Many Americans take for granted that the history of their country’s development follows a linear progression of expanding rights towards a ‘more perfect Union’. Each generation, it is assumed, will be better off, more inclusive, and more tolerant than the one before it. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson write in their widely cited book The Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship, ‘the United States experienced a gradual movement toward democracy with no reverses’.
A quick (and superficial) glance might bear this out. Drawing a line from the Declaration of Independence to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to Barack Obama’s presidential victory, one charts astonishing progress along the way. There might be set-backs – Lincoln’s and King’s assassinations, Trump’s election — but these tragedies are viewed as fleeting aberrations. As the Nobel Prize-winning sociologist Gunnar Myrdal wrote, the ‘American Creed’ that all men are created equal ‘is the cement in the structure of this great and disparate nation’.
This account of American history is deeply flawed. It ignores clear evidence of democratic backsliding, long thought by many (white) scholars to be the preserve of the Global South. The history of Reconstruction, a period of rapid democratic expansion immediately following the Civil War of 1861-65, should puncture inflated claims about America’s steady march to freedom.
Reconstruction was marked by high levels of black representation, legislation expanding access to public services, housing, and education, and the flourishing of black trade unions, civic and fraternal groups, newspapers, and grassroots political organisations. The Constitution was amended to recognise black citizenship; the first civil rights acts were passed; segregation was banned in transport, hotels, restaurants, and public facilities.
In the generation following the American Civil War, roughly two thousand African Americans were elected to public office. Fifteen percent of all office holders in the South were black. Twenty African Americans were elected to the US House of Representatives, and two were appointed to the US Senate. In the South Carolina legislature, African American representatives were a majority, the only time in US history this has occurred. For thirty-five days, the child of a slave served as the acting governor of Louisiana. African Americans represented the United States abroad as diplomats. African Americans served on juries and as police officers. They were elected to myriad local and state offices: city councillors, sheriffs, recorders of deeds, prosecuting attorneys, justices of the peace, state superintendents of education, and mayors. At least two black women were appointed to public office.
Yet, by the dawn of the twentieth century, there were almost no black office-holders left in the United States. Segregation was re-imposed. Ninety percent of African Americans lived in jurisdictions which made it impossible for them to vote, run for office, organise petitions, campaign, or speak freely about their political views. The essential features of a democratic polity – free and fair elections, multi-party competition, universal franchise, free assembly and speech – had been extended to African Americans for one generation and then taken away, through racialised political violence and the complicity of all levels of government.
White Americans have for decades misunderstood the implications of the failure of Reconstruction, but black historians have not. In early twentieth century, the great scholar WEB Du Bois reflected, ‘The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery… Democracy died except in the hearts of black folk’. The failure of Reconstruction was a clear-cut case of democratic backsliding.
The fall of Reconstruction complicates conventional, linear accounts of American political development. It should also help us to understand our present discontents. In the mid-twentieth century, historians recognised similarities between the civil rights movement and the Reconstruction period. A combination of grassroots activism and ‘forceful federal commitment’ to civil rights, as Oxford’s Desmond King calls it, generated a similar set of achievements to the post-Civil War period: huge successes in black voting and elected officialdom, the passage of major civil rights legislation, and racial minority inclusion in social and cultural spheres.
The historian C Vann Woodward in the 1950s predicted that the ‘present struggle for Negro rights… might even be called the Second Reconstruction’. A decade later, Woodward confidently assessed, ‘the Second Reconstruction shows no signs of having yet run its course or even of having slackened its pace’.
The Obama presidency ought to have been the apogee of the Second Reconstruction, but in many respects, it represented its denouement. In a bitter irony, the Obama presidency was marked by the rise of racially polarised partisanship, the Supreme Court’s decision to rule major elements of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, and the tragic killings of unarmed black people. These dynamics have only intensified under the Trump presidency, who is both their present cause and consequence.
Like during the First Reconstruction, much of the actual reversal of democratic institutions occurs in the states, partly because the United States has never truly nationalised election law or administration. Judicial attack, presidential hostility, and racially polarised partisanship are only the pre-conditions for state governments to restrict the franchise on racial lines for partisan gain. De-democratisation in the states is occurring in three ways. First, states are increasing the barriers to registering and casting a ballot. Second, they are diluting the voting strength of racial minorities through partisan legislative districting plans. Third, opponents of the Second Reconstruction are re-writing state constitutions to change the rules of the political game in their benefit. These efforts have been actively supported by a hostile federal judiciary and, since 2016, they have been aided and abetted by the federal executive branch as well.
The end of democracy in the United States may not come in the form in which we typically see democratic reversals on television. America’s formal institutions could well persist, even after multi-racial democracy has collapsed. Congress might not be dissolved; the American flag might continue to fly over public buildings; elections might not be cancelled.
But, while familiar institutions might endure in a formal sense, their democratic character will fade. Congress will continue to meet, but it will be elected by a shrunken electorate, representing constituencies which violate all basic understandings of the principle of ‘one person, one vote’, either through extreme partisan gerrymandering or Senate malapportionment. The balance of power may increasingly shift away from democratically elected officials to actors without democratic accountability: a Senate made up of ‘rotten boroughs’, a White House perennially occupied by popular vote losers, an all-powerful Supreme Court packed with hostile actors, appointed by presidents who lack popular support and confirmed by senators who represent a minority of the country. State governments will use their wide-ranging local powers to rewrite the rules of the political game to secure single party rule in perpetuity and with impunity. The United States is already well on its way down this path.
Richard Johnson is Lecturer in US Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University. His book, The End of the Second Reconstruction, publishes on June 19th 2020 from Polity.