Will the 2022 Midterms Echo 1866?Roundup
tags: Reconstruction, political history
Manisha Sinha is the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of multiple works on the history of slavery and abolition, the Civil War and Reconstruction, including the forthcoming The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: A Long History of Reconstruction, 1860-1900.
Midterm elections are usually not history-making stuff. Few have been memorable. But in the 2022 midterms, as in the 1866 elections, the fate of American democracy hangs in the balance. If there is a moment from history that our current political moment most resembles, it is the 1866 midterm elections, held a year after the end of the Civil War.
The party in power has historically lost midterm elections with a few exceptions. Political pundits have repeated this conventional wisdom this year, with predictions of a November debacle for Democrats.
Things looked a bit different recently. The Biden administration’s considerable legislative successes, the tamping down of gas prices until the slowdown of oil production by Russia and OPEC countries, and the forgiveness of some student loans, combined with the Supreme Court’s unprecedented Dobbs decision, the never-ending saga of Trump’s legal troubles and extremists running on the Republican ticket have leveled the playing field somewhat despite Republicans blaming global inflation on the Biden-Harris administration and playing to fears about crime.
Though predictions of doom have been tempered, professional pollsters still give the GOP control of the House of Representatives in the midterms and now predict that the Republicans might yet take the Senate. A massive Democratic wave would also be needed to combat furious gerrymandering, proposed election meddling procedures and voter suppression laws in red states.
We must hope that the midterm elections of 2022 might engender that unusual political wave and resemble the 1866 midterms, when the party in power, the Republicans in this instance, won decisive majorities in both houses of Congress. (The two political parties have long since flipped political and ideological roles.)
In 1866, as now, the nation faced a rogue President, who incited and condoned political violence. Though in the present case, Trump, unlike Andrew Johnson, is no longer in office. While complaining of persecution, Trump recently signaled support for paranoid QAnon conspiracies.
Johnson called abolitionists and congressional Republicans rather than ex-Confederates “enemies” and “traitors” in his infamous “swing around the circle” midterm campaign tour in 1866. Republican Carl Schurz noted that he had “stimulated the most dangerous reactionary tendencies to more reckless and baneful activity.” These words ring true today.
Then, as now, armed paramilitary groups threatened the country. The Ku Klux Klan was founded after the Civil War and during the bloody summer of 1866, racists and ex-Confederates attacked freed people and Unionists in Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans. The January 6 insurrection by a violent mob of Trump supporters was as much a wake-up call for the nation as the Memphis and New Orleans massacres. Congressional investigations of these two riots — like the January 6 commission’s hearings — were eye-opening for many Americans.
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