The Democrats are getting their act together
1. Democrats Are Building on Unity Over Iraq Pullout
By ROBIN TONER /NY Times
WASHINGTON — No one has seemed more surprised by the Democrats’ success in pushing an exit strategy for Iraq than the Democrats.
Their aggressiveness and unity on a major foreign-policy challenge to the president is a striking change for a party that has, on many occasions over many years, seemed to be on the defensive on national security issues.
In fact, for much of the post-Vietnam era, the Republican advantage on those issues has been a defining feature of American politics. Many Democrats felt they needed to prove, again and again, that their party was tough enough to defend the nation’s interests — to fight the notion, often stoked by Republicans , that Democrats were the party of George McGovern and the nuclear freeze.
Critics on the party’s left complained that Democratic leaders had grown risk-averse, too consumed with defending against old charges from the 60s and 70s, too reluctant to stand up against the president.
But the Democratic votes over the past five days, calling for the withdrawal of most American combat troops from Iraq next year despite repeated threats of a presidential veto, show how much that image has shifted.
In the debate on Capitol Hill, Republicans mounted the same arguments that have proved so unsettling to the Democrats in the past: that they advocated policies of retreat, failed to support the troops, lacked the necessary resolve to use force to fight terrorism.
In the House, they chose as their closing speaker Representative Sam Johnson, Republican of Texas, who spent 42 months in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He asserted that the consequences of American withdrawal were then, and would be now, catastrophic.
But Democrats, across the ideological spectrum, did not back down.
“It was an amazing outcome when you think about it,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the party’s whip, after the Senate vote. “We’ve been able to keep a very thin majority in the Senate together on major votes on Iraq with only a very few defections.”
To a large extent, the party is responding to political circumstances that would embolden even the most cautious lawmaker. President Bush’s political standing has plummeted as the war has dragged on. Confidence in the Republican Party’s leadership on national security has also fallen. By October, the two parties were even when a New York Times/CBS News poll asked which would do a better job on terrorism; in the fall of 2002, Republicans had a 42-point advantage.
More to the point: “The public really wants something done about Iraq,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center . A Pew poll released this week found that 59 percent of Americans supported a deadline for combat troops to be withdrawn in 2008.
Democratic resolve was also fueled by Mr. Bush’s decision in January to pursue a troop buildup in Iraq rather than begin a pullout.
“The president’s response just drove many people on the fence to our side,” Senator Durbin said. “The idea of sending more soldiers into this was exactly the opposite of what the American people were looking for.”
It seemed, many Democrats say, a direct defiance of the voters in last year’s midterm elections.
The broader question is whether the war forges an enduring change in the Democratic Party, its stance and its credibility on national security. Many strategists are already warning that over the long haul, it is not enough to be antiwar: the Democrats need a strong, affirmative vision of foreign policy.
“If getting out of Iraq defines entirely who the Democrats are on national security, then over the long run, it will be a disaster,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. Rather, Iraq needs to be part “of a larger strategy aimed at showing how to protect America’s national security interests,” he said.
Former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who played a key role in military policy during his years in Congress, said the intellectual challenge facing the Democrats was immense, but so were the potential payoffs.
“What challenges the Democrats now is fashioning — not just muscular, not just more — but a more sophisticated approach to security,” he said, “and that requires you to comprehend the security needs of the 21st century. That’s the prize to be won, because the Republicans are in huge disarray now.”
Democratic Congressional leaders say they are moving in the direction of an alternative foreign policy vision. They added money in the new legislation, for example, for the conflict in Afghanistan. And policy groups in various wings of the party are working on their own proposals.
Ultimately, though, the party’s foreign policy will be defined on the presidential campaign trail, by the candidates and eventually the nominee. “Congress can only take this so far,” Senator Durbin said. “We deal with dollars and with votes.”
Even so, the votes in the House and Senate have already transcended the standard incrementalism of legislative work. And it may prepare the way for even more aggressive challenges to come.
Julian E. Zelizer, a historian at Boston University , noted that these votes, like the early votes on civil rights legislation, were critical to the Congressional psyche. “Every time you take a vote like this, and you survive, and there’s no big payback, it encourages you to do more,” he said.
Which may explain the ferocity of the pushback from the White House.
