those for whom justice is the goal.

In doing so, the country is following the examples of the restrictive societies our leaders once condemned and disrespecting the lives and work of brave citizens who believed in the ideals the country can’t help bragging about.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s image during his campaign was friendly suburban dad, as the Republican maintained a respectful distance from the most extreme pronouncements of Donald Trump and presented himself as a moderate alternative.

But there was nothing moderate about his campaign’s public Twitter attack on a high school student associated with Virginia Teen Democrats who had the temerity to share a report that criticized the governor. Youngkin said he regretted the tweet — not exactly an apology — but the damage was done and the warning was clear to anyone of any age. Step out of line, talk back to dear leader, and you could be a target, a tactic right out of the strongman playbook.

The Republican Party itself is, of course, setting the standard for retribution and showing that voter rolls in swing states are not the only things it knows how to purge. In another example of punishing those who fail the 100 percent loyalty test, the Republican National Committee cast reliable conservative Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois into the wilderness for serving on the House Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection or, as the RNC labeled the acts of that day, “legitimate political discourse.” Their crime, as far as I can tell, is sticking with the Constitution rather than Trump.

Few leaders, though, can rival Youngkin’s short memory, his head-twisting transformation so speedy he makes Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” look like an amateur. Here I thought no one was longing for a return to the strategies perfected and ultimately discarded by East Germany. Well, here comes Youngkin, establishing a tip line for Virginians to report “inherently divisive concepts.” 

Youngkin’s reports are secret so that the accused can’t know who’s reporting them or what exactly they’re being accused of since what constitutes “divisive” is pretty much up to whomever takes offense. The Stasi would be proud.

Will classrooms be bugged with listening devices? And who will be tasked with reviewing these tips? Considering Youngkin’s rhetoric since his election, I doubt the “discomfort” of minority students and parents concerned about a historical whitewash will find a sympathetic ear on the other end of the tip line.

Florida’s GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis did not need to transform; he has always been pretty clear about who and what he is: Someone who wants to be president and has staked a ruthless path — playing to a base bent on exclusion and motivated by fear.

Proposed state legislation supported by DeSantis that would restrict classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity sparks more questions than answers, such as how would a teacher counsel an LGBTQ student looking for literature, role models and support or discipline bullies who have no trouble “discussing” sexual orientation to demean and attack classmates.

DeSantis and Republican lawmakers in Florida also propose the creation of a special police force to investigate election fraud. Would they be armed? Would they hover over minority voters in scenes reminiscent of not only an authoritarian’s militia but also Florida’s not-that-distant past, when Klan mobs met Black citizens trying to vote with intimidation and worse?

Republicans in Georgia and Arizona, two states that should be trying to correct their own troubled histories of hobbling minority voters, look at Florida and are inspired to try similar shenanigans.

In an America that is supposed to be about possibilities, bills that curb voting, teaching and thinking are all about setting limits. They are so vague and threatening that they can’t help but have a chilling effect on dissent, as a country founded on revolution is codifying how to crack down and democracy fades in plain view.

With eyes on the Winter Olympics, the world is getting a peek inside China, carefully tailored from on high. For athletes as well as Americans watching at home, is this less-than-candid view warning or preview?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

CQ Roll Call’s “Equal Time with Mary C Curtis,” examines policy and politics through the lens of social justice. Please subscribe on AppleSpotify or your preferred platform.

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