Things seemed dire in September, and they only got worse from there. Americans were arming themselves and preparing to fight. In the south, black men were hunted and murdered by their oppressors. Despite one Presidential candidate clearly leading the popular vote, it was unclear who would prevail and under what circumstances. The President alleged widespread election fraud and threatened to bring in the military. America seemed to be coming apart, its founding myth of Democracy in tatters.
I’m talking, though it may not be obvious, about the President election of 1876.
Although in that election Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, he was never allowed to become President. Instead, the voting returns of Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina were thrown out, the federal government agreed to withdraw the troops enforcing reconstruction from the South, and Rutherford B. Hayes — loser of the election — began a little-remembered term in office.
While the headlines leading up to the election contained dire, breathless warnings of Donald Trump’s ‘unprecedented’ plans to pull victory from the jaws of certain defeat, thus remaining in the White House for another term with no agenda, there is nothing particularly unprecedented against a larger-than-life strongman seizing the Presidency and wielding its power for nefarious purposes.
If you are willing to look, American electoral history is rife with censorship, threats of violence, and contested elections. The 1888 and 1960 elections came with accusations of outright fraud that affected the outcome. Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 reelection featured racist rantings and censorship of the press. In the elections of 1856, members of the nativist Know-Nothing Party formed violent gangs to suppress turnout. The election of 1834 featured inter-party conflict that burned an entire Philadelphia block.
My first political memory is of the 2000 elections. I remember walking into a Starbucks with my father, who took one look at the front page of the New York Times and swore loudly and in public — two things I do not remember him doing either before or since. George W. Bush, up just a few votes in an obviously-flawed Florida count, had been awarded the Presidency by the Supreme Court of the United States. Half a million more Americans had voted for his opponent, but an entire generation came of political age with the shock of realization that it did not matter.
Bush proceeded to govern with the confidence of a man who had won in a landslide, awarding massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans before, in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, creating an entire new bureaucracy tasked with protecting Americans through widespread surveillance, and launching wars in first Afghanistan and then later Iraq that caused both countries to slide into civil wars that continue in one way or another to this very day.
None of this is to dismiss the obvious danger of Donald Trump. I’m sure I am not alone in basking in the glow of a man who campaigned for reelection in a manner familiar to many observers of authoritarian regimes: raising fears about immigrants, fueling racist violence, and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, even after his defeat has become extremely obvious to the rest of the world.
American history shows that while all of this was horrifying, none of it was exactly ‘unprecedented.’ In Donald Trump’s exhortation to put America first, we saw all of the ugliest chapters of our history personified. In the coalition that came together to defeat him, we can start to see hope for the future. But that hope will quickly fade to disappointment if we fail to learn from a slightly longer look at our past.
A history lesson
This summer, footage surfaced of men in uniforms styled after the American military pulling protestors into unmarked vans and speeding away. The footage went viral — as it should have. At the same time, Americans were living through a deadly and terrifying pandemic that caused the largest loss of life since World War II. While that terror may have lessened somewhat, the darkest days of the pandemic may well lie ahead of us — and we must resist complacency.
The feeling that white, straight, cisgender Americans lived with under the Trump administration was but a taste of the terror that marginalized people — Black people, native people, and LGBTQ people have lived with since our country was founded.
For the native people of this country, the European colonists appeared in a wave of plague and death. As many as 100 million people already lived in the Americas, and as many as 90% of them perished in short order. From there, the early history of America was a history of aggressive expansion and broken treaties. One less-known of the causes for the revolutionary war was that the British constrained the westward expansion of the colonies. Knowing this, most tribes sided with the British. Reprisals for this were harsh. The town I grew up in, for example, is named for a Haudenosaunee village burned by the continental army in retaliation.
Once established as a nation, America began a policy of relocating native tribes. This came to a head under President Andrew Jackson, a self-made real-estate tycoon and famous duel-fighter with poofy hair who swept into office on promises to fight for the common man.
In office, Jackson pushed for the Indian Removal Act, an act of genocide where the property of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” was offered for sale to white settlers and the native people who had lived on that land where forced by American soldiers to march to less-desirable reservations West of the Mississippi. As many as half of the indigenous people forced to leave their homes died along the way. Those who remained fought a guerilla war along with fugitive enslaved people against the United States Army. That conflict, the Second Seminole War, lasted longer than the American civil war.