2. Bottom-Up Power
by Laura Flanders/The Nation
An odd thing happens on the way to an American election. For months politicians talk about the importance of voters, voting and the power of majorities. Then on election night–wham–suddenly the only person who matters is the candidate. Thanks to media that cover elections as if they were races, all the attention goes to the horses; there’s little left for the people in the stands. Consider what happened in the wake of the Republican rout in the 2006 midterm elections. Just days after election night, the Sunday-morning TV talk shows were in full gallop, training attention away from the hordes of people and the organizing that had just flipped both houses of Congress and focusing instead on the few politicians who might be expected to run for President.
The brighter the spotlight on the candidate, the dimmer the darkness that falls on everyone else. Take Montana. The first Democrat to win the governorship in sixteen years, Brian Schweitzer, sparked breathless talk about a “Montana Miracle” when he won office in 2004, the same year that Democrats gained power in both chambers of state government after twelve years of GOP dominance. The national public heard more about Schweitzer’s bolo tie and boots than they did about his politics–but no matter, when his protégé Jon Tester pulled off a nail-biter win in the Senate two years later, Democratic hopes rose even higher. Maybe the Montana magic will rub off and herald Democratic victories across the West.
When the Democrats hold their national convention in Denver in 2008, Schweitzer and Tester are bound to be headliners. “The future is wearing a turquoise bolo tie wrapped around the open collar of a blue-and-white-striped button-down dress shirt,” began a typical article on Schweitzer in Salon . Tester, an organic farmer with a big frame and a flattop haircut, has stimulated similar style-over-substance talk. But the big men are not all that’s going on in the Big Sky state. To talk about a one- or even a two-man miracle is to ignore what’s really interesting about politics in Montana. As two local feminists, Judy Smith and Terry Kendrick, put it in their essay “Revisiting the Montana Miracle,” “rather than a miracle [what happened in ‘04] was closer to a perfect storm.” As I discovered during my travels out West last spring, what’s been happening there may indeed have lessons for national Democrats–but not if the analysis stops with the candidates.
The day I arrive in Missoula, in March 2006, I meet a bright, blond athlete named Betsy Hands. As we drive around town, Hands tells me she is a former Peace Corps volunteer and environmental scientist who spent years in various African countries and once led wilderness trips for Outward Bound. She is program director at homeWORD, a community housing organization that helps low-income women and families buy affordable homes. She’s also a competitive telemark skier and, oh yes, she’s running for office, a seat in the State Assembly. “Somebody’s got to step up, and why not me?” Hands tells me cheerfully. It’s an attitude I hear a lot in this state.
On March 8 at the Missoula Women’s Day Potluck, trestle tables sag under the array of food. A cheerful noise spurts from a childcare room next door. Around the hall, women’s groups working on violence, healthcare and workplace discrimination are scattered about. What they have in common, I gradually learn, is that they are all members of something called Montana Women Vote, a coalition of ten statewide women’s organizations focused on increasing women’s participation in elections and encouraging women to run for office. This isn’t presidential election season; it’s eight months before a Congressional midterm race, yet on just about every table there is something about voting, a flier for a fundraiser or an invitation to attend a training for candidates. Voter registration forms are everywhere.
“The thing I often say about electoral politics is that I never thought I’d find myself doing it,” Judy Smith told me the next day. Smith is a longtime activist and a founder, with Terry Kendrick, of Montana Women Vote. “I was part of that radical contingent in the 1960s and ’70s which thought that electoral politics was not something that would make real change,” continued Smith. Her beliefs haven’t changed that much, but the possibility of affecting policy-makers through movement pressure has. In 1994 the Democratic Party in Montana found itself in the same fix that national Democrats woke up to in 2002: Out of power in both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, “we were out in the wilderness, lost, trying to figure out why we were lost,” Tester’s state director Bill Lombardi, a longtime Democratic consultant, recalled. Montana was once a comfortably Democratic state that had only returned one Republican to the Senate in its history, but its demographics and its economy had shifted such that a whole lot of traditional Democratic voters (women, blue-collar workers, low-income urban dwellers) had abandoned the Democratic Party, or the state. Republicans, meanwhile, were reaping the benefits of years of investment in Western states by the organized right, including the Christian Coalition and the corporate-backed Wise Use anti-environmentalist movement. In 1994, the year that swept Newt Gingrich to power, Montana Democrats won just thirty-three of 100 seats in the State Assembly and nineteen of fifty in the Senate.
