Nov 15, 2016

The Economic Aspect of Redemption

A common take on the election of Donald Trump is by analogy to the Redemption of the South after the end of Reconstruction in 1876, when white supremacists took over the Republican governments of the southern states and stood up Jim Crow. Here's one from Adam Serwer, here's one from Jamelle Bouie, here's one from Donald Neiman.

I think this is a reasonable way to think about things, so long as we don't lose sight of the fact that nothing on the horizon is remotely as bad as the terrorism-enforced caste system of Jim Crow as yet. However, none of the above takes mention the Panic of 1873, something that was absolutely critical to the death of Reconstruction. This was the second-worst economic collapse in American history, and as tends to happen to the party in power, Republicans were utterly obliterated in the 1874 midterms. They lost 93 seats in the House, and enough state legislatures that 7 Senate seats were lost as well. It was the single biggest wave election of the 19th century.

Elements within the Republican Party tried in 1874 to pass an inflation bill to increase the supply of currency and hopefully restore jobs and output. But they ran headlong into the ideology of the upper class. "To the metropolitan bourgeoisie, it epitomized all the heretical impulses and dangerous social tendencies unleashed by the depression," writes Eric Foner in Reconstruction. Under their pressure, President Grant vetoed the bill.

The Reconstruction-era Republican Party was a coalition between whites in the North, many of them well-to-do, and largely poor blacks in the South. When capitalism had one of its periodic meltdowns, and push came to shove, rich Northern whites decided they would rather have property than democracy. "The depression also pushed reformers' elitist hostility to political democracy and government activism (except in the defense of law and order) to almost hysterical heights," writes Foner. He quotes The Nation explicitly warning of poor southern blacks and poor northern whites forming a "proletariat" that would be "as if they belonged to a foreign nation."

The background to this, of course, is the ongoing debate over the role the unquestionable economic failures of the Obama administration played in Trump's rise. I think Sam Adler-Bell strikes the right balance — not only is this a false dichotomy, it is simply preposterous to think one can provide a full picture of racism without considering class, or vice versa. But when we're talking historical lessons, the one I see from Reconstruction is that any political formation dedicated to protecting broad civil rights must also avoid economic calamity, or fix it immediately if it does strike. Social justice politics cannot survive coupled to neoliberalism and austerity — and conversely, full employment and a strong welfare state are powerful weapons against bigotry.