I don’t believe history literally repeats itself, but humans regularly find themselves in circumstances that are similar to circumstances of the past. And since humans are slow to evolve and learn, they find themselves regularly surprised when confronting similar circumstances and regularly make the same mistakes again.
I ended my last column with a thought about the 2020 presidential election: that a victory by a Democratic establishment candidate could also be problematic for African Americans and other marginalized communities.
I was thinking about the presidential election of 1876, which was one of the most contentious and controversial presidential elections in American history. The Union had prevailed in the armed conflict, but it was clear that it hadn’t prevailed politically.
Reconstruction — officially the period from 1865-77 — was the attempt to redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social, and economic legacy and to solve the problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the 11 states that had seceded. In retrospect, it was clear that one was going to happen at the expense of the other. You could call Reconstruction the United States’ first failed attempt to become a multiracial democracy.
Reconstruction was possible because in the South a politically mobilized black community joined with white allies to bring the Republican Party to power and with it a redefinition of the responsibilities of government. At the national level, this political coalition resulted in new laws and constitutional amendments that permanently altered the federal system and the definition of American citizenship.
The presidential election of 1876 changed all of this. Samuel Tilden ran for the Democratic Party, and Rutherford B. Hayes ran for the Republican Party. The results of the election were disputed in four states. As a result, no candidate received the 185 electoral votes needed to win the election.
Eventually, a compromise was reached, known as the Compromise of 1877, in which Hayes received the electoral votes in the states where the results were disputed. In return, the federal troops that were enforcing Reconstruction were removed from the South. That marked the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of American apartheid — Jim Crow. African-American Republican allies won, but the newly emancipated African-American citizens lost big.
To understand why Reconstruction ended when and how it did, you need a longer horizon than the 12 years between 1865-1877; in fact, you have to start in the 1830s. From 1830 to the 1870s, the abolitionist movement attempted to secure the immediate emancipation of all slaves and denounced all forms of racial discrimination. This distinguished the abolitionists from those opposing slavery in the westward expansion in the North.
The leadership of the abolitionist movement was a multiracial, multi-gender political coalition that didn’t represent the majority of a country that was founded on white racism and misogyny. Their 47 years of agitation for racial justice included a civil war with the highest number of casualties in United States history.
In 1877 white Americans were suffering from black justice fatigue. Most white Americans of that day weren’t abolitionist. The majority were somewhere between pro-slavery and indifferent to the status of the enslaved black population. The house of white America had been divided against itself for too long, and the liberty of 4 million newly minted black Americans was an acceptable price for white unity.
The America of 2019 is analogous to the America of 1876 in that today’s America has been engaged in a cultural war since the sixties because of cultural and demographic changes that resulted from the passage of paradigm-changing social justice legislation. These changes have had the support of a committed white minority (let’s say 35 percent), with the majority of white Americans indifferent or (in some cases, increasingly) hostile. My estimate is 35 percent are irredeemable white male supremacists (accounting for most diehard Trump voters) while 30 percent are ambivalent — they’re neither racist nor anti-racist; social justice is inconvenient and too much work, and they aren’t personally connected to enough black people at a deep enough level to feel affected by racism.
For the leadership of the American political class, both Democrats and Republicans, a governing consensus inherently means the majority of white Americans; the rest of us are always a side order of grits. Democrats always want us as a side, whereas Republicans wish we weren’t on the menu at all.
The leadership of the Democratic Party desperately wants to lead a multiethnic political coalition with a working white majority. That’s why the Democratic establishment is searching for a candidate who can attract the ambivalent 30 percent who don’t like Trump or this whole Black Lives Matter ruckus. There’s a political strategy that can win a presidential election without a majority of that 30 percent; you just have to be comfortable with a blacker, browner, more diverse political leadership of the Democratic Party.
If the Democratic establishment leadership can find their great white hope and that candidate can prevail next November with an appeal to the socially ambivalent white voter, then one of the political possibilities is a pivot to the right to cement the loyalty of the ambivalent white voter. This would make the Democratic governing coalition whiter and more moderate and enable a rapprochement with Senate Republicans.
How would that president pull that off? By giving moderate white America a respite from the cultural and demographic changes of the sixties. If you think it couldn’t happen, I’d refer you to 1876. We’re still recovering from that double cross. I write this not because it will happen but because it can happen, and fortune favors the prepared mind.