Local women’s groups, like homeWORD, had no allies left to lobby. “Instead of running into that wall over and over, we had to crack that wall open,” said Smith. And they weren’t the only ones who felt that way.
For most of the past 150 years, Montana was a mining and timber-run state. Pit-head derricks still rise above the dusty streets of Butte, once called “the richest hill on earth.” Next to the mines today lurks a huge lake of acid-laced water, part of the nation’s largest Superfund site. With the decline of mining and logging, an environmental movement has grown up that’s part conservationist, part hunters and fishers and part citizens concerned about the toxins in their water. By the end of the 1990s, as Theresa Keaveny, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, explains it, good environmental laws passed in the 1970s “had been gutted, and just working on lobbying and rule-making wasn’t enough. We realized we had to change the policy-makers, and that demanded a political response. We had to elect people.”
Long before the media spotlight hit their state in 2004, Montana Women Vote convened a Voter Summit to prepare for the 2004 election. In attendance were the state’s biggest nonprofits responsible for conducting election-related work. According to Kendrick, the groups shared data, coordinated strategies and divvied up their turf so that the state was covered and individual groups weren’t duplicating one another. The coordinated campaign of the Montana Democratic Party, the groups that made up the Voter Summit, and Native Vote, a powerful new group, registered 40,000 new Montana voters between the primary and the general election. In a gubernatorial race that was decided by just 19,703 votes, those numbers are huge. Because they didn’t rely on bused-in volunteers and hadn’t left the field in the intervening months, these same groups were able to draw on their base again for the hotly contested 2006 Tester versus Conrad Burns Senate race.
When it comes to campaigning, Democratic consultants typically recommend “broadening the electorate” (which usually means dashing for Republican voters) over deepening the “natural” base (the groups the party prefers to take for granted). More or less written off by the Democratic National Committee since Ronald Reagan won Montana in 1980, Democrats there have been mercifully spared DC advice. As a result, the state party has gone its own way. In the 1990s Democrats in the legislature initiated a routine (one that’s shockingly unusual around the states) of meeting regularly with statewide officials, local party players and extra-party activists.
But the biggest change in Democratic fortunes came with the work of Native Americans, the state’s largest minority group. Montana has seven Native American reservations and is home to eleven tribes. Natives are a small percentage of Montana’s population (about 7 percent), but in some districts, and on the reservations, they are a 90 percent majority. They vote almost as solidly Democratic as African-Americans do–roughly 80 percent. When they vote. “We have felt powerless, and we’ve been told that we are powerless,” said State Senator Carol Juneau, who grew up on a reservation and lives today on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana. On the reservation, Native people have their own elected tribal leaders. It has taken local activists years, said Juneau, to build any sense among the residents that there is reason to engage in politics outside the reservation. Besides, state authorities–and politicians of both parties–actively kept Indians out of the process. Voting-rights suits brought by aggrieved Native American voters in the 1980s and redistricting in 2003 created three new constituencies–two in the Senate and one in the House–in which Native voters predominated, and several more competitive districts across the state. The plan was overseen by Janine Pease Pretty on Top, one of the early voting-rights plaintiffs.
Instead of conducting outsider “outreach” to minority voters, Democrats in Montana gave enough resources directly to local Native American leaders that they could participate on an equal footing and build their own base. Pat Williams, a longtime US Congressman from Montana who worked energetically for Native rights, remembers the process: To start, “we gave that money to a virtually all-white, all-male consulting group in Helena…. They didn’t consult. The effort collapsed.” The next time around, over the objections of his political staff, Williams saw to it that GOTV money went straight to the reservations, into the hands of the local Native leadership. “I was assured by everybody that the Indians would drink the money. Instead they had the highest gain of any ethnic group in any state in registration and turnout.”
In 2004 the Coordinated Campaign of the Montana Democratic Party hired a Democratic Party Tribal Coordinator. With help from Native Vote (a national initiative), voters were registered on each reservation and local candidates were recruited for statewide office, increasing voter interest and turnout. By election day, an estimated 4,000 new voters–about 10 percent of the voting reservation population–were newly registered, and more were running for office. The delegation sent to Helena after the 2004 election included eight Native Americans–the second highest number of Native legislators in any state, all Democrats. The lowest turnout of registered voters on any reservation was 46 percent, and the highest topped 64 percent. In 2006 the number of Native Americans winning election rose again, to ten–the most ever. On Juneau’s Blackfeet Reservation, 83 percent of all voters went for Jon Tester. “It shows the power of the Indian vote in Montana,” said Juneau, who was elected to the State Senate that same day.
