â€œThis is not who we are,â€� leaders from across the political spectrum resolutely affirmed this week, when a mob â€” incited by President Donald Trump and his congressional enablers â€” crashed through the doors of the Capitol. Itâ€™s been called terrorism. Anarchy. An insurrection. But cooler heads agree it was â€œun-Americanâ€� â€” an aberration â€” and, fundamentally, 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 democratic backsliding and hoped, similarly, that these moments donâ€™t represent who we are. There was the movement to delegitimize Barack Obama based on a false claim about where he was born. There were the Republican state legislators in North Carolina and Wisconsin who stripped constitutional and statutory powers from incoming Democratic governors. Earlier this week, there was the GOP-controlled state Senate in Pennsylvania that simply refused to seat a duly elected Democratic member, using its procedural powers to block the decision of the voters.
In the longer arc of history, these backslides arenâ€™t an aberration at all. In fact, theyâ€™re quintessentially American, with roots in one of the deepest divisions in American politics, the conflict over race and power. Since the nationâ€™s founding, a large portion of white citizens have embraced free and democratic elections only when the political system did not require them to share power with people of color.
This toxic current has shifted over the years. It was once the province of Democrats, and now it lives squarely in the GOP. The geography has changed, too. This used to be a uniquely Southern problem, but demographic changes over the past several decades â€” creating a realignment that has rendered the Republican Party more homogeneous and the Democratic Party more diverse â€” have made it national. What hasnâ€™t changed is the underlying pattern, the one growing stronger in todayâ€™s Republican Party: a stubborn, and increasingly dangerous, contempt for the will of anyoneâ€™s voters but their own.
Yes, every crisis is the sum of unique causes. And there are plenty of more recent causes to blame for this one, as well: An information vacuum driven by the demise of traditional news outlets. The rise of far-right media. The advent of social media platforms rife with disinformation and white supremacist bile. But, at its heart, this crisis is simply a reversion to what America has been for most of its history.
If weâ€™re to place Americaâ€™s fragile democracy on stronger ground, we must first acknowledge that for most of our national history, large pockets of the United States have been violently minoritarian â€” designed to empower a white minority to govern over the diverse majority. What transpired on Wednesday was both tragic and entirely in keeping with American tradition.
On Wednesday, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, square-jawed and defiant, pumped his fist in encouragement of insurrectionists who had surrounded the Capitol grounds. Thatâ€™s fitting. In 1856, Hawleyâ€™s fellow Missourian and Senate predecessor, David Atchison, led a mob of â€œborder ruffiansâ€� into neighboring Kansas, where they unleashed months of violence and terror against the territoryâ€™s overwhelmingly anti-slavery population. â€œThe game must be played boldly,â€� Atchison told his band of terrorists. â€œIf we win, we can carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean.â€� The Missouri border ruffians rode roughshod through Kansas, employing violence and fraud to rig a series of legislative elections. â€œYou know how to protect your own interests,â€� Atchison declared. â€œYou will go there, if necessary, with the bayonet and with blood.â€� When they were not stuffing ballot boxes, the Missourians were assaulting free-soil men.
It was this very mentality that drove 11 Southern states to leave the Union rather than live with the results of the 1860 election, which threatened to halt the extension â€” and perhaps endanger the very future â€” of slavery. After the Civil War, the Republican Congress required them to enact universal manhood suffrage or remain under military occupation. Begrudgingly, the former Confederates accepted these terms, though they did not reconcile to them. â€œWe are led to this course not through choice, but by necessity â€” by the stern logic of events,â€� a newspaper in Mississippi editorialized in 1871. When asked to define what he meant when speaking of the stateâ€™s citizenry, Alabamaâ€™s governor, Robert Lindsay, replied: â€œI mean the white people.â€�
It wasnâ€™t actually the former Confederate states that pioneered Jim Crow voting laws. That was the doing of the former slave states that had remained loyal to the Union. In Maryland in 1867, the new state constitution apportioned the legislature to privilege underpopulated plantation counties and to dilute the power of cities and small towns. Three years later the legislature introduced a property qualification for voting. In Delaware, the ruling Democratic Party declared the state was not â€œmorally boundâ€� by the Reconstruction amendments, and in 1873 introduced one of the countryâ€™s first poll taxes, targeted principally at African Americans.
In the former Confederacy, military occupation receded as states agreed to adopt constitutions allowing for universal manhood suffrage. But once unoccupied, these states became staging grounds for the reintroduction of white supremacy by any means. Sometimes Democrats â€œredeemedâ€� states through fraud, sometimes they went after voting access. Establishing a pattern that todayâ€™s GOP has followed to a tee, in Virginia, the legislature reduced the number of polling stations in Black voting districts. In Georgia, the legislature expelled a Black Republican and seated an unelected white Democrat in his place.
