The Democrats Now Face A Historic Opportunity For Structural ChangeRoundup
tags: Senate, Electoral College, inequality, Democratic Party, 2020 Election
Gregory P. Downs is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War and The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is both a terrible tragedy and a wakeup call to Democrats.
The tragedy lies in the loss of one of the country’s greatest jurists and activists, the wakeup call in the reminder that Republicans follow none of the Cold War era customs that too many Democrats — even radicals — call upon, instead of demanding fundamental change.
Republicans utilize every constitutionally permissible power to stack the Supreme Court and push forward their agenda. Democrats too often fail to utilize powers the Constitution gives them and then call for referees who do not exist. Changing our attitude gives us the chance to correct the flaws in the country’s political structure: the allocation of power in Congress, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, and the voting booth that hamper our democracy.
Although the media frequently (and inaccurately) treat structural change as un-American, Democrats don’t need to look to foreign texts or political science theory for examples. They only need to look at the nation’s 19th century, when even bland, moderate politicians understood that their job was not just to celebrate the American system of governance but to fix it. While such structural tinkering carries grave risks, and while there may be good reason for Joe Biden himself to stay silent for now, not acting in 2021 would carry a grave risk as well: that Democrats appear to be a party that can explain its failures but not produce results.
For those who consider today’s crises milder than 1860s conflicts, seemingly mundane periods in U.S. history remind us that structural change is in fact a normal American way to solve problems. Consider Benjamin Harrison, hardly an example of a fire-breathing radical, and known to most Americans for two bits of trivia: being the grandson of a president and interrupting Grover Cleveland’s nonconsecutive terms. But Harrison’s time in office provides a window into the way a relatively moderate, even boring, president might govern through a period of dramatic structural change.
When Republicans won the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives in the 1888 elections, they held unified power for the first time since 1875. But they also faced grave structural crises: Democrats used fraud, violence, and intimidation to prevent Black men from voting and to create a “Solid South” that stacked the Senate and Electoral College. Republicans won the 1888 presidential election without winning a majority of the popular vote, in part because of the suppression of Black Republican voters in the South.
Instead of bemoaning their fate, congressional Republicans went to work. In February 1889, even before Harrison’s inauguration, they pressed the lame-duck Congress for a bill to establish a simple path to statehood for six western territories. Certain that Harrison would call for something even more expansive once he was inaugurated, outgoing Democratic President Grover Cleveland signed the bill. Thus Republicans started to make up for ill-gotten Democratic gains. Over the next year, the United States added six states and 12 U.S. Senators. Tragically, Congress failed by a narrow margin to pass a voting rights act to protect Black voters in the South. Republicans saved themselves but not their most-loyal voters, and Democrats went to work disfranchising Black voters across the South.
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