For Black Americans, the history of this country began in 1619, when 20 enslaved people were sold to white colonists in a place unfortunately named “Port Comfort,” Virginia. Later, the fugitive slave acts of 1793 and 1850 made all white Americans complicit in the capture, torture, and return to enslavement of Black Americans fleeing towards freedom.
While the arc of American history is typically presented as a narrative of inevitable progress, this is not the case. The contested election of 1876 began a catastrophic dismantling of reconstruction and a rise in the political fortunes of the forces defeated just a decade before in the civil war.
Three years after the Civil War, as many as 94 percent of Black southerners were registered to vote, but by 1944, that number had fallen to five percent, enforced through laws and courts and when that failed, mob violence.
At the same time that white women were gaining the right to vote for the first time, President Woodrow Wilson was resegregating the federal government and screening KKK movies at the White House. Indeed, from the end of slavery through the present day, many Black Americans have lived in fear of violence inflicted by their white neighbors. In 1921, white rioters burned 35 city blocks in Tulsa, killing 300 people and ending a prosperous community known as Black Wall Street.
In modern America, Black people are imprisoned at a rate 5 times higher than whites. In Maryland, Black people make up 72% of the prison population. In Oklahoma, 1 in 15 Black men over 18 is currently in prison. The median Black American household has a net worth of $17,600 while the median white household controls $171,000 — a massive difference that is only growing.
LGBTQ Americans make up a sizeable proportion of the population — 4.5 percent, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, or as many as 30% of women under 25 according to another survey that caused certain members of the right wing media to have a meltdown. For them, too, post-colonial American history is a history of oppression.
The legacy of British colonialism was a disaster, generally, for LGBTQ people around the world. Britain exported its own disaste for sex and enforced a strict gender binary through laws that criminalized homosexual acts and gender varience.
Prior to colonization, many tribes indigenous to the Americans believed that ‘two spirit’ people were powerful healers with ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits. Similar populations and traditions were quite common around the world prior to European colonization. But the British empire worked to stamp that out, criminalizing anyone who dared to publicly exist outside of the strict categories of sex assigned at birth.
Beginning in the 1840s, many parts of the United States began to criminalize cross dressing under the argument that it represented deception. Criminalization of materials documenting LGBTQ life soon followed under the Comstock Act. Those laws stayed on the books for years. Alexandra Billings has talked about being assaulted by a police officer and thrown in jail for breaking a law that required trans women wear two pieces of male clothing at all times. Her experience was not unusual.
While President Trump’s infuriating refusal to develop a national strategy for fighting COVID-19, seems like yet another unprecedented evil, a President ignoring a deadly pandemic is nothing new: President Reagan did little while 89,000 people died of AIDS, and his press secretary joked about it from behind the podium.
State violence against oppressed minorities is nothing new. The real question is this: why the fear of President Trump percolated throughout society, regardless of membership in a marginalized class. While the pandemic certainly has something to do with it, there’s more at work.
At the core of all of our complaints about the modern political system is the idea that things were somehow better in the mythical past. I hope that I’ve laid out the case that things were not, in fact, kinder. But maybe when you think about a better time in politics, you’re imagining a more recent past. In his book, “Why we’re Polarized” journalist Ezra Klein offers a chilling explanation for this era of more collaborative national politics.
Throughout most of the time that we regard as the golden years of bipartisan cooperation, Northern liberals in the Democratic party aligned with southern conservative Dixiecrats in a national coalition with massive majorities in the House and Senate. As Klein writes:
The Dixiecrats gave the national Democrats the votes they needed and the national Democrats let the Dixiecrats enforce segregation and one-party rule at home.
The Dixiecrat-Democrat pact is a powerful reminder that there are worse things than polarization, that what’s now remembered as a golden age in American politics was purchased at a terrible cost.
That cost was higher than we like to acknowledge today. Southern Democrats controlled 95 percent of elected offices in the South by controlling who was able to vote. This arrangement would not have been possible without politicians like FDR, who in the 1930s refused to support anti-lynching legislation over concerns that the New Deal would grind to a halt if he lost Southern support.
Cast through this light, we can see the era of bipartisan cooperation in Washington DC for what it was: an agreement on the bounds of political conversation that excluded the rights of people of color, LGBTQ people, and more. The politicians were able to get along because there was a basic agreement to maintain systems of oppression that limited who got a seat at the table. Of course political discussions were “more civilized” when politicians were debating marginal tax rates and the best place to build a bridge.