It proved harder to rig elections by increment in places where Black people comprised a majority or near-majority of the population. The Ku Klux Klan and other militia groups, all loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party, furnished the solution. In 1869 and 1870, armed white vigilantes waged war on Black men who played a prominent role in reconstructed state governments. They assaulted at least 10 percent of freedmen who participated in state constitutional conventions conducted under the aegis of congressional Reconstruction. In South Carolina, they menaced Rep. Richard Cain, one of the first Black members of the U.S. Congress, such that his family employed armed guards and lived in â€œconstant fear.â€� They dragged a Georgia legislator, Abram Colby, out to the woods â€œand there stripped and beat him in the most cruel manner for nearly three hours,â€� despite the pleas of his young daughter, who â€œcame out and begged them not to carry me away.â€� The Klan and other terrorist organizations broke up Black political meetings by force, â€œarrestedâ€� Black men for delivering â€œincendiaryâ€� political remarks, and, as a Tennessee resident recalled, rained violence on â€œnearly every colored church and school-house.â€�
In response to this wave of violence, in 1870 and 1871, the Republican-controlled Congress passed â€” and President Ulysses S. Grant vigorously applied â€” three â€œenforcement actsâ€� that criminalized civil rights offenses. The federal government arrested, tried and jailed thousands of Klansmen. Grant suspended the writ of habeas corpus in areas under insurrection. Their motives were mixed: Many Republicans, like Grant, sincerely believed that the Klanâ€™s offenses signaled a reversal of gains made by the Civil War. Others were more cynically concerned that if Black Southerners lost the right to vote, more Southern states would fall into the Democratic column. But enforcing the law required the presence of federal troops and law enforcement agencies. The all-volunteer army, in which more than two million men served during the war, had rapidly demobilized. By 1866 only 28,000 soldiers remained stationed in the South, many of them stationed at isolated outposts. Ten years later the strength of the entire Army stood at 25,000 men, with a good portion of soldiers deployed 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 calling for a special commission to investigate the validity of state election results, and to determine the winner of the 2020 presidential election, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) pointed to the example of 1877, when a deadlocked Electoral College resulted in just such an arrangement. The example is more telling than Cruz likely intended.
With the ranks of the federal army thin and Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, the Grant administration strained to control the violent overthrow of legitimately elected state governments throughout the South. That 1876 presidential election â€” the first ever to be held on a uniform day in November â€” saw Democrats employ rampant violence throughout the South. In the lead-up to the election, national Democrats, including Gov. Samuel Tilden of New York, the Democratic nominee, welcomed such provocations, hoping they would compel Grant to divert more troops to the South and thereby incite the rage of more white voters. (That didnâ€™t happen.)
Republicans were determined to maintain their grip on the White House. â€œShall the ex-Rebels have the Government?â€� fumed Rep. James Garfield of Ohio. If so, â€œthe whole meaning â€¦ of the revolution through which we have passed and are still passingâ€� would be lost. Through a variety of measures, Republicans managed to achieve certified electoral slates in three contested states â€” Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina â€” that had originally been declared for Tilden. With the Electoral College tied and Congress split, a special commission hammered out a compromise: Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes would be inaugurated, on the pledge that he would cease to enforce the federal civil rights laws and not employ troops to protect freedmen.
In reality, Hayesâ€™ hands were tied. There was no appetite in the North for a protracted occupation more than 10 years after the war had ended. The Army was a shadow of its former self. Still, the abandonment of Black Southerners slowly opened the door for the creation of the Jim Crow South: where only one political party governed; where only white people â€” and only some white people, for poll taxes and literacy tests disenfranchised many poor white citizens â€” voted; and where violence prevailed.
â€œOur government has been called a white manâ€™s government,â€� Hayes said in his inauguration speech. â€œNot so. â€¦ It is not the government of the native-born, or of the foreign-born, or of the rich man, or of the poor man, of the white man or of the colored man â€” it is the government of the free man.â€� That, of course, would not be the case for nearly a century.
Itâ€™s impossible to exaggerate how fundamentally undemocratic the Jim Crow South, comprising over one-third of the country, really was â€” and how long it remained that way. A study in 1936 found that in states that employed poll taxes, voter turnout among the adult population in high-priority elections was less than 25 percent. It was 75 percent in states that didnâ€™t have poll taxes. Two years later in Georgia, Rep. Edward Eugene Cox, a powerful House Democrat, won an uncontested reelection with just 5,137 votes. The population of his district numbered 236,606. (National returns from that year illustrate just how undemocratic much of the United States was. While in most House districts, more than 100,000 citizens cast votes, in most Deep South districts, vote totals never cracked 5,000.)
