Chris Wallace, formerly of Fox News, was visibly surprised when, in a CNN+ interview, journalist Nikole HannahJones reminded him that the United States was not established as a democracy. The creator of the 1619 Project informed Wallace that, at its birth, the nation still enslaved millions of Africans. She could have added genocide against Indigenous peoples and that, anyhow, only landowners could vote.
The matter of a universal franchise did not surface until after the Civil War ended in 1865 and the right to vote, fundamental to democracy, has been on a tortuous journey which is now being traveled backwards more than 150 years later. President Andrew Johnson scuttled Reconstruction and empowered the defeated states to set up their governments and, between 1865 and 1866, they promptly enacted laws — the Black Codes — denying citizenship to African Americans.
Congress passed a Civil Rights Bill In 1866 over Johnson’s veto to afﬁrm African Americans’ rights as citizens and a new Reconstruction Act in 1967, again over Johnson’s veto, which enabled African Americans across the South to vote in large numbers for the next 10 years. They elected two African American men to the U.S. Senate and 20 to the House of Representatives, as Sarah Pruitt noted on history.com.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratiﬁed in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves, and guaranteed “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens. The 15th Amendment in 1870 stipulates that voting rights may not be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
With regards to Indigenous peoples, the Library of Congress notes on its website that an effort at “assimilation” came with the Dawes Act of 1887 but “had a disastrous effect on many tribes, destroying traditional culture and society as well as causing the loss of as much as two-thirds of tribal land.” The Snyder Act of 1924 granted full citizenship to Indigenous peoples born in the United States but “it still took over 40 years for all 50 states to allow Native Americans to vote.”
The 15th Amendment, however, left it to states to establish qualiﬁcations for voting and Southern Legislatures imposed requirements such as literacy tests and poll taxes which “effectively reestablished the Black Codes in the form of so-called Jim Crow laws, a system of segregation that would remain in place for nearly a century.”
The struggle by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation in schools and other public places — but not voter suppression. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed such practices and the U.S. Supreme Court barred the use of poll taxes as a condition for voting.
But, in 2013, the court, by 5-4, ruled as unconstitutional the key clause of the Voting Rights Act requiring states with a history of voter discrimination to obtain prior federal approval before changing their election laws. It is that ruling which has given birth to a modern version of the Black Codes. By February this year, more than 20 states had introduced 250 bills with “restrictive provisions,” the Brennan Center for Justice reported. Several states have also been gerrymandering electoral districts to dilute African American voting strength.
The restrictions apply especially to mail voting also – in keeping with former President Donald Trump’s false claim that this method of obtaining and casting a ballot allowed for fraud and helped cost him the 2020 election. Though all states certiﬁed their results and several courts rejected the “stolen election” lie, Trump persists in this falsehood to secure his grip on millions of supporters and deploy that power to endorse candidates. Democrats have responded with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act but both are stalled in the Senate.
So, not only was there no democracy at the birth of the nation but, also, there are major legislative efforts, with astonishing similarity, to again make it difﬁcult for millions of citizens to vote. The new Black Codes have the same purpose as the original version — to entrench the franchise among European Americans – but also to empower them to pass laws at the state level that would be problematic in Congress, especially in light of the nation’s changing demographics. Ultimately, the goal is to create an autocratic federal government whose polices would be permanently aligned with ethno-nationalist European American ideals. The revival of the Black Codes is directed against not only African Africans but also all Americans who oppose a looming autocracy.
At another level, a report stated that “his right-wing fans gush, [he] has rolled back LGBTQ rights, he’s kept out refugees, he’s cowed the media, he’s raised the native birthrate, he’s made liberal philanthropist George Soros into a national hate ﬁgure, he’s gerrymandered the electoral system and he’s packed the courts.” That is not about Trump but about Viktor Orbán, the autocrat holding power in Hungary whom Trump and others have embraced unreservedly, along with sundry other European ethno-centrist leaders in and out of ofﬁce.
But such a scenario, and worse, is entirely possible if Trump returns to the White House. As president, he effectively replaced the Republican Party with his Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement. He stocked his administration with known anti-democratic elements and enabled rightwing extremists to enter the American political mainstream. He set the stage for the most undemocratic of acts — storming the seat of the federal government in a failed coup to keep him in power. Some of his advisers pushed him to seize ballot boxes and declare martial law to stay in power. He balked then but may not the next time.
There is something surreal about the fact that, according to a Washington PostABC poll published this week, 73 percent of Americans approve of the country’s support for Ukraine to counter Russia’s invasion to dismantle that state but efforts at home to subvert American democracy has not prompted nearly similar outrage.