The US’s fragile democracy emerged in the 1960’s and 70's, and we need to study our founders if we hope to keep it
Before I saw the Confederate battle flag flying over yesterday’s attack on the US capitol, I was confident that I would find it there. Trump’s entire effort to de-legitimize the votes of cities where many traditionally black-caste Americans live has a terribly familiar ring to it.
I’m not the only one who can see the neo-Confederate stamp on this movement as plain as we all saw that hateful symbol outside of the Senate yesterday. You can ask Senator Lindsey Graham, who until last night was carrying a lot of water for Trump’s attempt to revive the specter of the Confederacy. Belatedly, after he and the rest of Congress were personally placed in physical danger by the monster he has fed, he had this to say:
Many times my state has been the problem. I love it. It’s where I want to die, but no time soon. 1876 South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida sent two slates of electors. They had two governments, by the way, and we didn’t know what to do. Why did South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida do it? To hold the country hostage, to end reconstruction. It worked. The commission was 8 to 7. It didn’t work. Nobody accepted it. The way it ended is when Hayes did a deal with these three states: you give me the electors, I’ll kick the union army out. The rest is history. It led to Jim Crow. If you’re looking for historical guidance, this is not the one to pick.
It is worth stopping and really considering how very alive this history is to this scion of South Carolina, the seat and throne of the Confederacy. It is also worth considering where Senator Graham would have stood if this insurrection had succeeded. When the political establishment and even Fox News were trying to take down Trump in the Republican primary, he had this to say:
If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed…….and we will deserve it.
But in time, as the odds of a Trumpian neo-Confederate transformation of American politics came to look like his best path to power, he went where the political opportunty was and become a devoted Trump loyalist. As his early campaign manager David Woodard puts it, “Lindsey is a good barometer.” If Trump’s autogolpe or insurrection had any chance at all of succeeding, we can be pretty confident of the reading we’d find on Graham and countless other barometric politicians.
In light of this history and the malleability of the many Lindsey Grahams out there, it is worth recounting how the United States, in fact, slowly became a representative democracy. After a bloody Civil War against the Confederacy, the 15th amendment formally gave black-caste people the right to vote, regardless of their “previous condition of servitude”. But laws matter little without enforcement. As Graham pointed out, this law quickly became a dead letter in the United States, precisely because of the kinds of procedural manipulations (backed by ardent, white-supremacist grassroots support) that Trump has been deploying.
The responsibility of enforcing these laws ultimately fell to a non-violent movement primarily led by black churches and other black non-profit organizations. The enforcers who brought the dead letter to life were a broad coalition that was led and inspired by the likes of Howard Thurman, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Aileen Hernandez, John Lewis, Diane Nash and so many others. These are some of the real founding mothers and fathers of representative government in the United States. It is enormously clarifying to understand that this democratic transition didn’t happen here in 1776 or 1865, but over the course of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Yesterday’s events remind me of this crucial reality. It is difficult for a lot of people in the US to see it clearly, because most of us aren’t raised to understand the emergence of represenative democracy in the US as it actually happened. We need to study and honor the work of the founders, if we hope to keep it.