This brand of white identity politics can be defeated. In the 1930s, a coalition of labor unions, urban liberals and Northern Black voters turned the Democratic Party from one of the nation’s oldest white supremacist political institutions — an incubator of terrorists and bandits, united by stunning acts of racist cruelty against Black Americans in the South — into the party of civil rights. This did not happen because Democratic Party leaders picked up tomes on racial justice, embraced jargon favored by liberal academics or were struck by divine light. It happened because an increasingly diverse constituency, one they were reliant on to wield power, forced them to.
That realignment shattered the one-party system of the Jim Crow South and ushered in America’s fragile experiment in multiracial democracy since 1965. The lesson is that politicians change when their means of holding power change and even the most authoritarian political organization can become devoted to democracy if forced to.
With their fragile governing trifecta, Democrats have a brief chance to make structural changes that would even the playing field and help push Republicans to reach beyond their hard-core base to wield power, like adding states to the union, repairing the holes the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts blew in the Voting Rights Act, preventing state governments from subverting election results and ending partisan control over redistricting. Legislation like the PRO Act would spur unionization and the cross-racial working-class solidarity that comes with it. Such reforms would make Republican efforts to restrict the electorate less appealing and effective and pressure the party to cease its radicalization against democracy.
We know this can work because of the lessons of not only history but also the present: In states like Maryland and Massachusetts, where the politics of cruelty toward the usual targets of Trumpist vitriol would be self-sabotaging, Republican politicians choose a different path.
The ultimate significance of the Trump era in American history is still being written. If Democrats fail to act in the face of Republican efforts to insulate their power from voters, they will find themselves attempting to compete for an unrepresentative slice of the electorate, leaving the vulnerable constituencies on whom they currently rely without effective representation and democratic means of self-defense that the ballot provides.
As long as Republicans are able to maintain a system in which they can rely on the politics of white identity, as the Democratic Party once did, their politics will revolve around cruelty, rooted in attempts to legislate their opponents out of existence or to use the state to crush communities associated with them. Americans will always have strong disagreements about matters such as the role of the state, the correct approach to immigration and the place of religion in public life. But the only way to diminish the politics of cruelty is to make them less rewarding.
Adam Serwer (@AdamSerwer) is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the forthcoming “The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present and Future of Trump’s America.”
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