“These is Not who we are“Leaders from across the political spectrum resolutely led this week when a mob – instigated by President Donald Trump and his congressmen – rushed through the doors of the Capitol. The shouted sounded out terrorism. anarchy. A revolt. But cooler heads agree that “un-American”- an aberration – and basically not who we are as a country.
But what if it is?
For at least three decades, Americans have watched one incident after another of a Democratic relapse, and similarly hoped those moments did not represent who we are. There has been a movement to delegitimize Barack Obama on the basis of a false claim as to where he was born. It was the Republican lawmakers in North Carolina and Wisconsin who have deprived the new democratic governors of their constitutional and legal powers. Earlier this week there was the GOP-controlled Senate in Pennsylvania that simply refused to put a properly elected Democratic member and used its procedural powers to block the elector’s decision.
In the longer story these regressions are not at all a deviation. In fact, they are typically American and have roots in one of the deepest divisions in American politics, the conflict over race and power. Since the nation was founded, a large proportion of white citizens have accepted free and democratic elections only when the political system did not require them to share power with people of color.
This toxic stream has shifted over the years. It was once the province of the Democrats, and now it lives directly in the GOP. Geography has also changed. This used to be a unique problem in the South, but demographic change in recent decades – a realignment that has made the Republican Party more homogeneous and the Democratic Party more diverse – has made it national. What has not changed is the underlying pattern that is growing stronger in today’s Republican Party: a persistent and increasingly dangerous disdain for the will of all voters but their own.
Yes, every crisis is the sum of unique causes. And there are many more recent reasons behind this as well: An information vacuum created by the demise of traditional news agencies. The rise of far-right media. The rise of social media platforms is fraught with disinformation and white supremacist bile. But at its core, this crisis is simply a reversal of what America has been for most of its history.
If we are to put America’s fragile democracy on stronger ground, we must first recognize that large swathes of the United States have been violently minors for most of our national history – to enable a white minority to rule over the diverse majority. What happened on Wednesday was both tragic and very much in keeping with American tradition.
On Wednesday, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, Jaws square and defiant, he pumped his fist to encourage the insurgents who had encircled the Capitol grounds. That fits. In 1856 Hawley’s Missourian and Senate predecessor, David Atchison, led a crowd of Border Ruffians to neighboring Kansas, where they instigated months of violence and terror against the predominantly anti-slavery population of the territory. “The game must be played bravely,” Atchison told his terrorist gang. “If we win, we can take slavery to the Pacific.” The frontier workers in Missouri rode roughly across Kansas using violence and fraud to rig a series of general elections. “You know how to protect your own interests,” Atchison said. “You will go there with the bayonet and with blood if necessary.” If they didn’t stuff ballot boxes, the Missourians attacked men with open ground.
It was precisely this mentality that led eleven southern states to leave the Union instead of living with the results of the 1860 elections that threatened to halt the expansion – and possibly the future – of slavery. After the Civil War, the Republican Congress asked them to give men universal suffrage or to remain under military occupation. The former Confederates reluctantly accepted these terms, although they did not reconcile themselves with them. “We are led to this course not by choice but by necessity – by the rigorous logic of events -” a Mississippi newspaper wrote in 1871. When asked what he meant when he talked about citizenship, Alabama Governor Robert Lindsay replied, “I mean the whites.”
It wasn’t the former Confederate States that pioneered Jim Crow’s electoral laws. That was the doing of the former slave states that had remained loyal to the Union. In Maryland, legislation was split up by the new constitution in 1867 to privilege underpopulated plantation districts and to dilute the power of cities and towns. Three years later, the legislature introduced a voting property right. In Delaware, the ruling Democratic Party declared that the state was not “morally bound” by the reconstruction changes, and in 1873 introduced one of the country’s first election taxes, primarily aimed at African Americans.
In the former confederation, the military occupation resigned when states agreed to adopt constitutions that allow universal male suffrage. But as soon as they were vacant, these states became the arenas for the reintroduction of white supremacy by all means. Sometimes Democrats have “redeemed” states through fraud, sometimes they have sought access to voting. Virginia lawmakers set a pattern that today’s GOP followed to the tee and reduced the number of polling stations in black constituencies. In Georgia, lawmakers expelled a black Republican and installed an unelected white Democrat in his place.
