Alarm bells are ringing about the dangerous implications of the behavior of the Republican Party. By doubling down on defense of the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, punishing any members who reject that lie, refusing to support an investigation into the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and unleashing a fusillade of voter suppression legislation across the country, many see these actions as an ominous new trend in American politics that threatens the foundations of our democracy itself.
Viewed through the lens of history, however, none of this is new. The hard truth is that whichever United States political party has been most rooted in the fears, anxieties, and resentments of white people has never cared much about democracy or the Constitution designed to preserve it. Those who do want to make America a multi-racial democracy must face this fact with clear eyes and stiff spines to repel the ever-escalating threats to the nation’s most cherished institutions and values.
Contemporary analysis of domestic politics is obscured by the historical fact that white Americans fearful of the ramifications of equality for people of color have moved their political home from the Democratic Party, which was their preferred vehicle at the time of the Civil War, to the Republican Party, where they reside today. In the 19th century, Democrats dominated the South, led 11 states to secede from the Union, and waged a murderous multiyear war against their fellow Americans. Today, it is the Republicans who are the standard-bearers of the modern-day Confederate cause.
Whatever the label, the party that prioritized protecting white rights has always been more willing to destroy the country than accept a situation where people of color are equal and can participate in the democratic process.
Donald Trump was not the first politician to refuse to accept the results of a presidential contest. After Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery Republican Party won the election of 1860, the Confederates did not waste time filing lawsuits and trying to bully state election officials into overturning their state’s election results. They simply severed their ties with the United States of America, seceded from the union with the defiant 1861 Cornerstone Speech by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declaring that “the negro is not equal to the white man,” and quickly organized an army that killed hundreds of thousands of their formerly fellow countrymen.
The violence, bloodshed, and contempt for America’s democratic institutions did not end with the conclusion of the Civil War. Just five days after the Confederates formally conceded defeat and surrendered on April 9, 1865, Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shot the president of the United States in the back of the head, having told colleagues that Lincoln’s speech in support of allowing Black people to vote “means nigger citizenship,” with Booth vowing, “That is the last speech he will ever make.”
Even passage of constitutional amendments ending slavery, securing equal protection of the laws to people of all races, and guaranteeing the right to vote (the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments) meant little to the political leaders committed to the concept that America is, first and foremost, a white nation. Much as Southern leaders in the past few months have passed a blizzard of voter suppression legislation in states across the former Confederacy, so too did their predecessors furiously draft laws designed to accomplish with pens and ink what they could not achieve with guns and bullets.
In her book One Person, No Vote, Carol Anderson outlines the “dizzying array of poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, newfangled voter registration rules” adopted in 1890, all designed to evade and undermine the 15th Amendment’s provision prohibiting laws restricting voting “on account of race.” The antidemocratic motivation behind these new laws was cheerily articulated at the time by Virginia State Representative Carter Glass, who explained in 1890 that that era’s election law reform was designed to ““eliminate the darkey as a political factor.”
A hundred years after the end of the Civil War, the Confederates continued the crusade of doing everything in their power to stop America from becoming a multiracial democracy. As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, public officials and party leaders across the old Confederacy openly defied and actively undermined the pillars of American democracy.
In response to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools, public officials in Virginia’s Prince Edward County shut down the entire school district for five years. After civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964 for helping register Black people to vote, the state’s leaders essentially sided with the white nationalist domestic terrorists responsible for the killings by refusing to investigate or prosecute the murderers (some of whom were public officials themselves).
The partisan political migration of the defenders of the Confederacy began as the Black demands for the constitutionally-mandated rights of equality and democracy began to reach a crescendo in the South in the 1960s. After Democrat Lyndon Johnson unequivocally embraced the cause of multiracial democracy declaring in a 1965 nationally television address that “their cause is our cause…and we shall overcome,” fearful whites felt betrayed and abandoned, and Republicans swooped in to offer their party as the home for white racial resentment.
What has been dubbed the Southern strategy began in the 1960s with South Carolina segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond striking a deal with Richard Nixon to rally white support for Nixon against Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace’s more naked appeals to aggrieved whites. It worked like a charm, building to the point where Ronald Reagan sealed the deal by offering the unmistakable symbolic solidarity of beginning his 1980 presidential candidacy with a pro “states’ rights” speech to a massive crowd “almost entirely made up of whites” in the very county where Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner were murdered.
More recently, the reaction to the election and governance of a Black president mirrored prior periods of contempt for the Constitution and resistance to public policies designed to benefit a multiracial electorate. Echoing the actions of those who shut down school districts rather than provide public education to students of all colors, contemporary Confederates shut down the entire federal government in 2013 in attempt to stop the government from providing health care through the Affordable Care Act to Americans. It is no accident that the 11 states of the Confederacy were the leaders in rejecting funding for Medicaid.
Today, 82 percent of Republican voters are white, and the party has comfortably won the white vote in every single presidential election since Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The political home of the defenders of the Confederacy and white power has shifted, but the strategies and tactics of that constituency and its leaders has not.
While none of this is new, fortunately the efforts to defend and expand democracy also extend back over a century, offering important lessons about how to repel efforts to destroy our democratic institutions.
The primary strategy that has worked—and we now have 160 years of empirical evidence to back this up—has been putting the full force of the federal government on the side of equality, justice, and democracy for people of all racial backgrounds, not just white people.
What hasn’t worked is seeking compromise with those contemptuous of democracy, the Constitution, and the social contract underlaying it. Compromise only works when all parties are operating in good faith and subscribing to the same set of core values. How do you compromise with people who identify more with lynchers than with those being lynched?
The most dramatic example of deploying federal power, of course, is the Civil War itself. Also instructive is that after the military conflict, clear-eyed congressional leaders recognized the fragility of the victory and the ferocity of the vanquished and made sure to pass constitutional amendments to entrench equality in the country’s governing document in the form of the 13, 14th, and 15th amendments (and even those were fiercely resisted, barely mustering enough votes in Congress).
In the aftermath of the violent and bloody attacks on peaceful protesters in the 1960s, who thought that the 15th Amendment did in fact apply to them, Lyndon Johnson and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to, as Johnson said, “establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution.”
In 2021, the imperative of the hour is to pass similar legislation as was advanced in prior periods of intense conflict with the enemies of equality. Specifically, HR 1, the For the People Act, and HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, will both protect the democratic process and advance the cause of expanding democracy that the Republicans are working so feverishly to obstruct.
In addition to the voting rights legislation, President Biden can use the full force of the bully pulpit of the presidency. More than 100 corporate executives have expressed concern about the viral spread of voter suppression litigation, and he should rally all of them behind a national crusade for democracy where every corporate, entertainment, and sports leader uses their platform to aggressively promote and support voting. Every Amazon package, for example, could come with an 800 number on it on how to vote. Google could provide easy searching for how to vote just as it’s doing for vaccines. iPhones could facilitate voter registration.
Failure to meet this moment would be catastrophic. From the January 1861 start of Confederate secession from the Union to the January 6, 2021, attempted insurrection and failed coup supported by 147 Republican members of Congress, the political party fueled by white fear has scoffed at the Constitution and mocked the notion of fidelity to country over Caucasians. The result after the Civil War was nearly 100 years of Jim Crow voter suppression, widespread domestic racial terrorism, and raging inequality and injustice. None of this is new. The question is, do the current political leaders recognize what is happening, and, if so, do they have the courage to do something about it?