Saturday, June 4, 2016
June 4-5, 2016: The 1876 Election and 2016
[Following up the week’s Decoration Day series, a special post on what could learn from one of our most destructive presidential elections.]
On the worst and best lessons of a disastrous election.
As I highlighted in my recent Reconstruction series, there were many factors that contributed to America’s post-Civil War failures and tragedies, to the ways in which the initial hope and promise of Reconstruction (particularly for the nation’s African American community) became instead the first steps toward the period known as “the nadir.” That process can’t be condensed into a single moment, not even a monumental presidential election. Yet at the same time, such elections can at the very least reflect—and of course can also extend and amplify—broader trends, and on multiple levels the 1876 election did so: from Rutherford B. Hayes’ triumph over more progressive candidates at the contested Republican National Convention to the controversial “crooked bargain” by which Hayes was awarded the presidency over Samuel Tilden in exchange for the removal of all Federal troops from the South and the final abandonment of both Reconstruction and African American rights. When The Nation opined, in an 1877 editorial, that “the negro will disappear from the field of national politics,” it was in direct response to this transformative (in the worst sense) 1876 election.
Here in the continuing sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, and on the 140th anniversary of that disastrous election, I believe we could be in for a historic and horrific repeat. If Donald Trump were to be elected to the presidency, it wouldn’t just be the most ridiculous electoral result in American history (although yes); it would also signal a decisive repudiation of all that the election and presidential administration of Barack Obama has reflected and symbolized in our evolving national society and identity. That doesn’t mean that Obama’s presidency illustrated the achievement of some ideal, any more than Reconstruction meant all of the nation’s divisions and problems had been solved; yet such a realistic perspective shouldn’t keep us from recognizing and celebrating periods of possibility and progress, moments that encapsulate the better angels of our American nature. Such moments always bring out our worst devils as well, of course—in 1876 those worst devils truly took over national politics, and it’s quite possible to argue that they continued to dominate for at least the next quarter-century. It’d be hard for me to see a Trump victory and administration as anything other than another descent into the worst of what we’ve been and are.
That hasn’t happened yet, though. And as I’ve contemplated what role public AmericanStudies scholars and scholarship can play in this evolving election season, it has become clearer and clearer to me that providing salient historical contexts has never been more significant. It’s easy, and to my mind not wrong, to do so with outside such contexts related to fascist movements around the globe. More difficult, but even more important, is the work of highlighting the American contexts for this moment, both to help us understand what’s happening and why, and (most hopefully but most crucially) to give us the ammunition we need to fight back. In 1876, there were very few prominent public venues for alternative voices, for those hoping to argue for and continue working toward the best angels and America. In 2016 there have never been more such spaces and opportunities, not only for public scholars but also and even more importantly for communal and democratic movements such as hashtag activism. We’re going to need all of our voices if we’re going to take the most vital lessons from 1876 and ensure that this election—and the decades to follow—won’t repeat the past.
Next series begins Monday,
PS. What do you think?