January 6, 2020 will long be remembered as the day two strands of the American experience, both deeply entrenched in our national history, collided. One of these was reflected in the election of African American and Jewish senators from Georgia. This is a state where Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank was lynched in 1915, Tom Watson by a populist who wanted to unite poor black and white peasants into a vicious racist and anti-Semite, and the 1906 Atlanta massacre in which white mobs killed maybe two dozen African Americans, not to mention the film’s premiere in 1939 Blown by the wind, kudos to the Ku Klux Klan. The election result is the culmination of a mass interracial movement to transform a state that has long denied its black population the right to vote into a true democracy. The new voter registration campaign led by Stacey Abrams and others is an inspiring example of the possibility of ongoing change.
However, the uprising of President Trump’s supporters aimed at preventing the vote from being counted shows a darker side of the history of American democracy. One can start with the fact that for more than two centuries since the Constitution was passed, we are still electing the president through the electoral college, an archaic system that reflects the founders’ belief that ordinary people should not be directly voted for president and their desire to strengthen the slave-holding South, whose political power was reinforced by the three-fifths clause that gave slave states additional votes because of their disenfranchised black population. In fact, Trump is only occupying the White House because an undemocratic electoral system makes it possible to lose the referendum and still become president. In addition, efforts to restrict the right to vote based on race, gender, or other criteria have a long history. The idea that the people should choose their rulers, the essence of democracy, has always been based on the belief that too many people – of the wrong kind – cast ballots. Georgia’s demand that applicants for office receive more than 50 percent of the vote or face a runoff election, passed in 1963 at the height of the civil rights revolution, should prevent the victory of a black-preferred candidate when multiple aspirants share the white vote.
The January 6 events are the logical culmination of the Trump presidency’s disregard for the rule of law, manifested in the glorification of neo-fascist armed groups best known in Charlottesville to date. the whipping of anti-mask and anti-lockdown riots in Michigan and other states; and the refusal to accept the clear results of the presidential election. But those familiar with American history know that the Capitol uprising was hardly the first attempt to drive the results of a democratic election out of control. Many such events occurred in the Reconstruction era and in the years that followed, some of which were far more violent than the January 6 uprising. Numerous members of a black militia unit in Colfax, La., Were murdered in 1873 by armed whites who took control of local government from elected black officials. A White League riot the following year attempted to overthrow the biracial reconstruction government of Louisiana. (A memorial to those efforts to restore white supremacy stood in New Orleans for decades until it was removed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2017.) In 1898, an 1898 coup of armed whites in Wilmington, NC ousted the elected biracial local government. By the beginning of the 20th century, the black votes and office were essentially over in the entire south. This is not just an old story. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned key provisions of the Voting Act, opening the door to widespread efforts in Republican-controlled states to stifle the electoral process. Let’s not assume that the United States was a well-functioning democracy until the Capitol uprising.
Alexander H. Stephens, the Georgian political leader who served as Vice President of the Confederation, described the effort to create a slavery republic as the embodiment of the “great truth that the Negro is not the same as the white man, that slavery … is his more natural and normal Status. “January 6th could be the first time the Confederate flag has been openly displayed in the Capitol – a shocking sight that I hope will never be repeated. In his opposition to the removal of monuments for Confederate leaders and the renaming of military bases on the grounds that they would erase “our” history, Trump has deliberately identified his presidency with the Confederation and white nationalism at its core.
Today the United States spends far more on its military than any other nation. However, the mob that stormed the Capitol was not made up of Chinese, Iranians, Russians, or other supposed enemies of American democracy, but of our fellow citizens. Almost two centuries ago, in his famous speech at the Lyceum, Abraham Lincoln condemned the growing disregard for the rule of law as the greatest threat to American democracy. “If destruction is our lot,” he declared, “we must be its writer and finisher ourselves.” The results of Georgia and Trump’s imminent resignation from the presidency give hope for a revival of a democratic political culture. But now, as in Lincoln’s day, the ultimate danger to American democracy lies in this.