Nationally, Democrats know low-income women are a target group, but at the state level few parties have the resources–or the relationships–to turn them out. Polls show that only about 30 percent of low-income women typically register to vote, let alone show up at the polls. In 2004 the member groups of Montana Women Vote exceeded their target of registering 5,000 new voters, especially low-income women in certain districts (they ended up registering 7,300). In 2006 they exceeded their goals again. Sharing public data acquired by their better-resourced friends at Montana Conservation Voters, the women say they learned how to cross-reference voting records with their own membership lists. “This isn’t rocket science,” said Judy Smith. Pooling their resources, Montana Women Vote volunteers contacted voters not once or twice but several times, and distributed voter guides. In 2004, 77 percent of the Montana Women Vote registrants voted–six points higher than the statewide turnout. In that year, Montana Women Vote alone turned out an estimated 5,600 new, disproportionately Democratic voters. Thanks to sophisticated tracking software, Theresa Keaveny was able to show that where Montana Conservation Voters was active, turnout was also higher than average: 84 percent of their registrants voted, according to Keaveny’s data, as did 93 percent of their own members–a minimum of 30,000 votes. In 2006, for the first time, Montanans could register and vote on election day. Grassroots groups offering free bus rides to the polls helped boost turnout to more than 60 percent.
Judy Smith is right. This stuff isn’t rocket science. Grassroots organizers of every stripe know what grassroots activists do. It’s just very rarely written down. When it comes to the right, liberal researchers pay close attention; they often draw complex, spidery maps plotting the political, financial and social networks that have made it possible for the right to grow. Yet when it comes to Democrats and their allies, liberal media tend to see only the top of the pyramid.
In the case of Montana, the popular liberal bloggers Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas didn’t just overlook the role of movements in their account of the “miracle”; they actively disparaged them. “Montana Democrats nearly cut the issue groups out of their campaign efforts,” wrote Armstrong and Moulitsas in their book Crashing the Gate . Calling it “a rare rebuke” of the issues groups inside the party, “but one that served the purposes of the long-suffering Montana Democratic Party,” the bloggers alleged that Schweitzer “threw all of the [interest group] questionnaires in the garbage.” Which allowed that, in their words, “Schweitzer and the rest of the Democratic ticket in Montana could stand on their own, unencumbered by whatever negative baggage those groups might bring.”
All that is just plain bunk. Maybe Schweitzer tossed somebody’s questionnaire in the trash, but according to the groups, he responded to the questionnaire from every “interest” group I’ve mentioned. Not only did Schweitzer respond to Montana Conservation Voters’ questions; he met with them, before and after the election, and sought the endorsement of their PAC, along with the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO and the teachers’ unions.
When I met with Schweitzer in the governor’s mansion last spring, he knew the numbers on the women’s vote precisely: “Montana Women Vote registered some 7,000 women to vote, many single women, and they probably voted 80/20 Democrat. There is another four or five thousand into the Democrat camp,” he noted. “That’s important.” Brad Martin of the Montana Democrats told reporters after the election, “We reached out early to the prochoice community, the hunting and fishing community and folks from the labor movement, and we said, Look, you’ve got to be a part of this.” After his election, Schweitzer created a new position in his Cabinet for an Indian Affairs coordinator and appointed women to top posts. In 2006 he appointed the freshly elected legislator Christine Kaufmann, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, an anti-hate group founded to combat militia violence in the late 1980s, to chair a newly established seven-member advisory council on civil rights.
The conventional wisdom about coattails would have you believe that the candidate at the top of the ticket always pulls those lower down in his or her wake. But take a closer look at who led whom to victory in Montana, and it’s not so clear the one on top did the leading. If anything, the results indicate a bottom-up or reverse-coattails effect. Brian Schweitzer won with just over 50 percent of the vote in a four-way race. He won in seventeen of fifty-six counties, in traditional Democratic counties and on the Native American reservations. He did well, but not as well as some other Democratic statewide candidates. (A progressive state Supreme Court justice, Jim Nelson, won with increased support and a bigger margin than Schweitzer’s.)
