The South knows about White backlash. Here's what Reconstruction can teach us about today's crisis.

President Barack Obama takes one last look in the mirror before walking out to take the oath of office, January 20, 2009. Image courtesy The White House.

It seems impossibly long ago now. But there was a time when an American presidential election seemed to signal the end of racism. One newspaper said that this election represented “the burial of the demon of American prejudice.” Another that equal rights for all had been “settled forever by the election.” It was a triumphant moment for American progressives. The year was 1868, and the new President-Elect was Ulysses S. Grant.

Five years earlier at Gettysburg, Lincoln had rededicated the country to “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Both sides seemed to agree that these were the stakes of the Civil War. The North won. The military result was then democratically ratified by the election of Grant, the Union general, to replace Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat who had wanted to readmit Southern states into the Union quickly, and without guaranteeing the rights of freed slaves.

After Grant’s election, Congress passed, and the states ratified, the 15th amendment allowing Black Americans to vote. Congress also passed during Grant’s first term the Enforcement Acts allowing the federal government to use the military to protect the rights of Blacks in the South, including protecting their physical safety from terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The demise of “the demon of American prejudice” must truly have seemed at hand.

And yet, by the end of Grant’s two terms, the coalition of Northern White Radical Republican reformers had fallen apart, while Southern Democrats remained united as ever in their support of White supremacy. The fracturing of the Republican Party began in 1872, when a group of “Liberal Republicans” nominated their own candidate, the ex-abolitionist Horace Greeley, who was then adopted as the Democratic candidate as well.

You may have noticed some echoes of this story in our national experience over the last eight years. The euphoria over the election of Barack Obama, the intransigent opposition of Republicans in Congress, the defection of Rust Belt Whites from the Obama coalition to Donald Trump. Many Democrats today are asking themselves what they need to do to win these voters back and if, like Republicans in the 1870s, they will have to give up on civil rights in order to win national elections again. Such a betrayal would not only be wrong morally, but also unnecessary politically, as I hope to demonstrate in what follows.

In the 1860-70s, there were four overlapping groups of Republicans who joined Greeley and the Liberals in their departure from Grant. The first were those weary of sectional conflict between North and South, ready at any cost to, in Greeley’s words, “reach across the bloody chasm which has too long divided [North and South].” Though Greeley had been an abolitionist for most of his life, he now proclaimed himself “weary of fighting over issues that ought to be dead.”

The second group was businessmen who didn’t feel strongly one way or the other about Black rights, but saw a swift end to Reconstruction as a moneymaker. A third group despised the corruption within the Grant-led Republican Party. And finally, a fourth group thought that Reconstruction had gone far enough, equality among races was now assured, and Southerners were truly reformed. Even Charles Sumner, staunchest of Republican abolitionists, joined the new coalition of Liberal Republicans and Democrats, declaring the Democrats “changed.”

President Ulysses S. Grant. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

The coalition failed. Grant won a resounding victory in 1872, with 55 percent of the vote. But ongoing corruption and, perhaps most importantly, the depression following the Panic of 1873, led to further Republican losses. In the 1874 midterm elections, Democrats won control of the House of Representatives. In 1876, they almost won the presidency. The presidential election of 1876 featured widespread voting fraud, especially in the South, where White violence and intimidation kept many Black voters from the polls. The Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote, but won the Electoral College due to a bargain struck between Republicans and Democrats known as the Compromise of 1877.

The Compromise of 1877 allowed Republicans to keep the presidency. In exchange, Republicans had to give up Reconstruction. The United States military withdrew from the South, and were therefore no longer able to enforce newly passed civil rights legislation. In 1883, the Supreme Court determined that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 banning discrimination by private individuals or organizations was unconstitutional, further limiting the federal government’s power over the states.

The abandonment of civil rights as an issue in national politics led to a reconciliation between Northern and Southern Whites. As David W. Blight documents in his book Race and Reunion, soon no one on either side could even remember, or at least didn’t want to discuss, what had caused the Civil War. Many Northerners professed sympathy with the Southern cause and recognition of their valor in battle. They eventually came to accept the revisionist history of the South that slavery had not been the cause of the war. Many, including Grant, now wondered if Radical Reconstruction and the 15th Amendment hadn’t been mistakes all along.

In 1875, as the Civil War receded into hazy gray-blue memory, and intersectional comity appeared on the horizon, Frederick Douglass asked, “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?” The answer would have displeased but not surprised Douglass. Southern Whites had chafed under the yoke of Reconstruction, and were eager for revenge. After federal troops withdrew from the South, violence and repression towards Blacks roared back. Whereas under Reconstruction many Blacks voted and even won political office, “peace among whites” ended those freedoms. Jim Crow laws segregated Whites from Blacks and made Black advancement all but impossible. The demon of American prejudice was again ascendant.

At a first pass, it seems that the 2016 election was indeed a replay of the White backlash against Reconstruction - as CNN commentator Van Jones called it, a “whitelash.” In the Washington Post, political scientist Michael Tesler showed that racial resentment among Whites became strongly correlated with partisan allegiance during the Obama presidency, and that this correlation increased further in the 2016 election.