It proved more difficult to gradually manipulate elections in places where the majority or nearly the majority of the population were black. The Ku Klux Klan and other militia groups, all loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party, provided the solution. In 1869 and 1870 armed white vigilantes waged war against black men who played a prominent role in the reconstructed state governments. They attacked at least 10 percent of the freedmen who participated in state constitutional conventions carried out under the auspices of the Rebuild of Congress. In South Carolina, they threatened MP Richard Cain, one of the first black members of the US Congress, so that his family employed armed guards and lived in “constant fear.” They dragged a Georgian lawmaker, Abram Colby, into the forest, “and there they cruelly stripped and beat him for almost three hours,” despite the pleas of his young daughter, who “came out and asked her not to carry me” Gone. “The Klan and other terrorist organizations violently broke up black political meetings,” arrested “black men for making” hot “political statements, and, as one Tennessee recalled, rained down violence against” almost everyone colored church and every schoolhouse “.
In response to this wave of violence, the Republican-controlled Congress passed three “enforcement laws” criminalizing civil rights violations in 1870 and 1871 – and President Ulysses S. Grant enforced them vigorously. The federal government arrested, sentenced and imprisoned thousands of Klansmen. Grant suspended writing the habeas corpus in insurgent areas. Their motives were mixed: many Republicans, like Grant, sincerely believed that the clan’s crimes signaled a reversal of the profits made by the Civil War. Others were more cynical that more southern states would fall into the Democratic column if black southerners lost the right to vote. However, enforcement of the law required the presence of federal troops and law enforcement agencies. The volunteer army, in which more than two million men served during the war, had quickly demobilized. By 1866 only 28,000 soldiers were stationed in the south, many of them at isolated outposts. Ten years later the strength of the entire army was 25,000 men, with a large part of the soldiers stationed in the west.
The north had won the civil war. Whether it could win a war of attrition would determine the political direction of the South.
In the call for a special commission to investigate Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) cited the example of 1877 when a deadlocked electoral college led to such a ruling to determine the validity of state election results and determine the winner of the 2020 presidential election. The example is more telling than Cruz probably intended.
With the ranks of the federal army thin and the Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, the Grant administration sought to control the violent overthrow of legitimately elected state governments throughout the south. In the presidential election of 1876 – the first to be held on a single day in November – Democrats used rampant violence across the south. In the run-up to the election, the National Democrats, including New York Democratic candidate Governor Samuel Tilden, welcomed such provocations and hoped they would force Grant to divert more troops south, thus fueling the anger of more white voters. (That didn’t happen.)
The Republicans were determined to keep the White House under control. “Should the ex-rebels have the government?” angry Rep. James Garfield from Ohio. If so, “all the meaning … of the revolution we have been and are going through” would be lost. Through a variety of measures, Republicans managed to get certified electoral lists in three contested states – Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina – that had originally been declared Tilden. After the electoral college was tied and Congress split, a special commission worked out a compromise: Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes would be inaugurated with a promise to stop enforcing federal civil rights laws and not deploy troops to protect the freedmen.
In reality, Hayes’ hands were tied. More than 10 years after the end of the war, there was no appetite for protracted occupation in the north. The army was a shadow of its former selves. Still, the Black Southerners’ abandonment slowly opened the door to the creation of the Jim Crow South: where only one political party ruled; where only whites – and only some whites – voted for election taxes and literacy tests disenfranchised many poor white citizens; and where there was violence.
“Our government has been called the government of a white man,” said Hayes in his inaugural address. “Not so. … It is not the government of the native or the foreigner or the rich or the poor, the white or the colored – it is the government of the free.” That would of course not be the case for almost a century.
It is impossible to overdo it how fundamentally undemocratic Jim Crow South, which covers over a third of the country, really was – and how long it stayed that way. A 1936 study found that in states where election taxes were levied, adult voter turnout in high priority elections was less than 25 percent. In countries with no survey tax, it was 75 percent. Two years later, Rep. Edward Eugene Cox, a powerful House Democrat, won an undisputed re-election in Georgia with only 5,137 votes. The population of his district was 236,606. (National return from this year onwards illustrate how undemocratic much of the United States was. While more than 100,000 citizens cast votes in most House districts, most Deep South districts never cracked 5,000.)
Of course, it wasn’t just African Americans who were disenfranchised by the thicket of literacy tests, citizenship tests, and election taxes that the South Democrats planted. An estimate in the 1930s showed that more than 64 percent of the white population in electoral tax states could not vote either. Partly in response to the populist movement of the 1890s, planters and industrialists were determined to prevent both black and white working class voters from controlling the levers of government. Well into the 20th century, some southern states still had term limits on governors to avoid the possibility of poor whites occasionally banding together in sufficient numbers to win a statewide election and elect a populist director general. But no instrument was as powerful as the election tax, which many states levied months before elections when voter interest was low. It was “like buying a ticket to a show nine months in advance,” recalled one observer, “and before you know who is playing or what it is really about.”
The great migration of African Americans to northern and western states, which began during World War I and lasted for about half a century, gradually led to the disenfranchisement of large numbers of black citizens. While in the north they faced a range of Jim Crow practices, ranging from discrimination in housing and education to employment and policing, people of color were largely able to exercise the right to vote. Not so their southern cousins. As recently as 1965, only 40 percent of Southern Black’s eligible voters managed to register for the vote. Given the oppression of voters and the violence on election day, even fewer have been able to exercise this right. In Mississippi, only 6.4 percent of black adults were registered on the eve of the voting law.
It was no coincidence that President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that the South was the nation’s “greatest economic problem”. On average, the citizens were poorer than those of other states. They were sick – infected en masse from pellagra and malnutrition. The social services were minimal. Education was inferior. Before the Second World War, large parts of the population lived outside the cash economy and got by with loans and scripts (paper payment extended by plantation owners, only redeemable in shops owned by the same planters).
Most Americans are at least superficially familiar with the violence white people have used to maintain this level of mass disenfranchisement. But we tend to view the Jim Crow South as an anomaly, even though it was actually a third of the country and only became a true democracy a little over 50 years ago.
To believe that this is “not who we are” – that our country has always respected democratic (small) processes and election results – you have to erase the first eight decades of the American experiment when most African Americans were owned and very few free blacks were allowed to vote in the north. One must also disregard the years between 1876 (at least) and 1965, when it was forcibly forbidden to vote for colored people in at least a third of the country. Of course, women were consistently denied voting before 1920.
However, this is no longer a southern problem. It’s a national problem. As the two major political parties gradually realigned themselves from the mid-1960s to the beginning of the 21st century, the Democrats have evolved into a coalition of white liberals and moderates, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and other people of color. Republicans have become whiter, older, more Christian and more conservative. The same tendencies peculiar to the Southern Democrats are now manifesting among Republican officials and a core of the Republican base: the belief that they alone constitute the nation’s legitimate and authentic citizenship – that they alone deserve to rule; If you win, the choice is legitimate, and if you lose, it is not.
Some Republican officials are overturning post-reconstruction repeal practices in the South and are now restricting voting among non-white citizens by cleaning up voter records, disenfranchising crimes, closing polling stations in minority neighborhoods, and a regular battery of other anti-democratic gadgets. And when that doesn’t work, they look for ways to blunt the election results (as in the case of North Carolina and Wisconsin) or to cancel the election altogether.
In fact, hardliners of the Republic over the past few decades have proven as unwilling to admit the legitimacy of white Democratic officials – Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Gretchen Whitmer, Roy Cooper and Tony Evers – as black officials like Barack Obama. But the coalitions these white Democrats lead, like the coalitions of white Republicans in the South of the Reconstruction era, are diverse. They are interracial – made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists; Asians, Latinos, whites and blacks.
A political party that really advocates democratic elections would try to pan, adjust, or at least understand its losses. Georgia RepublicansAfter losing three nationwide races in just a month – one for President and two for the United States Senate – they could have decided that they had a message or a political problem, that they had to make a tough assessment what went wrong and then have to correct course before the next election. Instead, they are already planning to introduce postal voting restrictions and remove the administration and control of elections from the Secretary of State – a position currently held by a Republican who has proven too willing to enforce the law if that meant that Democrats would win. This is a party that is determined to maintain rule by the white minority.
“Politics is not a beanbag,” noted Finley Peter Dunne. It’s rough and aggressive. The parties do what they need to do within the rules to win. But if they are in the opposition despite playing hardball, they are expected to be the loyal opposition – loyal to the country, its voters and its institutions. This is basically how a democracy works. There should be tough competition between ideas, candidates and organizations. But at the end of the day it’s a crush, not a war.
You cannot have democracy if only one party adheres to its principles and norms and the other party speaks out against the rules. We don’t have to look to other countries to know that this is true. All we have to do is dust off an American history book to understand how high we climbed, but also how deep – and how fast – we can fall.