In several Democratic districts, progressive, grassroots-based state legislators outperformed the governor. In Helena, the two most progressive people on the ballot won with more votes and a bigger margin of victory: Christine Kaufmann and Mary Caferro, a single mother of four and former welfare recipient who directs a low-income families group, WEEL (Working for Equality and Economic Liberation), dedicated to the eradication of poverty. Schweitzer won 65 and 54 percent of the district vote, respectively, in Kaufmann’s and Caferro’s districts in 2004; they won 71 and 58 percent.
Candidacies like these are just what traditional party consultants hate. They’re risky, rely on mobilizing atypical voters and raise issues that challenge the center and the right. But sometimes the campaign is the point, says Kaufmann’s co-director at the Montana Human Rights Network, Ken Toole. “Sometimes the most important question is not Can you win, but Can you provide an alternative and use a campaign to advance a message,” he tells me. “That’s what the right has done for decades. They run not to win but to campaign.”
Montana’s a state where a little money goes a long, long way, and most legislative campaigns cost $10,000 max. In 2000, when Kaufmann and Toole both took leave from their jobs to run for office (she for the House, he for the State Senate), they both won. And they’ve won ever since. An out lesbian (only the second in the Montana legislature) in a district that includes not only a Catholic college but also a cathedral, Kaufmann won a four-way primary with 49 percent of the vote and then trounced her Republican opponent, a fundraiser for Catholic Charities. Term-limited in the Senate, Toole ran for a seat on the all-important Public Services Commission in 2006, in order to campaign against the privatization and deregulation of utilities. He won. The county commissioners chose Kaufmann to replace him, making her the first and only out lesbian in the State Senate.
With mentoring from Kaufmann and Toole and voter data from Keaveny and Kendrick, Mary Caferro won her primary race against an establishment incumbent. “I’m a low-income, single working parent with four kids [under 18] and a job. I know how to multitask,” she says with a laugh. About a quarter the size of Schweitzer, she matches his energy spark for spark. One of the reasons she ran for office, she said, was to give people like her a reason to believe in government. In a state that’s been besieged by extreme right-wing messages that blame gays and lesbians, immigrants and environmental regulations for the downturn of the blue-collar economy, keeping people engaged is a serious matter. “I was afraid that if we had another Republican majority, the last programs for low-income Montanans would be cut, and that would give poor people all the more reason to be discouraged and get alienated. I wanted people to see me and say, If Mary Caferro can run and win, I have a reason to continue to be part of the process.”
In his book What’s the Matter With Kansas? Thomas Frank describes how Republican power grew from the ground up. The lesson from Montana is that progressive power grows the same way. Schweitzer and Tester are both great charismatic candidates, with drive, strong positions and close relations with the organizations at their base. But in Helena, just about everyone’s in on the secret that outsiders tend to miss, namely that without progressive movements, there would have been no “Montana Miracle” in 2004–nor, most likely, a one-seat Democratic majority in the US Senate in 2006.
The Montana party now faces a challenge. A rabble of well-organized “outsiders” have learned the tricks of the party-insiders’ trade, and they’re rising in confidence, power and experience. Telemark skier Betsy Hands is now an Assemblywoman. After the 2005 session, in which Caferro was part of a successful effort to increase the minimum wage and expand the state’s child healthcare program to cover 5,000 more low-income children, she was handily re-elected in 2006. The voters this cohort brought into the process are wondering what happens next. The thrill of being a “ground troop” gets old fast. “Everyone knows people will not participate in a system in which they do not see an opportunity to lead,” Caferro told RadioNation in March 2006. Now the question for the party is, Will those who–really–made the miracle happen be permitted to enter the power structure and change it? Or will they be asked to sit quietly in the stands and watch the race? And for how long will grassroots blues with grit be willing to do that?
(Laura Flanders, host of The Laura Flanders Show on Air America Radio, and is the author of ‘Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species’.)