During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton eventually aligned herself with the Black Lives Matter movement, reform of her husband’s 1994 crime bill, and more liberal immigration policy. These commitments represented real progress for the Democratic Party and the country as a whole. Donald Trump called the Black Lives Matter movement “divisive” and declared himself “the law and order candidate,” ready to re-impose stop-and-frisk along with a host of other 90s-era tough-on-crime policies. And Trump won. Some even suggested it was Black Lives Matter, and Democrats’ embrace of the movement, that won Trump the election. With this diagnosis, the treatment for the Democrats’ electoral ills is clear: abandon Black Lives Matter and make peace with the lost White voters.

Frederick S. Douglass. Image courtesy the New York Historical Society.

But there are also important differences between the 1870s and now that suggest this surrender need not, and will not, happen. Radical Republicans in the 1870s had to pair their cause of racial equality with an unpopular president and a depressed economy, arrayed against a business community bent on sectional reconciliation and unconcerned with civil rights, and entrenched, violent opposition from Whites in much of the country. For Democrats today, all these forces are diminished, if not reversed.

American businesses today want to present themselves as inclusive and diverse, even if it means opposing the Republican Party. Business boycotts have proven more effective than federal legislation or court decisions at reversing the policies of Republican-controlled state governments. In 2015, Indiana passed a law allowing businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. This led to the NCAA threatening to move its tournament to another state, and tech company Salesforce.com threatening to reverse plans to expand its Indiana operations. In 2016, North Carolina’s HB2 bill requiring transgender people to use the bathroom of the sex listed on their birth certificate led to PayPal and Deutschebank canceling expansions in North Carolina. These high-profile decisions are part of what led to the law’s unpopularity, and Democrat Roy Cooper’s election as Governor.

During the presidential election, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted the parable, “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” Skittles’ corporate owner Mars, Inc tweeted back, “Skittles are candy; refugees are people. It’s an inappropriate analogy.” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson had a viral moment in September after giving a speech to company employees in support of Black Lives Matter. He got a standing ovation. American corporations still engage in plenty of discrimination. They employ prison labor, thereby benefitting from mass incarceration of Black people. Some corporations even run those prisons. But any number of Trump’s statements during the campaign would get somebody fired from a corporate job.

The cynically-minded might think that corporations tout diversity and equality not out of true conviction, but out of fear of bad publicity. But why is it bad publicity? In 1877, bad publicity meant stirring up sectional animosities from the Civil War. In 2016, bad publicity comes from intolerance. This is partly because Whites are more sensitive to intolerance now than they were in 1877. But it’s also because non-Whites count as a part of the public in a way that they didn’t before. And that’s true in politics as much as it is in the marketplace. Even with new voter suppression measures in many states across the South, Blacks were 12 percent of the 2016 electorate. Latinos represented another 12 percent. Democrats have not won the White vote since 1964, despite winning the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. To win again, Democrats don’t have to win back all of the White vote. They don’t need the votes of the most “racially resentful” Whites. Barack Obama lost the White vote by 12 points in 2008, and won the election in a landslide.

Black votes are also more advantageously distributed today than they were in 1877. Then, the vast majority of Blacks still lived in the South. Once Democrats established single party rule under Jim Crow, Republican politicians were separated from Black voters. Now, even if Republicans dramatically escalated voter suppression tactics in Republican-controlled states, Black and Latino voters would remain a large share of the Democratic Party base, and therefore command a share of its attention and energy.

Even as the number of White votes that Democrats need to win declines, the number they can win while maintaining a civil rights platform is increasing. One of the main obstacles to Blacks gaining equal rights has been that Whites simply refuse to believe that Blacks have been mistreated. This is changing, in part because of media technology. It’s harder to dismiss police mistreatment when it is filmed and spread across the Internet in real time. These videos, and the movement they have inspired, have changed public opinion. According to polls by Pew Research Center, between March 2014 and May 2016, the percentage of Americans who say “our country needs to continue making changes to give Blacks equal rights with Whites” increased from 46 to 61 percent. Even 36 percent of Republicans agree that “more changes are needed.”

Public opinion is at an odd moment. There’s no doubt that views on race issues have changed tremendously since Reconstruction. Obama, the country’s first Black president, remains the most popular politician in America. His favorability ratings will likely increase after he leaves office. Huge majorities in public opinion polls support interracial marriage. Among Democratic White voters, 64 percent support the Black Lives Matter movement either “somewhat” or “strongly,” versus eight percent who oppose it. Independent White voters support the movement 42 to 25 percent. And yet Donald Trump, who refused to rent his apartments to Black people and entered political life as the leader of the Birther movement, will be the next president of the country.

The most reasonable way to reconcile this seeming contradiction is that most people vote based on something other than a candidate’s stance on racism. It’s surely true that for some voters, Donald Trump’s racism and sexism was a selling point. But for many, his bigotry was not a siren song. It just wasn’t disqualifying, as Democrats hoped it would be. It may be a sad consolation that so many Americans voted for Trump despite his bigotry rather than because of it. But it means that for Democrats to win, they don’t have to appeal to White voters’ racism. They don’t even have to break their alliance with people of color. They just have to offer those voters something else to care about, represent their platform forcefully, and wait for the right combination of luck and Republican misgovernance.