To be sure, it was not only African Americans who were disenfranchised by the thicket of literacy tests, citizenship tests and poll taxes that Southern Democrats planted. One estimate in the 1930s found that in poll tax states, upwards of 64 percent of the white population was also unable to vote. Partly a reaction to the Populist movement of the 1890s, planters and industrialists were determined to prevent both Black and working-class white voters from controlling the levers of government. Well into the 20th century, some Southern states still had one-term limits on governors, to safeguard against the possibility that poor white people might occasionally combine in numbers sufficient to win a statewide election and elect a populist chief executive. But no instrument was as powerful as the poll tax, which many states levied months in advance of elections, when voter interest was low. It was â€œlike buying a ticket to a show nine months ahead of time,â€� recalled one observer, â€œand before you know whoâ€™s playing, or really what the thing is all about.â€�
The Great Migration of African Americans to Northern and Western states, which began during World War I and lasted roughly half a century, gradually led to the enfranchisement of large numbers of Black citizens. While they faced a gauntlet of Jim Crow practices in the North, ranging from discrimination in housing and education to employment and policing, people of color were, for the most part, able to exercise the franchise. Not so their Southern cousins. As late as 1965, only 40 percent of eligible Southern Black voters managed to register to vote; fewer still were able to exercise that right, given voter suppression and Election Day violence. In Mississippi, only 6.4 percent of Black adults were registered on the eve of the Voting Rights Act.
Not coincidentally, the South was, by President Franklin D. Rooseveltâ€™s assessment, the nationâ€™s â€œnumber one economic problem.â€� On average, its citizens were poorer than those of other states. They were sicker â€” infected en masse by pellagra and malnutrition. Social services were minimal. Education was substandard. Before World War II, large portions of the population lived outside the cash economy, getting by on credit and script (paper payment extended by plantation owners, redeemable only at stores owned by the same planters).
Most Americans are familiar on at least a surface level with the violence that white people employed to maintain this level of mass disenfranchisement. But we tend to think of the Jim Crow South as an anomaly, when in fact it was a third of the country, and it only became something approaching a real democracy just a little over 50 years ago.
To believe that this is â€œnot who we areâ€� â€” that our country has always respected democratic (small-d) processes and election outcomes â€” one has to erase the first eight decades of the American experiment, when most African Americans were held as property and very few free Black people in the North were permitted to vote. One also has to discount the years between 1876 (at a minimum) and 1965, when in at least one-third of the country, people of color were violently forbidden to exercise the franchise. Women were uniformly denied the vote prior to 1920, of course.
But this is no longer a Southern problem. It is a national problem. As the two major political parties gradually realigned from the mid-1960s through the early 21st century, Democrats have emerged as 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 that were peculiar to Southern Democrats now manifest themselves among Republican officeholders and a core of the Republican base: a belief that they alone comprise the nationâ€™s legitimate and authentic citizenry â€” that they alone deserve to govern; that when they win, the election is legitimate, and when they lose, it is not.
Lifting practices that were prevalent in the post-Reconstruction South, some Republican officials today limit voting among nonwhite citizens through purges of voter files, felony disenfranchisement, closures of polling stations in minority neighborhoods and a regular battery of other anti-democratic devices. And when that doesnâ€™t work, they seek ways to blunt the results of elections (as in the case of North Carolina and Wisconsin) or to cancel out the election altogether.
Strictly speaking, in recent decades Republican hardliners have proven just as unwilling to concede the legitimacy of white Democratic officeholders â€” Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Gretchen Whitmer, Roy Cooper, Tony Evers â€” as Black officeholders like Barack Obama. But the coalitions that those white Democrats lead, like the coalitions led by white Republicans in the Reconstruction-era South, are diverse. They are interracial â€” comprised of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists; Asians, Latinos, white people and Black people.
A political party that is truly committed to democratic elections would try to pivot, adjust or at least understand its losses. Georgia Republicans, having lost three statewide races in just one month â€” one for president and two for the United States Senate â€” could have decided that they have a message or policy problem, that they need to make a hard assessment of what went wrong and then correct course in advance of the next election. Instead, they are already planning to introduce limits on absentee voting and to remove the administration and oversight of elections from the Secretary of State â€” an office currently held by a Republican who proved too willing to enforce the law if it meant Democrats would win. That is a party determined to maintain white minoritarian rule.
â€œPolitics ainâ€™t beanbag,â€� Finley Peter Dunne famously observed. Itâ€™s rough-and-tumble and aggressive. Parties do what they need to win, within the rules. But when theyâ€™re in the opposition, even as they play hardball, they are expected to be the loyal opposition â€” loyal to the country, its voters and its institutions. That is fundamentally how a democracy functions. It should be a fierce competition of ideas, candidates and organizations. But at the end of the day, itâ€™s a scrimmage, not a war.
You canâ€™t have a democracy if only one party adheres to its principles and norms and the other party opts out of the rules. We donâ€™t need to look to other countries to know this is true. We only need to dust off an American history book to understand how high weâ€™ve climbed, but also how low â€” and how quickly â€” we can fall.