3. Why Reconstruction Explains Our Politics Today
By Heather Cox Richardson
A week after the 2004 presidential election, a friend sent me a map of America with the red and blue states superimposed over the Confederate and Union states of the Civil War years. The Republican red states fit almost perfectly over the southern states that supported the Confederacy and the western plains that were territories during the 1860s, and the Democratic blue states fit closely over the states that had supported the Union. The caption of the map suggested that today’s voters were still fighting the same issues over which they went to war in 1861. I was fascinated by the map, but not convinced by the caption. “This is exactly what my new book is about,” I wrote back. “But it’s not the Civil War that made today’s map match the earlier one. The story is all about reconstruction.”
This is the book that explains why today’s political map looks like a map of the 1860s. It argues that in the years between 1865 and 1901, a new definition of what it meant to be an American developed from a heated debate over the proper relationship of the government to its citizens. In spring 1865, Americans everywhere had to ask themselves how the different sections of the country could reconstruct themselves into a nation that offered individuals economic opportunity and political freedom at the same time that it protected private property. By 1901, a newly formed “middle class” had answered that question by embracing a worldview that divided the nation into two groups. On one hand, they believed, were hardworking Americans--those who believed that success came through hard work and that all Americans were working their way up together. On the other hand were special interests--those who believed that there were fundamental conflicts in society that must be adjusted by the federal government. Regardless of how much money they made, those who believed they could make it on their own saw themselves as part of “the great middle” between rich monopolists and the lazy poor who were trying to harness the government to their own needs. They distrusted certain suffragists, African Americans, and veterans, as well as certain kinds of businessmen and workers, believing that they wanted special government aid, which, if given, would destroy the American system of evenhanded government. At the same time, because they defined themselves as true Americans, members of this middle class willingly harnessed a growing national government to their own interest, for it was the government’s job, they believed, to promote the good of all Americans. Paradoxically, American individualists came to depend on government support while denying it to others.
This process was not as simple as today’s politicians would have us think, with small-government Republicans fighting against big-government Democrats who wanted to create a welfare state. In fact, in the mid-1800s, it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, who stood for big government and Democrats who insisted on government limitations. Instead, the process was a complicated story in which sectional animosities, racial tensions, industrialization, women’s activism, and westward expansion cut across party lines to create both a new definition of what it meant to be an American and a new vision of the government’s role in the lives of its citizens.
The stark division that contemporaries saw in nineteenth-century America was not as simple as they thought, either. From the very beginning of the postwar era, the government that Republicans had constructed to benefit everyone equally actually privileged eastern businessmen over southern and western farmers and laborers. Laws, the economy, and tradition firmly placed whites over blacks and most immigrants, and men over women. Then, too, protesters of these conditions were not all radicals attempting to monopolize the state, as their opponents claimed. Many, in fact, adopted the mainstream ideology and wanted relatively mild adjustments to society to make that dream a reality for them.
Although questions about the relationship between the government and its citizens were hardly new in 1865, one thing made the post–Civil War years critical for American identity: during the war, for the first time in American history, Congress had imposed national taxes. After the war, individuals--taxpayers--had a new and powerful interest in their government and were concerned about who should be able to vote about how their money was spent. The correct sphere of government was no longer an academic question, but of personal financial interest to every American. This new relationship between government and citizens meant that the question of who should have a voice in government took on great practical meaning. Who was, or should be, a citizen of the new nation? Should African Americans vote? Women? Immigrants? The poor? Would they make reasonable decisions about the expenditure of tax dollars?
These were not academic questions either, for during the war the Republican Congress had strengthened the national government, expanding its power dramatically with an army and a navy of more than a million men, and increasing its role in the economy with new legislation to develop the nation. Then, in January 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery, indicated the firm intention of Republican congressmen to strengthen the national government. With its second section declaring that “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation,” it was the first amendment in the history of the American Constitution that increased, rather than limited, the power of the national government. Nineteenth-century attempts to balance freedom, taxation, and government power were the central story of post–Civil War America. Their ultimate outcome defined a desirable American citizen and an ideal American state.
