For the past month or so, I’ve been savoring my way through a book of which I’ve never seen quite the like. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln is a heavy tome in every way, nearly 800 pages of painstaking research — the endnotes run another 150 pages, the index 90 — and lively, relentlessly detailed writing by the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz.
Nothing in the story of decades of tensions over the very definition of self-government — of the relationship between the government and the people, of which of the people should be allowed to vote — escapes the author’s magisterial reach. Shattering the faux-patriotic notion that democracy as we know it was a monolithic concept delivered by the Founders like the Ten Commandments, Wilentz shows the debate over how democratic America would be as a messy business, beset by divisions that were present at the founding of the nation and resolved only by the savage bloodletting of the Civil War. This book is making me think about America, and what it means to be an American, in a whole new way.
It’s also casting fresh light on my ongoing puzzlement and frustration with my home state. This has to do with the centrality of race in our politics, economy and social relations, and more specifically with the ease with which middle-class and poor blacks and whites are persuaded to make race the deciding factor in their voting, even when such votes are demonstrably counter to their own interests.
This phenomenon is coded into our communal DNA. The Alabama Constitution of 1901 is bad enough, but let’s go back for a moment to 1819 and the governing document our state adopted upon its entry into the Union. It was considered “liberal” at the time for several features, most notably, “the absence of any property or taxpaying qualifications for voting and officeholding.”
Of course, that broad view of democracy extended only to white males, though that didn’t distinguish Alabama from even the most expansive interpretations of “We the people” then in practice. The distinction — in Alabama and a few other states in what then was the southwestern region of the expanding nation — was in the motivation behind “liberalized” voting laws.
In the southwestern states, Wilentz writes, full citizenship and enfranchisement of all white men enlisted in the militia would ensure full participation in policing patrols, which would help minimize the possibility of slave revolts. It would also, in time, become a powerful means of blurring the class lines between slaveholders and nonslaveholders, by appealing to their basic equality as white citizens regardless of property — creating a Master Race democracy.
In Wilentz’s words, “egalitarianism for whites became in part a means for protecting slavery.” Later (my words), it became the means by which blacks were denied full citizenship for a century after the Civil War, by which the human and natural resources of Alabama continue to be exploited for the benefit of the few, and by which the gulf of inequality between Alabama’s white power structure and the rest of the population has been maintained and inexorably widened.
It is this illusion of equality, along with a lot of wrongheaded Bible thumping and unabashed race baiting, that has led working-class whites to support politicians who enact policies — on education, housing, healthcare and public assistance, to name a few — that consign working-class Alabamians of all races to a lifetime of what amounts to indentured servitude to the special interests that rule us. Among other things, this is the foundation on which the current, and perhaps permanent, dominance of the Republican Party in Alabama is built.
State Senator Vivian Davis Figures (D-Mobile) had something like this in mind a few weeks ago, when in response to a question following her prepared remarks to the Over the Mountain Democrats organization in Birmingham, she dared to suggest that racism has played a role in the GOP’s rise to dominance. Professing to be deeply offended, the Alabama Republican Party — the political home of state Senator Scott Beason, whose well-publicized characterization of the black population of Greene County as “aborigines” drew nary a word of rebuke from ALGOP — demanded that Figures apologize. To her great credit, she did not.
Which is not to say that racial politics in Alabama originated with the Republicans. It was Democrats who held the levers of power for more than a hundred years after Reconstruction; Democrats who institutionalized racism in state government with the 1901 Constitution; Democrats who made sure the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor; and the chief Alabama Democrat of all, George Corley Wallace, who after losing a gubernatorial bid running as a racial moderate in 1958 vowed never to be “out-niggered” again and four years later made the preservation of segregation the cornerstone of his administration, unleashing a whirlwind of racist fury.
More recently — and here is a factor in the emergence of the Alabama Republican supermajority of which Sen. Figures did not take note — the Democrats have given us Joe Reed. As the titular vice chair for minority affairs for the Alabama Democratic Party and longtime second-in-command of the Alabama Education Association, Reed has been a major power broker for more than three decades. In that time, he has consolidated his power by repeatedly selling out the interests of black voters at the expense of the party he supposedly serves, not to mention the greater good of the state. If you’re looking for the main reason for the demise of the state Democratic Party, look no farther than Reed.
All of which brings me back to the puzzlement and frustration I referenced earlier. Here in Alabama, we’re stuck between a Democratic party mortally crippled by its own corruption and a Republican party apparently intent on making poor people and minorities pay in blood for its years in the political wilderness. I’m wondering when it might be that blacks and whites alike become more receptive to messages that emphasize what they have in common, rather than the single, superficial thing that separates them.
And then, who knows? This democracy thing might really catch on.