Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and Today

Having heretofore avoided reading a book about Reconstruction, one of the worst periods in American history, I decided to read a book about Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, two of the worst periods in American history (on the theory that reading a book about Reconstruction and something else would dilute the nevertheless disturbing account of Reconstruction).

The book was The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, by Stanford University historian Richard White. It’s one of nine volumes in the Oxford History of the United States. It’s got 872 pages of text and weighs 3 1/2 pounds.

It wasn’t what you’d call a “fun read”. This is part of the publisher’s summary:

At the end of the Civil War the leaders and citizens of the victorious North envisioned the country’s future as a free-labor republic, with a homogenous citizenry, both black and white. The South and West were to be reconstructed in the image of the North. Thirty years later Americans occupied an unimagined world. The unity that the Civil War supposedly secured had proved ephemeral. The country was larger, richer, and more extensive, but also more diverse. Life spans were shorter, and physical well-being had diminished, due to disease and hazardous working conditions. Independent producers had become wage earners. The country was Catholic and Jewish as well as Protestant, and increasingly urban and industrial. The “dangerous” classes of the very rich and poor expanded, and deep differences — ethnic, racial, religious, economic, and political — divided society. The corruption that gave the Gilded Age its name was pervasive.

One thing that summary leaves out is that the period also included “taming the West”, more appropriately described as inflicting cultural devastation and mass murder on the American Indians. It also leaves out the horrors inflicted on former slaves (and some of their white supporters) in the South, the stunningly successful effort to undo the results of the Civil War using a biased legal system and more mass murder (there were places in states like Alabama and Mississippi where maybe 1% of black citizens cast ballots).

Two of the big political issues of this period were tariffs (what taxes should be applied to imports) and money (whether it should be based on gold or silver). Corruption in government, recurring financial panics and the economics of farming were also major concerns. But in some ways, American politics looked a lot like today, with inequality, the power of big business and limits on immigration being major issues. 

These two illustrations show something else that hasn’t changed. The first shows the presidential election of 1896; the second shows the one we had last year. 

1896_large 2020_large

The big difference between the two maps, of course, is that between 1896 and 2020 the two parties switched sides. Partly because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Southern racists became Republicans (not what you’d expect from the Party of Lincoln) and Northern and west coast liberals became Democrats.

Can Biden Finally Get Us Past Reagan?

God, I hope so. According to one view of American history, Joe Biden could be extremely important. He could be our first truly “post-Reagan” president. From Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times:

During Donald Trump’s presidency, I sometimes took comfort in the Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s concept of “political time.”

In Skowronek’s formulation, presidential history moves in 40- to 60-year cycles, or “regimes.” Each is inaugurated by transformative, “reconstructive” leaders who define the boundaries of political possibility for their successors.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was such a figure. For decades following his presidency, Republicans and Democrats alike accepted many of the basic assumptions of the New Deal. Ronald Reagan was another. After him, even Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama feared deficit spending, inflation and anything that smacked of “big government.”

I found Skowronek’s schema reassuring because of where Txxxx seemed to fit into it. Skowronek thought Txxxx was a “late regime affiliate” — a category that includes Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover. Such figures, he’s written, are outsiders from the party of a dominant but decrepit regime.

They use the “internal disarray and festering weakness of the establishment” to “seize the initiative.” Promising to save a faltering political order, they end up imploding and bringing the old regime down with them. No such leader, he wrote, has ever been re-elected.

During Txxxx’s reign, Skowronek’s ideas gained some popular currency, offering a way to make sense of a presidency that seemed anomalous and bizarre. “We are still in the middle of Txxxx’s rendition of the type,” he wrote in an updated edition of his book “Presidential Leadership in Political Time,” “but we have seen this movie before, and it has always ended the same way.”

Skowronek doesn’t present his theory as a skeleton key to history. It’s a way of understanding historical dynamics, not predicting the future. Still, if Txxxx represented the last gasps of Reaganism instead of the birth of something new, then after him, Skowronek suggests, a fresh regime could begin.

When Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee, it seemed that the coming of a new era had been delayed. Reconstructive leaders, in Skowronek’s formulation, repudiate the doctrines of an establishment that no longer has answers for the existential challenges the country faces. Biden, Skowronek told me, is “a guy who’s made his way up through establishment Democratic politics.” Nothing about him seemed trailblazing.

Yet as Biden’s administration begins, there are signs that a new politics is coalescing. When, in his inauguration speech, Biden touted “unity,” he framed it as a national rejection of the dark forces unleashed by his discredited predecessor, not stale Gang of Eight bipartisanship. He takes power at a time when what was once conventional wisdom about deficits, inflation and the proper size of government has fallen apart. That means Biden, who has been in national office since before Reagan’s presidency, has the potential to be our first truly post-Reagan president.