My interest in this process was sparked by the disparity between the way people a century and a half ago disparaged the government at the same time they developed it. I knew that for all their fervent talk about “self-made men” and “laissez-faire government,” late nineteenth-century Americans did not, in fact, decrease the size and activity of the national government. They increased it. How did they justify this contradiction? This question interested me deeply, for the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s brought this same paradox to the fore in modern American political rhetoric. It gives us antigovernment rhetoric from the South and western plains, regions that receive far more in federal aid than they pay in taxes. At the same time, the Northeast and West Coast support government activism although they receive back from the national government considerably less money than they pay in. In 2003, for example, taxpayers in Mississippi received a federal outlay of $1.83 for every dollar of federal tax they paid, while taxpayers from Massachusetts saw only $.78 come back to the state for every dollar they gave to Uncle Sam. Yet in 2004, Mississippi voters spoke firmly against government activism and Massachusetts voters spoke strongly in favor of it. Clearly there is a stark regional contrast in American thought between the reality of government activism and Americans’ image of it. How did nineteenth-century Americans negotiate this contrast?1
In order to find out, I tried to put myself as closely as I could into the position of an educated nineteenth-century American, worried about the future of the nation, my family, and myself. I read newspapers, novels, memoirs, and histories of the late 1800s; looked at paintings; and listened to music. As I did so, the world I saw around me appeared very different from the one I had read about in history books. Most histories of “reconstruction” focus on the South and its morass of racial problems. But nineteenth-century Americans never focused on racial problems in the postwar South to the exclusion of the issues of postwar industrialization and urbanization that appeared dramatically as early as 1866. Also, women were prominent in postwar records, exercising an increasingly visible role in American life and causing plenty of comment, both positive and negative. It seemed to me that the mindset of the era must have somehow incorporated the growing public activities of women, and that histories of the period that pushed women’s actions into their own sphere, divorced from American society in general, were missing an important part of the story.
Finally, it was evident that the reconstruction years could not be understood without acknowledging the central importance of the American West. The postwar years were the heyday of westward expansion, miners, the American cowboy, Plains Indians, and gunfighters. These events and characters were everywhere in the historical record. Indeed, as I worked, the obvious suddenly dawned on me: the nation’s strongest cultural images of the postwar years came from the West. Only a few of us could pick out a photograph of even the most prominent African Americans or industrialists--let alone a labor organizer or women’s activist--but most Americans have heard of Jesse James and Geronimo, and few people in the world wouldn’t recognize the American cowboy. The history of the West was part and parcel of the story of the reconstruction years and must be put back into it. Postwar “reconstruction” was the literal reconstruction of the North, South, and West into a nation in the aftermath of the Civil War. That rebuilding stretched from the end of the Civil War until the start of the twentieth century.
How did nineteenth-century Americans justify the expansion of government activism and still retain their wholehearted belief in individualism? Upwardly mobile members of American society opposed government activism to promote the interests of workers, big businessmen, minorities, and certain activist women, perceiving their demands as an attempt to advance a view of America as a land of class conflict rather than of economic harmony. Those in “the middle” between rich and poor firmly opposed government action on behalf of such “special interests,” insisting instead that the government should promote the good of all Americans. By skillfully defining those who believed in economic and social harmony--themselves--as true Americans rather than a special interest, while denigrating activist workers, African Americans, Populists, robber barons, and so on as un-American, middle-class Americans could argue for government intervention on their own behalf without fearing the destruction of the American system of government.
Workers had demanded government activism on behalf of labor since at least 1866, but when the government first curbed the excesses of business and established the principle of intervention in the economy at the end of the century, it did not do so to protect organized labor. Denying that government must balance the interests of workers and farmers against those of big business, the same congressmen who opposed labor activism for its apparent suppression of individual liberty undercut certain business practices on the grounds that businessmen were trampling on the American ideal of a level playing field in the economy. Intervention in the economy went on to become even more active, venturing into social welfare legislation, when middle-class women activists argued that the government must protect the ideal middle-class family.
Yet even as members of the American middle class deliberately harnessed a newly active national government to their own interests, they retained a vision of America as a land of individualism. This contradiction was possible because of the blinding postwar image of the American West. Regardless of the harsh realities of the late nineteenth-century West, the peculiarities of the postwar years made it represent economic opportunity, political purity, and social equality. When a Republican government dominated by northeasterners and far westerners tried to impose freedom on the South, ex-Confederates immediately developed antigovernment rhetoric. This antigovernment stance spread to the plains and mountain West despite the region’s complete dependence on the government, as angry settlers opposed a range of federal policies, from the awarding of army beef contracts to Indian policies. Then, as the Republican Party became loathed by its opponents as a patronage-spewing behemoth acting in the interests of African Americans and rich eastern businessmen, antigovernment protesters across the nation idealized the rural West as the opposite of the urban Northeast. This western antigovernment mindset flexed its muscles in the Spanish-American War when Theodore Roosevelt pointedly led a “cowboy” regiment up San Juan Hill to fight a conflict popularly justified as an attempt to take the nation away from eastern politicians and money-grubbing businessmen, returning it to independence, self-reliance, and morality. After the Spanish-American War, America was a land where an activist government supported individualism, and those who endorsed this contradictory ideology exported it to other nations through both trade and military conflict. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt--that “damned cowboy,” as a spokesman for the eastern establishment called him--sat in the White House, directing an activist government that served a peculiarly American middle class.