Obama’s 2008 candidacy is instructive. Obama did not base his candidacy around becoming the first Black president. The main reason he won the primary against Hillary Clinton was his opposition to the war in Iraq, which was also the main reason that President George W. Bush had become so unpopular. The lesson is that to defeat an unpopular president—and Trump will take office with favorability ratings well below those of previous presidents—you have to oppose him. Voters give out no brownie points for reaching across the aisle to work with the other party. When they see the President and the opposition holding hands, they assume it is the President who has reached out. When they see the two far apart, they assume that it is the President who must bring them closer together.

Not only do Democrats not need to cooperate with Trump and the Republicans in order to regain power, cooperation is actively detrimental to the future success of Democrats. When White voters in the Midwest come back to the Democratic Party, it won’t be because Trump finally says something that’s too offensive, or because Democrats blow the right dog whistle to appeal to White racism. It will be because Republicans fail at government, and there are Democrats who have been opposing Republicans all along. If Trump’s Cabinet selections and Republican legislative plans are any suggestion, Democrats will have plenty of opportunity to oppose Trump in ways that will be popular with the public, just as Reconstruction-era Democrats hung around opposing Grant until governing failures gave them back the House and allowed them to shed the yoke of federal intervention in Southern politics.

That opposition should be led by elected Democrats in the House and Senate, but it cannot end there. Part of the reason that HB2 led to the downfall of Republican Governor Pat McCrory is that it caused corporate boycotts. But another reason is that opposition built on the Moral Monday protest movement. A common assumption is that protests should wait until things get really bad, at which point the movement just appears, fully formed. But these movements—whether it by the civil rights movement or the Tea Party—take time to build.

Unlike their post-Reconstruction Republican counterparts, Democrats have institutions through which opposition can be organized. The Moral Monday protests were organized by Reverend William J. Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP. Labor unions are endangered, but not extinct. The Democratic Party itself, though it has lost power in a majority of state governments, is still present in every state, unlike the Republican Party under Jim Crow. Progressives can use these institutions to organize not just at the federal level in Congress, but at the state and local level as well. This is where the worst abuses happen, especially when the federal government is no longer a counterbalance against discrimination. Democrats have relied on executive action, federal legislation and court decisions to reverse state laws. Republicans during Reconstruction did the same thing. When Reconstruction ended, the Republican Party abandoned the South, and segregationists were left unchecked. Winning back power at the state level, through local organization, is one substitute for losing federal power.

Modern Progressives have one final advantage over Radical Republicans: President Barack Obama. It’s unclear right now what role Obama will take once he leaves office. In a recent interview with David Axelrod he said he would be “quiet for a while.” But his mere existence is loud. He remains the most popular politician in America - far more popular than Trump - and his popularity will likely increase once he leaves office, as it has for previous Presidents. Every Democrat will want to align themselves with Obama, just as both Hillary and Sanders tried to do in the 2016 primary, and as Hillary did during the general election. Even without saying a word, Obama, the first Black President in American history and the most popular politician of our time, will be a magnetic force for Democrats, tugging them away from reconciliation with bigotry.

Democratic failure will come not because the public is impossibly wedded to Trump—already, 50 percent view him unfavorably, while 42 percent that view him favorably—but because Democrats do not unify. Leftists decide that the Democratic Party is impossibly compromised. Democrats decide that the NAACP is too radical for mainstream America, or that unions are too wedded to Trump’s economic nationalism, or that they can divide Republicans by cutting deals with Trump.

Early signs are mixed. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer seems eager to compromise with Trump on an infrastructure deal. Infighting in the race to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee has become personal and divisive, rehashing much of the bitter primary between Hillary and Bernie Sanders. Much of the Left remains exasperated with Clinton’s campaign. The Party somehow managed not to field a candidate in a race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. On the other hand, there is a lot of energy for progressive activism and organization. Democrats seem to be ready to fight Trump’s nominations, especially that of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, who once called the Voting Rights Act a “piece of intrusive legislation.” The favorite to win the DNC job seems to be Keith Ellison, a Black Congressman from Minnesota who is backed by Sanders, and therefore has considerable potential to unify the party. Sanders himself has made clear that he will not abandon the cause of racial equality. Obama, too, has made the case that the Democratic message is still powerful, even if the soaring rhetoric of Hope that carried him to victory in 2008 is now weighed down by eight years of hand-to-hand legislative combat.

In retrospect, the triumphalism surrounding Grant’s election was overdone. As it was for Obama’s election. As has been the defeatism surrounding Trump’s election. Trump’s presidency will be devastating for the cause of equality in the United States, and until it ends, every legal, political, and institutional safeguard will be stretched to its limits in protection of vulnerable rights. But just as the “demon of American prejudice” was never truly buried, neither is its victory ever complete. It is immortal, but not omnipotent. Elections never settle anything forever.