“Biden has a huge opportunity to finally get our nation past the Reagan narrative that has still lingered,” said Representative Ro Khanna, who was a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. “And the opportunity is to show that government, by getting the shots in every person’s arm of the vaccines, and building infrastructure, and helping working families, is going to be a force for good.”

A number of the officials Biden has selected — like Rohit Chopra for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Gary Gensler for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Bharat Ramamurti for the National Economic Council — would have fit easily into an Elizabeth Warren administration. Biden has signed executive orders increasing food stamp benefits, took steps to institute a $15-an-hour minimum wage for federal employees and contractors, and announced plans to replace the federal fleet with electric vehicles. His administration is working on a child tax credit that would send monthly payments to most American parents.

Skowronek told me he’s grown more hopeful about Biden just in the last few weeks: “The old Reagan formulas have lost their purchase, there is new urgency in the moment, and the president has an insurgent left at his back.”

This is the second Democratic administration in a row to inherit a country wrecked by its predecessor. But Biden’s plans to take on the coronavirus pandemic and the attendant economic disaster have been a departure from Obama’s approach to the 2008 financial crisis. The difference isn’t just in the scale of the emergencies, but in the politics guiding the administrations’ responses.

In “A Promised Land,” the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama described a meeting just before he took office, when the economic data looked increasingly bleak. After an aide proposed a trillion-dollar rescue package, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, began “to sputter like a cartoon character spitting out a bad meal.” Emanuel, according to Obama, said the figure would be a nonstarter with many Democrats, never mind Republicans. In Obama’s telling, Biden, then vice president, nodded his head in agreement.

Now Emanuel, hated by progressives, has been frozen out of Biden’s administration, and the new president has come out of the gate with a $1.9 trillion proposal. In addition to $1,400 checks to most Americans and an increase in federal unemployment aid to $400 a week, it includes a national $15-an-hour minimum wage, something dismissed as utopian when Bernie Sanders ran on it in 2016.

What has changed is not just the politics but the economic consensus. Recently I spoke to Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers . . .  When Biden was vice president, Bernstein was his chief economic adviser, and he said the meetings he’s in now are very different from those he was in during the last economic crisis.

Back then, Bernstein said, there was a widespread fear that too much government borrowing would crowd out private borrowing, raising interest rates. That thinking, he said, has changed. As Biden told reporters this month, “Every major economist thinks we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth.”

It’s not just that the Democratic Party has moved left — the old Reaganite consensus in the Republican Party has collapsed. There’s nothing new about Republicans ignoring deficits — deficits almost never matter to Republicans when they’re in power. What is new is the forthright rejection of laissez-faire economics among populist nationalists like Senator Hawley of Missouri, who joined with Sanders to demand higher stimulus payments to individuals in the last round of Covid relief.

That doesn’t mean we should be optimistic about people like Hawley, who wouldn’t even admit that Biden won the election, helping the new administration pass important legislation. But Republicans are going to have an increasingly difficult time making a coherent case against economic mercy for the beleaguered populace.

“This idea that the inflation hawks will come back — I just think they’re living in an era that has disappeared,” Elizabeth Warren told me.

However popular it is, Biden’s agenda will be possible only if Democrats find a way to legislate in the face of Republican nihilism. They’ll have to either convince moderates to finally jettison the filibuster, or pass economic legislation through reconciliation, a process that requires only a majority vote. Where Congress is stalemated, Biden will have to make aggressive use of executive orders and other types of administrative action. But he has at least the potential to be the grandfather of a more socially democratic America.

A moderate president, says Skowronek, can also be a transformative one. “It’s a mistake to think that moderation is a weakness in the politics of reconstruction,” he said, noting that both Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt were “viciously” attacked from the left. “Moderation can stand as an asset if it’s firmly grounded in a repudiation of the manifest failure and bankruptcy of the old order. In that sense, moderation is not a compromise or a middle ground. It’s the establishment of a new common sense.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that Biden will fully rise to the moment. Skowronek has always expected that eventually American politics will change so much that the patterns he identified will no longer apply. “All I can say is that so many of the elements, the constellation of elements that you would associate with a pivot point, are in place,” he said. In this national nadir, we can only hope that history repeats itself.

The American Project

You’ve probably heard of the “1619 Project”, even if you’ve never read it. I have a subscription to The New York Times but avoid the weekly magazine section. That’s where a series of articles was published last year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Black slaves being brought to Virginia in August 1619. The Project’s other purpose was to show the many ways slavery has affected this country up to the present day.

