The gravest danger to American democracy isn’t an excess of vitriol—it’s the false promise of civility.Roundup
tags: civil rights, political history, William Howard Taft, Joe Biden, Civility
Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.
Joe biden has fond memories of negotiating with James Eastland, the senator from Mississippi who once declared, “I am of the opinion that we should have segregation in all the States of the United States by law. What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”
The more pertinent historical analogue is not the fractious antebellum period right-wing partisans seem so eager to relive but the tragic failures of Reconstruction, when the comforts of comity were privileged over the difficult work of building a multiracial democracy. The danger of our own political moment is not that Americans will again descend into a bloody conflagration. It is that the fundamental rights of marginalized people will again become bargaining chips political leaders trade for an empty reconciliation.
The Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution should have settled once and for all the question of whether America was a white man’s country or a nation for all its citizens. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment established that anyone could be a citizen regardless of race, and the Fifteenth Amendment barred racial discrimination in voting. But by 1876, Republicans had paid a high political price for their advocacy of rights for black people, losing control of the House and nearly losing the presidency to the party associated with a violent rebellion in defense of slavery. Democrats agreed to hand Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops in the South, effectively ending the region’s brief experiment in multiracial governance. Witnessing the first stirrings of reunion, Douglass, the great abolitionist, wondered aloud, “In what position will this stupendous reconciliation leave the colored people?” He was right to worry.
One state government after another fell to campaigns of murder and terror carried out by Democratic paramilitaries. With its black constituency in the South disempowered, the Republican Party grew reliant on its corporate patrons, and adjusted its approach to maximize support from white voters. As for those emancipated after a devastating war, the party of abolition abandoned them to the despotism of their former masters. Writing in 1902, the political scientist and white supremacist John W. Burgess observed, “The white men of the South need now have no further fear that the Republican party, or Republican Administrations, will ever again give themselves over to the vain imagination of the political equality of man.”
The capitulation of Republicans restored civility between the major parties, but the political truce masked a horrendous spike in violence against freedmen. “While the parties clearly move back from confrontation with each other, you have the unleashing of massive white-supremacist violence in the South against African Americans and a systematic campaign to disenfranchise, a systematic campaign of racial terror in the South,” Manisha Sinha, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, told me. “This is an era when white supremacy becomes virtually a national ideology.”
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