Democracy in the United States is under threat. The Trump administration's attack on the legacy of the civil rights movement is undermining America's claims to be a multi-racial democracy.
This moment of peril has worrying parallels with a previous era of American history. The gains of the Reconstruction era after the civil war, which saw African Americans given full democratic rights, were totally reversed within a generation. There is a serious risk that the advances of the civil rights era - the 'Second Reconstruction' - will go the same way unless we learn from the past and appreciate that American democracy has never been a story of linear progress. Skilfully analysing the similarities - and the differences - between the 1870s and the 2010s, Johnson outlines a political strategy for avoiding a disastrous repetition of history in in the twilight of the Second Reconstruction.
Anyone interested in seeing the Trump presidency in wider historical context, from students of race, politics and history in the US to the interested general reader, will find this book an essential and sobering guide to our past - and, if we're not careful, our future.
Richard Johnson is Lecturer in US Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University
[The American] is rarely interested in the past because he is so certain that his future will bear no relation to it . He assumes that as part of his inheritance that he will have the right continually to go forward.
Harold Laski, The American Democracy: A Commentary and Interpretation (1949: 5)
By any measure, James Meredith had an unusual freshers' week in September 1962. When he walked through the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) to register for classes, there were fresh bullet holes in the buildings and monuments around him. The smell of tear gas hung in the air. The corridor on the way to the university registrar's office was covered in blood. Two men were dead (Mickey 2015: 4-5, 209-14).
In the weeks to come, when James Meredith went to classes, he sat in barren lecture theaters and under-attended seminar rooms, receiving instruction from lecturers accustomed to much larger audiences. He often dined alone, occasionally dodging stones thrown through the windows as he ate. Students urged each other to ensure that he was "treated as if a piece of furniture of no value . Let no student speak to him and let his attempt to make friends fall on cold, unfriendly faces." James Meredith was the victim of a "war of ostracism."1
Yet, the University of Mississippi's first black student did not lack company. The federal government had seen to that. On the day that James Meredith matriculated, 31,000 federal troops were mobilized in northern Mississippi - more than were stationed at the time on the Korean peninsula (Doyle 2001: 277). Tanks rolled down the university town's plush streets and troops marched through the grounds of Ole Miss. Meredith completed his degree under the watchful eye of three hundred US army troops, garrisoned in Oxford for his protection (Mickey 2015: 213). In living memory, no one had seen anything like it: an American town, occupied by its own government, simply to allow a young black man the opportunity to exercise his equal rights as an American citizen.
Of course, the South had seen such scenes before - but just out of grasp of living memory, if not the collective cultural memory of the region. Under the Military Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and the Enforcement Act of 1870, the federal government sent soldiers to Mississippi and other southern states to guarantee the basic citizenship rights of African Americans. Union general Ulysses Grant made his headquarters in Oxford in 1863 as he prepared the Siege of Vicksburg; ninety-nine years later, President John Kennedy used a desk belonging to Grant to sign the orders to occupy Oxford once again (King and Lieberman 2019). The comparison was not lost on southern commentators. The Hattiesburg American lamented after Meredith's successful enrolment, "these indeed are the darkest days for Mississippi since the Civil War and reconstruction. The state has been invaded by federal troops."2
Since the withdrawal of federal government troops from the South in the 1870s, Mississippi and every southern state had been under single-party rule. The white supremacist Democrats who governed the state were apoplectic at the idea that - after nearly a century of absence - the federal government had returned to revive multiracial democracy. Governor Ross Barnett sputtered on television two weeks before Meredith's arrival: "There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration . We will not drink from the cup of genocide." Within hours, an effigy of James Meredith was found hanging from a lamppost outside the student union building, holding a sign that read: "Hail Barnett . We are proud that our governor stands for constitutional sovereignty."3
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There are two mistakes commonly made about democracy in the United States. The first is the belief that the United States is one of the oldest democracies in the world. It is often said that, by the 1830s, the "Jacksonian Era," the United States had become a "mass democracy." In the 1840 presidential election, the two main parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, tried to outdo each other in appeals to the "common man." The Democrats adopted the slogan, "Shall the banks or the people rule?," and the victorious Whigs held mass rallies with working-class symbols of cider and log cabins on banners. With the election of William Henry Harrison, newspapers exulted the "making of a poor man President of the United States" (Cheathem 2018).
Yet, this image of the United States as a longstanding democracy is astonishingly incomplete. It is only accurate insofar as "democracy in America" is understood in white terms. Working-class white men have had the right to vote since the early nineteenth century, but non-whites of all classes won the effective right to vote only half a century ago. The intensity of racial divisions in the United States is the most dramatic form of American exceptionalism. It is impossible to understand democracy and its limits without understanding America's history of racial exclusion, racist governance, and racialized citizenship.
In his classic 1944 study An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal argued that the United States was fundamentally a liberal, democratic polity, albeit one plagued by occasional racial prejudices. He argued that all Americans were united by a common creedal commitment to "the essential dignity of the individual human being, of the fundamental equality of all men, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and a fair opportunity" (1944: 4). Myrdal acknowledged that there were some failings due to racial prejudice, but "this American Creed is the cement in the structure of this great and disparate nation" (1944: 3). Yet, Myrdal's belief in the fundamentally democratic nature of America's political structure does not stand up to scrutiny. The essential features of a liberal, democratic polity - free and fair elections, multiparty competition, universal franchise, free assembly and speech - were not available to millions of Americans until the mid-twentieth century.
People of Asian birth were not permitted to apply for US citizenship until 1952. The secret ballot was not introduced in Georgia or South Carolina until the 1950s. Until the 1960s, states prohibited public sector workers from joining black civic organizations such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Municipalities passed ordinances barring residents from assembling to promote civil rights or voter registration. Before the mid-1960s, millions of African Americans were unable to vote or run for office because of state constitutions designed to deprive them of their citizenship rights. It was not until the 1970s that all Native Americans could exercise the right to vote (King 2000: 238; Bernd 1972; Mickey 2015: 149, 226; Wade 1998: 331).4
The civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, then, must be understood as a process of democratization. It was a period of what Desmond King (2017) has called "forceful federalism," when all branches of the federal government used their fullest powers to broaden citizenship and democratic inclusion. The civil rights revolution was characterized by a combination of coercive executive intervention (e.g., sending the military to desegregate schools), judicially imposed national standard setting (e.g., overturning state-level bans on interracial marriage, applying a "one person, one vote" standard to all state legislatures), constitutional amendments (Twenty-Third and Twenty-Fourth Amendments),5 and rights-affirming congressional legislation (e.g., the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Fair Housing Act of 1968) on behalf of America's hitherto excluded non-white citizens.
For these reasons, it is impossible to describe the United States as having been a full democracy for much more than five decades. This fact should be basic to every American's understanding of their country's development. Many (white) Americans prefer to imagine their country as one of the world's oldest democracies, but, in fact, it joined the club only relatively recently.
A second mistake is the tendency to portray democratization in the United States as a linear progression of expanding rights toward a "more perfect Union." It is superficially easy to see American political development in terms of a "steady march" of freedom, with America's racial evils - slavery, segregation, material racial inequality - being gradually, but steadily, overcome with each successive generation (Klinkner and Smith 1999). It is tempting to draw 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, charting astonishing progress along the way. But to do so would be to ignore the evidence of democratic backsliding throughout US history.
The civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s was not the only episode of the federal government's forceful commitment to multiracial democratization. One hundred years earlier, in the 1860s and 1870s, the federal government, often through little less than military occupation, guaranteed the...