The 1619 Project has been celebrated and criticized and used by Republicans for their usual nefarious purposes. The Washington Post has an interesting article called “How the 1619 Project Took Over 2020”. The title is an exaggeration but the article nicely summarizes how a series in the Times Sunday magazine became a big deal.

Americans, being citizens of a forward-looking country, are relatively ignorant of our history, so any significant effort to inform us about our nation’s proud but checkered past, like the 1619 Project, is a positive development. 

What went wrong in this case is that the Times writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who initiated the project and won a Pulitzer Price for her efforts, wrote this:

One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” [at a time when] “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.

A well-known Princeton historian, Sean Wilentz, strongly objected to this characterization. From the Washington Post article: 

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didn’t take hold in London for more than a decade — and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Professor Wilentz and three other historians wrote a letter to the Times and the controversy took off from there, exacerbated as usual by right-wingers, including, of course, our Controversialist-In-Chief. The controversy could probably have been short-circuited early on except for the actions of an egotistical Times editor, who overreacted to the historians’ letter, viewing it as an attack on the entire project instead of acknowledging the error. (Egotism and refusal to admit error are defining characteristics of Times editors.)

The Times has a statement saying “the 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine . . . [that] aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of those consequences and contributions. I remember reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice in college and being shocked when he said the relationship between Black and White Americans was central to this country’s history. The more I’ve learned about America, the more I’ve agreed with him. (I wish I could find his exact words. Is it predictable that there is no Kindle edition of Soul On Ice?). 

Yet the language that upset the historians, including the statement that “we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not . . . believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue” remains. That’s odd for what the Times says is “an ongoing initiative” (see “egotism and refusal to admit error”).  Meanwhile, Republicans claim Democrats all believe the United States began in 1619, not 1776.

Reading about the 1619 Project today got me thinking about America’s founding. That led me to a site run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, “an educational agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia”. Although Spanish explorers founded our longest lasting city, St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, it’s generally agreed that the arrival of the English in Virginia’s Jamestown marked the beginning of what became the United States. Here’s some of the chronology from the Jamestown-Yorktown site:

1570-1  Spanish Jesuits set up a mission on the York River . . . Within six months, the Spaniards were killed by local Indians.

1585-7  Three separate voyages sent English explorers and settlers to the coast of what is now North Carolina, then known as Virginia. John White, who . . . had gone back to England for supplies, returned in 1590 and found no trace of the settlers.

1607  On May 13, nearly five months after departing from England, an expedition of 104 colonists arrived at a site on the James River selected for settlement. . . . The group named their settlement for King James I.

1608  Captain Christopher Newport, . . . who had sailed back to England, returned to Virginia in January with settlers and goods. It was the first of a series of regular arrivals in the colony.

1613  Pocahontas, a daughter of Powhatan, powerful leader of 30-some Indian tribes in coastal Virginia, was kidnapped by the English.

1619  The first representative legislative assembly in British America met at Jamestown on July 30. The first documented people of African origin in Virginia arrived in late summer aboard an English ship flying Dutch colors.

Wow. Notice that last sentence? The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is missing something, or maybe these “people of African origin” arrived in Virginia because they’d heard about the so-called “New World” and wanted to check it out for themselves.

Putting aside the racists in charge of the Jamestown chronology, or rather taking note of their attempt to whitewash history, I wondered how we should remember America’s founding. Although we tend to think it was an event, it was actually a process. In fact, we might say the process continues.

1607  An English expedition settled in Jamestown.

1619  The first African slaves were brought to America.

1620  The Plymouth colony was established in Massachusetts.

1763  The French and Indian War ended.

1776  The Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia.

1781  The British surrendered at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War 

1788  The Constitution was ratified, taking effect in 1789.

1791  The Bill of Rights was ratified.

1803  The United States and France agreed to the Louisiana Purchase.

1830  The Indian Removal Act became law (leading to, among other things, the Trail of Tears)

1865  The Civil War ended.

1868  The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection under the law to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, was adopted.

1869  The transcontinental railroad was completed.

1920 The 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote, was adopted.

1924  The Indian Citizenship Act was passed (because the 14th Amendment wasn’t enough).

1933-1939  The New Deal was enacted.

1964 The Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, became law.

1965 The Voting Rights Act was passed (although Republicans on the Supreme Court improperly declared it unnecessary in 2013)

2016 A Black American was elected president.

Other milestones along our path to becoming the United States of America are yet to occur. (It’s 19 days until the first Tuesday in November.)

Relevant Comments from the Last Century

Ken Makin of the Christian Science Monitor says that, at times like this, it’s too easy to quote the final words of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, when King looked forward to the day “all of God’s children … will be able to join hands and sing … Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!” Mr. Makin suggests we remember some of Dr. King’s other, more specific words.