The pages that follow try to show what the nation looked like to nineteenth-century Americans. In order to do that, I have attempted to avoid portraying the era as one of abstract Forces--industry, labor, suffragists, immigrants, African Americans--conflicting over Big Issues. I have written this book as a narrative history about the experiences of a number of actual Americans who lived in the era from 1865 to 1901. When choosing my characters, I required that they lived through almost the entire period and that they left behind enough of their own words to tell their own stories. Ex-Confederate Wade Hampton and western scout Buffalo Bill, poet Julia Ward Howe, educator Booker T. Washington, and Sioux leader Sitting Bull, among others, fulfilled my requirements; labor pioneer William Sylvis, who died in 1869, and leading black politician W. Beverly Nash, who left few records, did not. As I researched these individuals, I was astonished at how often the lives of those who embraced a developing middle-class ideology crossed, suggesting that they recognized an affinity for those who thought like themselves and actively worked to spread their worldview across the country. Less prominent Americans who left fewer records aren’t introduced as individuals; rather, they show up on the shores of New York harbor watching the illumination of the Statue of Liberty, in a New Orleans freedmen’s meeting, in Missouri helping Jesse James hide from government agents, in a California mining camp trying to make a fortune. They are William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten Americans” who hated the idea of welfare legislation, the people who cheered when Ida B. Wells got dragged out of a white railroad car or applauded President Grover Cleveland’s use of the army against the Pullman strikers. They are also Theodore Roosevelt’s ideal hardworking citizens, black cowboy Nat Love’s race-blind westerners, Americans who begged the government to go to war to save the lives of Cuban women and children. They are both the worst and the best of America. This book is designed to tell the story of the construction of their worldview.
This middle-class ideology was both the greatest triumph and the greatest tragedy of reconstruction. It was an astonishingly inclusive way to run a country, making certain former slaves and impoverished immigrants welcomed participants in middle-class America, offering to them opportunities they could not have imagined in other countries, and it advanced women’s position in a dramatically short time. But this ideology also rendered Americans unable to recognize systematic inequalities in American life. Anyone who embraced the mainstream vision came to believe he or she was on the road to a middle-class life, no matter what the reality of his or her position actually was. When things went wrong, individuals had no one but themselves to blame for failure, even if its causes lay outside their control. A man unemployed during a recession or a woman beaten by her husband could find little sympathy in the middle-class worldview. More strikingly, though, this mindset deliberately repressed anyone who called for government action to level the American economic, social, or political playing field. If a group as a whole came to be perceived as looking for government handouts its members were aggressively prohibited from participating equally in American society, and all of the self-help in the world wasn’t going to change that. This middle-class vision also limited women’s role in society by basing their power on their positions as wives and mothers, not as independent, equal individuals. The powerful new American identity permitted many individuals to succeed far beyond what they might have achieved elsewhere, but that exceptional openness depended on class, gender, and racial bias.
The political contours of this division have changed over the decades, but the divided vision of the nation is still a potent part of Americans’ current mindset. It was certainly part of the 2004 electoral puzzle that made the red states, with their large government subsidies, vote so vehemently against what they perceived as government aid to “special interests.” And red staters who trumpet America’s greatness as a land of opportunity are right: the American ideology is truly great. This mindset is also, though, what made blue staters vote for a government that would level the economic, social, and political playing fields between different groups. The blue staters, too, are right; America has serious systematic inequalities embedded in its society. America is neither excellent nor oppressive; rather, it is both at the same time. In 1865, Americans had to reconstruct their shattered nation. Their solution “reconstructed” America into what it is today.
(Ms. Richardson is the author of West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2007), from which the following article is excerpted.)