As Klein argues:
“The mid-twentieth century was not an era in which the world outside Washington was either serene or moderate. This was the age of Joseph McCarthy, the Vietnam War, and the draft dodger. It was a time of political assassinations, of civil rights activists being beaten on bridges, of authoritarian rule in the South, of feminists marching in the streets and native Americans occupying Alcatraz. The irony is that the American political system was most calm and least polarized when America itself seemed to be on the verge of cracking apart.”
That period of artificial political calm came to an end when in response to massive pressure and protest under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, beginning the process of massive political shifts in America. While new voters joined the Democratic Party, Southern whites fled to the Republicans who under Barry Goldwater resisted the civil rights movement. A process of national sorting began, and the new alignment clung more closely to identity than to regional loyalty or political expediency.
In Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution, Christopher Johnston, Christopher Frederico, and Howard Lavine argue that what now distinguishes Republicans and Democrats is a set of psychological traits related to openness. Liberals are driven by a desire for novelty while Conservatives prefer order and tradition. And as Klein argues, this efficient sorting of political groups has created an America where nearly every bit of your daily life can predict your political identity: your preference for sports, for clothing brands, for grocery stores or restaurants. Our political system now efficiently represents the identities of the people within it — which is why the sense of doom under the Trump administration was felt by people who probably would have said that George W. Bush was “a decent man.”
To put things bluntly: if you fear a world where immigrants are welcome, if you see a shifting of government services to benefit people of color as a threat, if a world where queer people can live openly makes you uncomfortable, you probably voted Republican in 2020. You definitely voted Republican in 2012. But 50 years ago, you might have been in either party. Partisan conflict doesn’t exist in this country because of the brand-new desire of a segment of the country to enforce a white Christian patriarchy. Partisan conflict exists because there’s no longer a consensus for a white Christian patriarchy.
Partisan sorting means that for many segments of society, bigotted views towards members or marginalized classes have been subsumed within hatred for the opposition party.
As a transgender woman, I would argue that this is a good thing. We may be fighting, but at least someone is fighting for me. I have no desire to return to the consensus that produced Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or mass incarceration, or school segregation, or endless war in the Middle East.
But that brings me to my next point. Because the thing is…I’m not sure you were fighting for me.
Donald Trump personifies everything unacceptable to the groups opposed to him. He’s a racist who refused repeatedly to disavow white supremacists. He’s a misogynist who bragged about assaulting women. He’s a failed businessman who bragged about being rich and never paying taxes. Many people who found his policies perfectly acceptable found his aesthetics off putting. So what happens after he’s gone? All of the problems that I mentioned before existed before Trump, and will continue to exist after he is gone.
The Trump administration will likely be remembered as a time of unprecedented voter activation. Millions of Americans marched for women, for Black lives, for science, for truth. Organizations sprung up left and right to help new candidates run for office. Americans regularly deluged Capitol Hill with phone calls. Democratic candidates up and down the ballot found themselves with so much campaign money they couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. The 2018 midterms boosted the highest turnout of any midterm in 100 years; the 2020 elections easily exceeded that.
Donald Trump is just a single aging twitter addict. So much of the evil done during the last four years was done by corporations in the name of their shareholders, by police officers in the name of the law, by health insurance companies in the name of cost. Or by politicians like Mitch McConnell who quietly stacked the courts.
I’m a white woman. We love to talk about being able to go back to brunch when Trump is gone. And you know what? I’ve really missed brunch lately.
But my own drive towards complacency fills me with fear for our future. In a Biden presidency, will we still march for climate action? Will we still march for sexual assault survivors? Will we still march for immigrants? Will we march for black lives? Will we march for trans rights? Will we still talk about how to support black trans women? Will I? Will you?
As Astra Taylor writes in her fantastic ‘Democracy May Not Exist, but we’ll Miss it When it’s Gone,’
Ruling ourselves has never been straightforward and never will be. Ever vexing and unpredictable, democracy is a process that involves endless reassessment and renewal, not an endpoint we reach before taking a rest.
The American political system rests on a series of mechanisms designed intentionally to preserve the dominance of the moneyed classes. James Madison literally wrote that the United States Senate would serve to protect the ‘invaluable interests’ of landlords against the masses.