From his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:

Ever since the birth of our nation, white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves – a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backward simultaneously with every step forward on the question of racial justice, to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him. There has never been a solid, unified, and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans.

From his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was shot:

Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor [the mayor being one of our “sick white brothers”]. They didn’t get around to that.

And from the “I Have a Dream” speech five years earlier:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

Understanding Identity Politics

If you’ve heard the phrase “identity politics” and think maybe liberals and progressives engage in it too often, this long article by Sarah Churchwell, a professor at the University of London, will put your mind at ease. She shows how identity has been key to American politics since colonial times:

We hear a great deal these days about how the right’s hostility to “identity politics” . . . enabled the rise of Donald Trump. In this framing, the election of 2016 was a populist backlash of ordinary voters against an increasingly aberrant left that has allowed itself to be distracted by narrow questions about groups whose niche concerns do not rightly pertain to the proper functioning of democracy. Their identity-based complaints are marginalizing the left, leaving it out of touch with the troubles of Middle Americans, who primarily worry about how to pay the bills….

This argument is made not only on the right. Liberal academics . . . have recently chided progressives for championing causes like Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, thus provoking . . . the “left-behind” Trump voters. The counterblast from these left-behind Americans will, they argue, defeat progressivism, which needs to get practical and focus on regaining power through calls to commonality, rather than difference . . . because identity politics “absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored…. they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness’. . .”

The good news for anyone feeling perturbed is that it simply isn’t true that identity politics represents the end of America or of liberal democracy. Nor is it true that identity politics began on the left … The United States was founded on identity politics, per The Economist’s description: political positions based on ethnicity, race, sexuality, and religion. There are no pre-identity politics, just as there are no pre-identity economics, in a country in which political, economic, and legal rights were only ever granted to some identity groups and not to others. The only thing new about “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” is the voices that have been added to it, reshaping it in ways that alarm and affront those who used to be its sole authors. But it was always omnipresent.

Virtually every major event in the long and troubled history of the United States was a direct consequence of identity politics. Start whenever you think America begins, and power struggles based on identity will be staring you in the face, starting with the genocide and forced resettlement of indigenous peoples by European migrants. A handful of those migrants, traveling on the Mayflower, called themselves “Separatists” and decided to start a new society based on their religious beliefs, in which church membership would be a requirement of political representation. That’s identity politics.

Black people were enslaved, white people were free: it takes a colossal set of blinders to keep from seeing that as identity politics. Political judgments and legal decisions based on identity underwrote white supremacy from the start: measuring African Americans as three-fifths of a human is identity politics, a logic that led to the one-drop rule, the Dred Scott decision, Jim Crow segregation, and the Birther movement, to name just a few of the most consequential instances. Electoral colleges were established in order to solve the “problem of the Negroes,” as James Madison put it, rigging the number of electors a state received in order to put a white supremacist thumb on the constitutional scale. Insofar as identity politics helped elect Donald Trump, electoral colleges seem a more proximate cause than debates over gender-neutral bathrooms.

That The Economist did not even notice that its checklist of identity politics skipped gender altogether is both ironic and typical. In 1776, Abigail Adams famously pleaded with her husband to “Remember the Ladies” in drafting the nation’s new code of laws. [She warned him] against putting “unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” because “all Men would be tyrants if they could”…. John Adams replied by telling her thanks, but he preferred male privilege: “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.” The masculine systems established by the framers meant that women didn’t get the vote until 1920, still earn a fraction of what men earn, and remain subject to a state asserting control over their bodies that it doesn’t assert over male bodies. That is identity politics.

Prof. Churchwell goes on to examine the history of populism and anti-elitism in America, and the notion of the “common man”:

From Jefferson’s ideal of the yeoman farmer to Jackson’s resourceful frontiersman, from the rugged individualist cowboy to the blue-collar steel worker, this was the nation’s backbone, the salt of the earth: national identity forged through a mythic conceptualization of the “common man” as a “real American” who lived in the “heartland” or, as time went on, “Middle America.” These rhetorical associations continually cemented the idea that there was something central to American life about this particular identity, while other identities were marginal, fringe, extreme, or alien.

By the twenty-first century, . . . [two Republican] candidates in a row were elected in part because they successfully deployed the populist stylings and demeanor of the “common man,” despite their inherited wealth and elite education.

Her conclusion:

Difference is a fact of life, to which divisiveness is only one response. Inclusiveness is another: not just tolerating but celebrating difference, fighting for the rights of all, not just the few. To be a truly representative democracy, America will need to stop thinking in terms of the representative common man.

She recommends thinking in terms of common decency instead.