This summer, just about a year after a white nationalist murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, I visited Memphis, Tennessee, and witnessed an odd scene.
There’s a small park in the middle of the city, just off the main drag downtown. It’s a peaceful spot, perched above the Mississippi River and shaded by tall old trees. For generations, locals knew it as Confederate Park, with cannons ringing its edges in hostile formation. A statue of Jefferson Davis—the Confederacy’s only president—towered in the center, striking a triumphant pose, about a mile away from the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead.
Memphis is an overwhelmingly black city, and after Heyer’s murder, municipal leaders wanted white-supremacist iconography removed from its public spaces. But the Tennessee Legislature keeps vigilant watch over the kinds of trouble that majority-black cities can cause, and after Dylann Roof’s terrorist attack a few years ago, lawmakers gave Confederate mythology some extra protection. They updated the state’s historic-preservation law to make it much more difficult to remove historical markers from public property. Let that sink in: This was how the State of Tennessee responded to a white-nationalist attack that killed nine black people in a church.
So Memphis’s leaders had to get creative: They sold the park to a not-for-profit organization. That meant it was no longer public property, and its new owners could redesign the park as they pleased. This maneuver outraged the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who appealed to the state for help. During my visit, the whole matter was still being adjudicated, so Memphis’s quiet little park was in limbo. A tall chain-link fence marked off the space where Jefferson Davis once presided. His statue had already been taken down, though the pedestal upon which he’d stood for generations remained in place. It was an awkward scene, as well as an apt testament to our political moment.
There’s an election coming, but it has nothing to do with partisan politics. Nor is it about left versus right, or our national identity, or how prosperous we do or don’t feel, or any of the other prisms through which we typically view politics. It’s not even a referendum on the president, really. He’s a stark representation of the matter at hand, but an up-or-down vote on Donald Trump is just a proxy for the real questions we can no longer avoid: Are we prepared to end the minority rule that white men have wielded over the United States for hundreds of years? Are we ready to tear down the foundation upon which that power stands and build something entirely new?
The outcome of a midterm election won’t answer these questions, obviously. The Democratic Party has done its share of work to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy, even as people of color and women have taken leadership roles in it. Trump may be an unvarnished racist, but Barack Obama was just as undeniably the “deporter in chief.” Democratically controlled Congresses and administrations have ushered in mandatory-minimum prison sentences, welfare “reform,” criminal prosecutions for border crossing, and subprime mortgages designed to strip-mine black wealth, to name just a few weapons of minority rule. And the practice of abusing power to obtain sex hasn’t disqualified Democratic men from serving as president, either. So handing control of Congress to the Democrats in November would not be a revolution for racial and gender equity.
The fact is, the much-discussed partisan divide in the United States is more accurately described as a divide along racial and gender lines, or as a divide between those who embrace pluralism and those who want to maintain the minority rule of white men.
The GOP has built itself upon a base of white men since 1968. The racial part of that strategy is well established; we talk less about the way the party has gendered itself. There’s been a gender gap in every presidential election since Ronald Reagan ran and won in 1980, with a greater share of men voting for the Republican candidate. Obama’s 2008 election and Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 were the only two races in which Democrats were even competitive among men.
The same is now true of congressional elections. We often look back on 1992 as the “Year of the Woman,” in which a historic number of women were elected to Congress. But if we memorialize the gender breakdown of ‘92, we should do the same for 1994: When Newt Gingrich led Republicans to take the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, it was less a conservative uprising than a male one, with an 11-point gender gap.
For a long time, a powerful minority has been duly aware of the real divide in American politics. Their position may be demographically unsustainable in a functioning democracy, but it remains perfectly viable in a broken one. The hopeful thought for 2018 is that the majority may now see that fight clearly too, and may be ready to engage it with both major parties.
This is being called another “Year of the Woman.” Women, of course, can be misogynist white supremacists as well, but many of those organizing and running right now aren’t. From Georgia to New York, women of color are challenging the Democratic Party’s reflexive deference to white male power, and have begun to build electoral majorities that reflect demographic realities.
So there’s hope for this moment—even in Memphis’s former Confederate Park. In July, the nonprofit that owns the space got tired of the stalling and simply removed Davis’s pedestal. The Sons of Confederate Veterans are still fighting their legal battle, but the rest of Memphis has moved on to writing a new history.