Sunday, August 30, 2020

Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman's "Four Threats"

Suzanne Mettler is the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in the Government Department at Cornell University. She is the author of several books, including The Government-Citizen Disconnect; Degrees of Inequality: How The Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream; and The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Programs Undermine American Democracy.

Robert C. Lieberman is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the award-winning books Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State and Shaping Race Policy: The United States in Comparative Perspective, and has written about American politics for Foreign Affairs.

Lieberman applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Four Threats concisely describes the brief movement toward multiracial democracy in the American South during Reconstruction. After the Civil War, newly liberated African Americans embraced voting rights with the support of the Republican party, which eagerly recruited and organized supporters among these new voters. Rates of voter registration and participating soared in southern states and African Americans used their newfound power to change the face of American government. Over the course of Reconstruction more than two thousand African Americans served in elected office, from state legislatures to state houses and the United States Congress. But Reconstruction and Black political empowerment provoked a violent reaction from southern whites that ultimately led, by century’s end, to the disenfranchisement of nearly four million African American men and the backsliding of American democracy.

Page 99 tells only a part of this story, and in fact it mostly serves as a setup for one of the central narrative events of the book, the white supremacist coup d’├ętat in Wilmington, North Carolina, in November 1898. North Carolina was one of the successes of the New South, with a growing Black middle class and numerous African American office holders. In the mid-1890s, the state was governed by a biracial “fusion” coalition of Republicans and Populists. But in the 1898 election, white supremacist Democrats fought back, employing electoral fraud, voter intimidation, and violence, to defeat the fusionist incumbents—except in Wilmington, the state’s largest city, where the Fusionists retained power in the municipal government.

On November 10, two days after the election, white supremacists struck violently against the democratically elected government in Wilmington. Led by the Red Shirts, a paramilitary organization affiliated with the Democratic party, and backed by the White Government Union, a Democratic political club, a heavily armed force stormed the city. They set fire to the offices of the Daily Record, an African-American newspaper, and then advanced through Black neighborhoods, killing dozens. They dragged numerous prominent Black citizens, including the sheriff and the chief of police, from their homes and forced them to leave town. In the afternoon, they compelled the mayor, alderman, and other public officials to resign at gunpoint. They installed a new government of their own handpicked white Democrats.

Within months, Democrats finished the job of disempowering African Americans statewide, amending the state constitution to impose poll taxes and literacy tests as voting qualifications. Some states in the South had already taken such actions earlier in the decade, and after North Carolina acted, others followed suit. Soon all states in the region had put in place provisions that allowed white Democrats to rule unchallenged by denying African Americans the right to vote. Once Blacks lost political power, the full establishment of Jim Crow segregation followed. The federal government was complicit in these developments, first by turning a blind eye and failing to intervene, and later by enforcing segregation in the military and bureaucracy.

This episode is a devastating example of the repeated crises and reversals that American democracy has faced throughout its history, and this is the book’s central theme. Four threats make democracy hard to sustain: political polarization, conflict over who belongs as a full member of society (along racial lines, for example), high and rising economic inequality, and excessive executive power. In the crises of the 1890s, three of the four existed (all except the last), and the result was dramatic democratic backsliding that persisted for decades.

Today, for the first time, the United States faces all four threats, presenting unprecedented danger to the American experiment.
Learn more about Four Threats at the St. Martin's Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue