The Party of White Grievance Has Never Cared About Democracy
By Steve Phillips* –
From the Democrats of the Civil War era to the
Republicans of the Trump years, the white party has always posed the greatest
threat to our political system
are ringing about the dangerous implications of the behavior of the Republican
Party. By doubling down on defense of the Big Lie that the 2020 election was
stolen, punishing any members who reject that lie, refusing to support an
investigation into the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and unleashing a
fusillade of voter suppression legislation across the country, many see these
actions as an ominous new trend in American politics that threatens the
foundations of our democracy itself.
through the lens of history, however, none of this is new. The hard truth is
that whichever United States political party has been most rooted in the fears,
anxieties, and resentments of white people has never cared much about democracy
or the Constitution designed to preserve it. Those who do want to make America
a multi-racial democracy must face this fact with clear eyes and stiff spines
to repel the ever-escalating threats to the nation’s most cherished
institutions and values.
analysis of domestic politics is obscured by the historical fact that white
Americans fearful of the ramifications of equality for people of color have
moved their political home from the Democratic Party, which was their preferred
vehicle at the time of the Civil War, to the Republican Party, where they
reside today. In the 19th century, Democrats dominated the South, led 11 states
to secede from the Union, and waged a murderous multiyear war against their
fellow Americans. Today, it is the Republicans who are the standard-bearers of
the modern-day Confederate cause.
the label, the party that prioritized protecting white rights has always been
more willing to destroy the country than accept a situation where people of
color are equal and can participate in the democratic process.
Trump was not the first politician to refuse to accept the results of a
presidential contest. After Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery Republican
Party won the election of 1860, the Confederates did not waste time filing
lawsuits and trying to bully state election officials into overturning their
state’s election results. They simply severed their ties with the United States
of America, seceded from the union with the defiant 1861 Cornerstone Speech by Confederate Vice President
Alexander Stephens declaring that “the negro is not equal to the white man,”
and quickly organized an army that killed hundreds of thousands of their formerly fellow countrymen.
violence, bloodshed, and contempt for America’s democratic institutions did not
end with the conclusion of the Civil War. Just five days after the Confederates
formally conceded defeat and surrendered on April 9, 1865, Confederate
sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shot the president of the United States in the
back of the head, having told colleagues that Lincoln’s speech in support of
allowing Black people to vote “means nigger citizenship,” with Booth vowing,
“That is the last speech he will ever make.”
passage of constitutional amendments ending slavery, securing equal protection
of the laws to people of all races, and guaranteeing the right to vote (the
13th, 14th, and 15th amendments) meant little to the political leaders
committed to the concept that America is, first and foremost, a white nation.
Much as Southern leaders in the past few months have passed a blizzard of voter
suppression legislation in states across the former Confederacy, so too did
their predecessors furiously draft laws designed to accomplish with pens and
ink what they could not achieve with guns and bullets.
In her book
One Person, No Vote, Carol Anderson outlines the
“dizzying array of poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses,
newfangled voter registration rules” adopted in 1890, all designed to evade and
undermine the 15th Amendment’s provision prohibiting laws restricting voting
“on account of race.” The antidemocratic motivation behind these new laws was
cheerily articulated at the time by Virginia State Representative Carter Glass,
who explained in 1890 that that era’s election law reform was designed to ““eliminate
the darkey as a political factor.”
years after the end of the Civil War, the Confederates continued the crusade of
doing everything in their power to stop America from becoming a multiracial
democracy. As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s,
public officials and party leaders across the old Confederacy openly defied and
actively undermined the pillars of American democracy.
to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating
public schools, public officials in Virginia’s Prince Edward County shut down the entire school district
for five years.
After civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael
Schwerner were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964 for helping
register Black people to vote, the state’s leaders essentially sided with the
white nationalist domestic terrorists responsible for the killings by refusing to investigate or prosecute
the murderers (some
of whom were public officials themselves).
partisan political migration of the defenders of the Confederacy began as the
Black demands for the constitutionally-mandated rights of equality and
democracy began to reach a crescendo in the South in the 1960s. After Democrat Lyndon
Johnson unequivocally embraced the cause of multiracial democracy declaring in
a 1965 nationally television address that “their cause is our cause…and we
shall overcome,” fearful whites felt betrayed and abandoned, and Republicans
swooped in to offer their party as the home for white racial resentment.
been dubbed the Southern strategy began in the 1960s with South Carolina
segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond striking a deal with Richard Nixon to
rally white support for Nixon against Alabama’s segregationist governor George
Wallace’s more naked appeals to aggrieved whites. It worked like a charm,
building to the point where Ronald Reagan sealed the deal by offering the
unmistakable symbolic solidarity of beginning his 1980 presidential candidacy
with a pro “states’ rights” speech to a massive crowd “almost entirely made up
of whites” in the very county where Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner were
recently, the reaction to the election and governance of a Black president
mirrored prior periods of contempt for the Constitution and resistance to
public policies designed to benefit a multiracial electorate. Echoing the
actions of those who shut down school districts rather than provide public
education to students of all colors, contemporary Confederates shut down the
entire federal government in 2013 in attempt to stop the government from
providing health care through the Affordable Care Act to Americans. It is no
accident that the 11 states of the Confederacy were the leaders in rejecting
funding for Medicaid.
percent of Republican voters are white, and the party has comfortably won the
white vote in every single presidential election since Johnson signed the
Voting Rights Act in 1965. The political home of the defenders of the
Confederacy and white power has shifted, but the strategies and tactics of that
constituency and its leaders has not.
of this new, fortunately the efforts to defend and expand democracy also extend
back over a century, offering important lessons about how to repel efforts to
destroy our democratic institutions.
strategy that has worked—and we now have 160 years of empirical evidence to
back this up—has been putting the full force of the federal government on the
side of equality, justice, and democracy for people of all racial backgrounds,
not just white people.
worked is seeking compromise with those contemptuous of democracy, the
Constitution, and the social contract underlaying it. Compromise only works
when all parties are operating in good faith and subscribing to the same set of
core values. How do you compromise with people who identify more with lynchers
than with those being lynched?
dramatic example of deploying federal power, of course, is the Civil War
itself. Also instructive is that after the military conflict, clear-eyed
congressional leaders recognized the fragility of the victory and the ferocity
of the vanquished and made sure to pass constitutional amendments to entrench
equality in the country’s governing document in the form of the 13, 14th, and
15th amendments (and even those were fiercely resisted, barely mustering enough
votes in Congress).
aftermath of the violent and bloody attacks on peaceful protesters in the
1960s, who thought that the 15th Amendment did in fact apply to them, Lyndon
Johnson and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to, as Johnson said,
“establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious
the effort, to flout our Constitution.”
the imperative of the hour is to pass similar legislation as was advanced in
prior periods of intense conflict with the enemies of equality. Specifically,
HR 1, the For the People Act, and HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, will
both protect the democratic process and advance the cause of expanding
democracy that the Republicans are working so feverishly to obstruct.
to the voting rights legislation, President Biden can use the full force of the
bully pulpit of the presidency. More than 100 corporate executives have
expressed concern about the viral spread of voter suppression litigation, and
he should rally all of them behind a national crusade for democracy where every
corporate, entertainment, and sports leader uses their platform to aggressively
promote and support voting. Every Amazon package, for example, could come with
an 800 number on it on how to vote. Google could provide easy searching for how
to vote just as it’s doing for vaccines. iPhones could facilitate voter registration.
meet this moment would be catastrophic. From the January 1861 start of
Confederate secession from the Union to the January 6, 2021, attempted
insurrection and failed coup supported by 147 Republican members of Congress,
the political party fueled by white fear has scoffed at the Constitution and
mocked the notion of fidelity to country over Caucasians. The result after the
Civil War was nearly 100 years of Jim Crow voter suppression, widespread
domestic racial terrorism, and raging inequality and injustice. None of this is
new. The question is, do the current political leaders recognize what is
happening, and, if so, do they have the courage to do something about it?
*Steve Phillips is the host of Democracy in
Color with Steve Phillips, a color-conscious podcast about politics. He is a
senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and is the author of Brown Is
the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American
Majority. He is a regular contributor to The Nation.