Younger Dems today may not know, that in the 19th Century their political party was pro slavery, pro Confederacy, pro Jim Crow. and pro White Supremacy. The Reps were the good guys. Following the Civil War, when the Southern states regained the right to participate in Federal elections, they returned Dem confederates to the US Congress and state legislatures..
In 1876, Black voters tilted the presidential vote to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, infuriating the Southern Dems, who unsuccessfully contested Hayes election. Dems held majorities in both Houses and moved to ensure the Reps would not again benefit from the Black vote. Thus, before the 1880 presidential election, they added riders to appropriation bills, aimed at removing Federal polling place protection for Blacks. President Hayes repeatedly vetoed the bills with these riders.
The Rep. Minority leader in the House was James Garfield, a Union veteran and a courageous politician. He understood the Dem.’s strategy: if President Hayes continued to veto the appropriation bills and they were unable to override it, they would refuse to fund the government. The Dems. maintained they were simply trying to rid the country of a dictatorial government, to strengthen elections and restore the rights of states to manage their affairs as they wished. .
The Dems. misread their public support in the run-up to the 1880 presidential election and continued to press for the repeal of the post Civil War laws aimed at safeguarding African Americans and their right to vote. The Southern Dems. sole objective was to restore white supremacy in the former confederacy. They irritated many when they made a PR gaffe by repeatedly praising Jefferson Davis and comparing him to George Washington.
Meanwhile, Garfield’s and Hayes’ powerful, well publicized opposition to the Dems.’ racist actions, significantly raised both men’s standing among the electorate. As a consequence Garfield, now considered something of an American hero, was elected President. However, on July 2, 1881, Garfield was assassinated. He was succeeded by his vice president, Chester Arthur.
The 1880 loss to the Republicans, shocked the Democrats into an agonizing reappraisal of their platform and their leadership. They recognized that the Party’s white supremacy position and its advocacy was a fatal mistake and introduced their support for racial reconciliation. Similarly, they abandoned their Southern leadership and looked to Northern urban centers for fresh voters and new leaders. New York’s Grover Cleveland ran for election based on the Democrats’ new platform and won the presidency in 1885.
1879 vs. 2021: Similarities, but major Differences:
To avoid understandable confusion about the roles of the two American political parties in 1879 and 2020/21, a brief reminder. In 2020/21, the partisan roles are reversed, although the goals are much the same: reduce the number of Black voters.
The Democratic Party in 1879 attempted to force the Republican members of Congress to legislate the removal of Federal security for Black voters. Why? To threaten their safe access to the polls and thus discourage them from voting in 1880 (for Republicans). The goal of the Democrats was clear: to maintain the dominance of their white elites in the South.
The Republicans concluded they lost in 2020,not because of their policy platform, there was none. Rather, it was a logistical issue: too many Blacks and other people of color were able to vote Democratic. The solution: prevent large numbers of them from voting in the next two elections.
The means chosen to accomplish this is to enact election laws in states they control making it more difficult for people of color, to vote (for Democrats). The excuse for doing so is the spurious claim of a need to prevent near non existent voter fraud.
There were no legal challenges to the actions of Democrats in 1879, but Republicans in 2020 brought 60 cases asserting fraud in the 11/03 presidential election. All failed for lack of credible evidence. Democrats are using the courts to challenge the Constitutionality and legality of this Republican legislation, asserting their intent is to deny equal voting rights to African Americans. The case also argued these new state election laws violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The 6-3 conservative majority on the US Supreme Court, decided there was no racial discrimination, letting this state law stand. This finding raises serious questions among Democrats about the viability of similar legal actions, some already underway.
In 2020/21 the Republicans can reasonably count on the support of tens of millions of Americans in thrall to a former president and highly skilled demagogue, whom they believe is the rightful US chief executive.
In 1879, American politicians retained some regard for the commonweal. In 2020 and 21, not so much.
Will 21st Century Republicans Reprise Dems’ 19th Century Renovation?
Common sense and receptiveness to reality led the Democrats after losses in 1876 and 1880 to honestly analyze the election, identify their problems and draft a plan to resolve them. These 19th Century politicians reacted like politicians and recognized their brand and Southern orientation, were not attracting enough votes. Thus, they looked North and dropped racism, with excellent results in 1885.
In early July, 2021 there is little evidence the Republicans are interested in behaving like politicians in a representative democracy. If they were, they would deconstruct the 2020 election, learn why they lost the presidency by over 7 million popular votes and then substantially amend their campaign pitch to the electorate. Appealing to more voters, perhaps including African Americans, does not appear to be part of the plan forward.
Republicans, with some exceptions, appear to be in lock step to do whatever it takes to gain Congressional majorities in 2022 and the White House in 2024. Would this include violence? Unknown, but given the pattern of deadly tumult since 2017, culminating in the violent 1/06/21 insurrection and assault on the US Capitol, instigated by the former president, it cannot be ruled out.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of 4 books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.