In his 1922 book “Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology,” Dewey defined “habit” as “special sensitiveness or accessibility to certain classes of stimuli, standing predilections and aversions, rather than bare recurrence of specific acts.” This use of “habit” he explained,
may seem twisted somewhat from its customary use when employed as we have been using it. But we need a word to express that kind of human activity which is influenced by prior activity and in that sense acquired; which contains within itself a certain ordering or systematization of minor elements of action; which is projective, dynamic in quality, ready for overt manifestation; and which is operative in some subdued subordinate form even when not obviously dominating activity.
A Deweyan “habit” isn’t simply an action that repeats itself. It is, instead, an “active disposition” that shapes one’s response to one’s environment. We don’t deliberate about many or even most of our actions, we simply react. And the exact nature of those reactions are habits, acquired through our interactions with others, shaped by the conditions set by “prior customs,” part of the embedded context of our lives. Here’s Dewey again:
If an individual were alone in the world, he would form his habits (assuming the impossible, namely, that he would be able to form them) in a moral vacuum. They would belong to him alone, or to him only in reference to physical forces. Responsibility and virtue would be his alone. But since habits involve the support of environing conditions, a society or some specific group of fellow-men, is always accessory before and after the fact. Some activity proceeds from a man; then it sets up reactions in the surroundings. Others approve, disapprove, protest, encourage, share and resist.
In 2008, record turnout among young people, Black Americans and other underrepresented groups put Barack Obama in the White House. In the wake of that victory, Republicans introduced a host of new voting restrictions. “Following the Tea Party’s triumph in the 2010 elections,” wrote Ari Berman in his chronicle of the post-1960s fight for voting rights, “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” “half the states in the country, nearly all of them under Republican control — from Texas to Wisconsin to Pennsylvania — passed laws making it harder to vote.” These measures — strict photo identification rules, limits on early voting and mass purges of voting rolls — targeted the groups that got Obama across the finish line.
Few Republicans of note came out against this effort. Just the opposite: A cottage industry of voices selling the myth of mass voter fraud to eager listeners emerged on the right. And the president, of course, has used his power and platform to do the same. Years of rhetoric and legislation and propaganda have inculcated both a fervent belief in mass fraud and a particular response to Democratic victories.
Republicans, in other words, have developed a habit — an active disposition ready for overt manifestation — toward restricting the vote when met with electoral setbacks. And this reflex is so powerful that it overwhelms the evidence that Republicans might actually be better off with more low-propensity voters in the electorate.
You can probably see the irony. If, with their hold on state legislatures, Republicans successfully restrict voting access next year, they may inadvertently remove from the scene some of the voters who helped them thrive in an otherwise difficult year. This habit, in other words, won’t just harm democracy, it will harm their own partisan interests.
Then again, the Republican Party has developed another habit — reliance on our institutions of minority rule — and so far, it doesn’t seem to have the will or desire to break itself of that reflex either.
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