November 10, 2023 | Reading Time: 7 minutes

Multiracial democracy in America will live on despite Trump

An interview with political historian Claire Bond Potter.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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There’s a story sometimes told by liberals and Democrats who look at the possible return of Donald Trump with fear and loathing. The story is about multiracial democracy. It had a good run, the story goes, between the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the election of the first Black president in 2008. But, according to the story, signs now point toward the end of that era.

Joe Biden’s job approval numbers are underwater. The criminal former president is ahead of his Republican rivals, despite the fact, or because of the fact, that he’s not hiding his dictatorial ambitions. To these liberals and Democrats, it looks like the multiracial democracy that they took for granted might be, in retrospect, a historical anomaly.

I asked Claire Bond Potter about that story. She’s the author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy. (Her must-read newsletter and podcast goes by the same name.) What she said is worth highlighting in this introduction to my interview with the political historian. 

“While the suppression of voters of color has been a principal goal of the white supremacist right, people of color have consistently — even before the end of slavery in 1865 — built networks of clubs, professional groups, unions, educational institutions and civil rights organizations that fought for democracy in the absence of voting.” 

The story is wrong, Claire told me. Not only is the timeline incorrect. (Multiracial democracy didn’t begin with the Voting Rights Act, she said. It began with the post-Civil War enfranchisement of Black men.) But it also overlooks the fact that Black people and people of color have practiced democracy even when prevented from voting. America has taken illiberal turns before, Claire said. It seems to be doing so again. But even amid the worst, multiracial democracy has lived on. 

JS: The GOP has unanimously elected an election denier as the next speaker of the House. Anti-democrats have overtaken the institution of democracy. This seems like a low point but what do I know?

CBP: It is a low point, but it’s one that we were all prepared for, I think. On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that a guy from Louisiana (who has been nicknamed “Maga Mike” Johnson by Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz) was a less controversial pick than Steve Scalise, although it’s possible Scalise’s health issues were an issue for the caucus.

On the other hand, it may be that the 20 Republican squishes, many elected in Biden districts, were exhausted and worried about the costs of dragging this out. They blocked two extremists and were pummeled by Jim Jordan’s partisans. Perhaps they reached a point of diminishing returns, with another continuing resolution on the budget looming. 

So maybe they voted for a speaker who is an extremist, a rank homophobe, and who led out election denialism in 2020, in the hope that they can work with the House Democrats to avoid a shutdown and not get their behinds handed to them in November 2024.

So I would argue that the squishes were given an impossible choice, but also that we need to put this in the larger context of Republican Party dysfunction since 2016. That we are all looking to the Senate, except for the Supreme Court the most anti-democratic institution in Washington, to bail out democracy — well, it’s just dizzying.

JS: There seems to be a consensus among pundits that there is a difference between a pre-Trump and a post-Trump Republican Party. Is there a difference? If not, what are our fellow pundits missing? 

CBP: There is a difference, and it honestly depends on how far back you want to go, but I just read a great book by Jennifer Frost about passing and ratifying the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18. It is a good reminder that, a little more than 50 years ago, liberals and conservatives were spread across both parties. You start seeing ideological litmus tests in the GOP, and to some extent among Democrats, by 1980, when Ronald Reagan wins the presidency and moves conservatism to the center of the Republican Party. 

During the first Reagan administration, you can literally see women like Elizabeth Dole and Margaret Heckler abandoning liberal positions like abortion and trying to find elaborate workarounds to justify a brand-new opposition to the Equal Rights amendment. 

That’s when the polarization begins.

But it’s really Patrick Buchanan’s presidential run that marks the movement of the political fringe — the John Birch Society, the Eagle Forum, white supremacists who are backing candidates like David Duke in Louisiana, actual Nazis — under the Republican umbrella. 

And, as I argue in my book Political Junkies, political consultants and brash leaders like Newt Gingrich start to see polarization as a way to get their way in Congress and use the media — primarily drive-time radio, cable and direct mail – to divide the electorate. 

In 2008, when social media and the internet started playing a big role in national elections, it’s the extremist and conspiratorial networks mobilized by Ron Paul’s libertarian push for the GOP nomination that lay the basis for the Tea Party. That’s the precursor to Trump. 

There is a difference, but that difference is emerging slowly over time, and the Republican consultants and leaders are refining techniques for creating polarization for over two decades before Trump is elected. 

JS: There’s a lot of attention right now on rightwing political violence (and threats of rightwing political violence). The recent speaker’s race showed some Republicans getting a taste of it. Is the current moment unique or has rightwing political violence always been with us?

CBP: I mean, you could say that the United States as a nation has been defined by the recurrence of rightwing political violence, or perhaps more accurately, the recurrence of political violence that, by the 20th century, had been more likely to come from the right than the left. 