While abolishing the Senate might seem impossible, there are always steps between a whole loaf and no bread at all. Washington DC and Puerto Rico voters lack Senate representation. Proposals to divide California in two may seem absurd on their face, but less so when you know that the Dakota territory was divided into two states by enslavers who wanted to grow their political power. The size of our courts may seem like a permanent fixture of our system, but they’ve been changed many times by the law. The same goes for the filibuster, and gerrymandered districts, and a thousand little mechanisms designed to ensure that the voice of some voters is louder than others.
Accomplishing these changes will require political will. Trump might prove an exception, but American democracy is consistently defined by the apathy of its voters. The Left has a significant task ahead of it if our goal is to prevent the rise of another Trump. According to Taylor,
Less than half of Americans who identify with the political center view elections as “an essential feature of democracy” and only half of them, or 25 percent of centrists, agree that civil rights are crucial. Apathy, and even antipathy, towards self-government and the difficult daily work it requires is one of the stones that help pave the way to a more authoritarian society.
In other words, the desire to tune out and go back to boozy brunches is what brought us Trump last time around. Meanwhile, right-wing spin artists work to convince us that voting isn’t worth it, that nothing will change — they try and feed that apathy
If we are to prevent a similar catastrophe, we must recommit to a vision of a democratic society that exceeds the vision of the founders. Merely including formerly marginalized people into our picture of a normal neighborhood, office, or Congress is not enough to ensure meaningful political equality. In a country where money is literally considered protected speech, far more work is needed to ensure equality.
The Reagan revolution and the Clinton realignment brought us the idea that freedom is the right to consume in peace. But the evidence of the failure of that ideology is all around us. We see it in rising incarceration, in rising debt, in rising carbon emissions. True freedom requires that individuals have input at every level. It’s not enough to elect a President and then go back to sleep. We must work to normalize the idea of ordinary citizens serving in elected office. It’s not enough to raise the minimum wage. We must work to lesson the advantage of accumulated wealth through policies that limit inheritances. It’s not enough to push for workplaces with training on diversity. We must work to promote worker power through unions and cooperative management practices. Liberty is just a green statue in a harbor without meaningful equality to support it.
None of this is as radical as it may sound. In Athens, the oldest-known democracy, members of the legislature were chosen at random. Thomas Jefferson worked to limit inheritances and break up large estates. Until 1926 foreign citizens were allowed to vote in various local, state, and federal elections. Businesses run as cooperatives are alive and well, if you know where to look, distributing the profits between workers in good times and resisting the pressure to close up and relocate overseas in bad.
Four years ago, I worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I travelled the country watching her speak to crowds of thousands, and I let myself become swept up in the logic of the campaign. I feel a profound sense of failure that we weren’t able to defeat Donald Trump, a man who was obviously unqualified to hold the presidency. For years after, it was so easy to say that if she had just prevailed — if not for Jim Comey, if not for the emails, if not for misogyny, if not for Russia — that everything could have been different.
And some things, of course, would have been. Many of them are important.
But there are some horrors we rarely even debate or discuss. President Obama ran for election on the strength of his opposition to the War in Iraq, and then massively expanded the practice of drone strikes overseas. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that the horror of World War II could not have happened without the excesses of European imperialism. Like the scramble for African eventually ended in genocide in Germany, the armed white supremacy that’s seemed to rise under Trump is a product of the war on terror that President Bush launched after the Supreme court put him in office. Once you’ve seen people with guns in American uniforms on the streets of Baghdad, it’s easier to imagine them on the streets of Portland. Especially when both cities are thousands of miles away.
Voting itself is an insufficient solution to move us towards a more gentle and just society when our system of voting has delivered the White House to the person with fewer votes in one third of the Presidential elections I remember. Nor is online engagement enough, as proven by the Arab Spring. The journalism that has thrived under Trump must continue exposing corruption. The election may be over, but its voters must continue to march and organize and unionize. The tools that ground the Trump agenda to a halt must push forward towards a society where equality guarantees more than the freedom to swipe a credit card.
To draw one last time from Taylor’s eloquence:
“The history of Democracy is one of oppression, exploitation, demagoguery, dispossession, domination, horror, and abuse. But it is also a history of cooperation, solidarity, deliberation, emancipation, justice, and empathy…in the final hour, is democracy a lost cause or our last hope?”
We will find the answer in the next four years, and the next forty, and the next four hundred. If the task of ruling ourselves is too challenging, there will always be someone waiting to rule for us. We must never see that as a relief.