I think it’s important to acknowledge that there has been leftwing political violence, too. Before the Civil War, there was often violent resistance to southern agents trying to arrest and return enslaved people to bondage. There was John Brown’s Raid in 1859. After the Civil War, there is violence associated with the labor movement, such as in Chicago’s Haymarket bombing, or with anarchists like Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley. In the twentieth century, a faction of the anti-war movement and activists seeking an independent Puerto Rico commit bombings to win people to their cause.

But there is a consistency to rightwing violence that leftwing violence doesn’t have, as well as a strong tendency to use violence to preserve institutional and political power. There are common themes for what that violence is supposed to accomplish: the preservation of white supremacy, first through slavery and then through the enforcement of Jim Crow and anti-immigrant laws through violence. 

There is the consistent threat from within extremist elected officials to defend states’ rights through violence: it starts with the decades of conflict leading up to the Civil War, returns through Klan violence, anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant violence, massive resistance to desegregation and civil rights, blue-collar resistance to the anti-war movement in Northern cities in the 1960s, and the militia movement by the 1970s. And there is a consistent willingness to kill for those causes. What happened on January 6 is not anomalous, except for the fact that it happened at the Capitol and was intended to enforce an ongoing coup attempt that was underway in the building itself.

JS: Some on the left have argued that America’s true experiment in multiracial democracy began with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and ended with Barack Obama’s election. Some also say we are in or entering a period of fascist backlash similar to the 1920s-1930s. Thoughts?

CBP: I think that’s wrong. I think the experiment with multiracial democracy began with Black male enfranchisement during Reconstruction, and it was a partial failure. In the end, enforcing Black voting would have required an indeterminate military presence in the former Confederacy, and in 1877, for its own reasons, the GOP blinked. 

I say partial failure because in many states, Black men — and by 1920, Black women — did begin to vote and build political organizations. And while the suppression of voters of color has been a principal goal of the white supremacist right, people of color have consistently — even before the end of slavery in 1865 — built networks of clubs, professional groups, unions, educational institutions and civil rights organizations that fought for democracy in the absence of voting. 

Martha Jones’s Vanguard, a long history of Black women’s organizing, is very good on this topic. So is Renqiu Yu’s To Save China, To Save Ourselves, which details how Chinese immigrants who were not citizens nevertheless organized on behalf of a democratic China in the 1930s as a way of performing their own fitness for US citizenship.

As for the fascist turn, yes, it is similar to the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in the centrality of anti-immigrant politics and America First isolationism. And rightwing populism in both periods was fueled by huge economic changes, and promises by charismatic leaders like Huey Long and Donald Trump, that they would literally save the nation from political elites and bankers. And obviously, in that context the rise of antisemitism is going to be part of this toxic mix.  

But as a historian, I think we need to be careful about using the term fascist in the 21st century. What we are seeing in the United States and around the world is less the rise of interwar dictatorships than the emergence of illiberal democracies powered by disinformation and Astroturf groups that persuade voters by activating fear and hatred. 

JS: Others say that liberalism, newly challenged by the fascist backlash, is moving away from its current rights-orientation and returning to its old freedom-orientation. Is this a meaningful difference and if so, why?

CBP: It is meaningful in that rights are intimately linked to the functioning of the courts while freedoms are far more amorphous and represent often unresolvable features of our current political culture. 

With the rightward shift of the Supreme Court and extremist Republicans’ recent capacity to use federal litigation as expertly as liberals did front the 1950s through the 1980s, it’s hard to know what the future of civil rights, as a concept, is in the immediate future. 

One aspect of constitutional originalism, which is the last several generations of conservative jurists’ backbone philosophy, is to take the Supreme Court and federal courts so far back before Black liberation, feminism, gay liberation and every other modern progressive movement that the number of possible rights shrinks dramatically. 

I would say this is where the term “fascist” really ceases to work. The legal system hasn’t been overthrown, it hasn’t been disabled or occupied — it has undergone a fundamental, ideological shift, powered largely by businessmen, not by an extremist, populist insurgency.

So when liberals and the left talk about “freedoms” rather than rights, they are signaling a change in how they plan to preserve rights through cultural campaigns that have largely belonged to the right. 

Most obviously, it’s a way of reclaiming “freedom” as a concept. After all, it is conservatives as well as rightwing extremists who have insisted on “freedom from” — whether it is social mixing with people of color, LGBT people in their churches and workplaces, disabled people’s access to public institutions, or any of the rights you can think of.

But modern liberalism is based in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” — speech, worship, want and fear — and these became the basic tenets of post-World War II progressive democratic values. Most of all, they are higher values that ought to be served by the law and government, and when government is used to attack them — as we are seeing today — it should call the motives of those forces into question.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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