Taking the Vote Away from White People: Tea Party Populism and Elite Intentions

April 2, 2014 / one comment

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About 30 years ago I wrote about the disfranchisement campaigns after the Civil War and during the Populist movement of the 1880s-1890s.  Leafing through some old papers, I realized that the topic was more relevant than ever, given the rabid Republican revival of the disfranchisement movement.  It’s the same story, over and over again.  Except, the last time around the Democrats were at the helm.  Then again, back in the Old South, Democrats were just Democrats because they couldn’t be Republicans. Follow me below the fold for a history lesson, heavy on the irony….

Republicans are waging an all-out war on black and Latino voters.  At least, that’s what their base thinks, because the Republican campaign for voting restriction is based on evoking the specter of dark hands at the ballot box, voting with nefarious, un-American purpose. There’s nothing but an Amen chorus to be heard from the Tea Party, or even from more authentically grassroots Republicans in the lower socio-economic brackets. The Republican middle-class (what there is left of it) is nodding genteel approve to more and more draconian policies. But the text of the sermon floats down from rarified air, from the pulpits of the privileged class.

Not that it falls on deaf ears — no, of course not. The white working class is hungry—those that still have jobs are performing the kind of service work they always assumed was the domain of those who were… darker. The white middle- class is hysterically trying to hold on to the status that credit bought them (dreading the knock of the debt collector at their door, dreading their pink slip even more). The fact that they both got there by pulling the wrong levers at the ballot box seems to be lost of the majority. Blaming immigrants and non-whites is much easier than facing the America they’ve (un)built. The Republican elite can see this as clearly now as they always have, and have returned to the same old divide-and-conquer strategies that have always worked so well for them.  The disfranchisement push is one of those, though most white voters have no idea what it’s really about. As a student of history, however, I will stake a claim: Disfranchising minorities is a sweet by-product of the Republican elite’s real end game: disfranchising everyone who isn’t rich. And in the U.S., “everyone” still means mostly white folks.

The following is based on research I did about 30 years ago, but the past doesn’t change much.  I never guessed it would happen again in the United States in my lifetime, but that’s the thing about history. Despite neoliberal claims about its “end,” history is alive and well, and still kicking us in the ass. So follow along as I set the Wayback Machine to 1876, and take you on a trip through agrarian radicalism, the Southern populist movement, and the southern disfranchisement movement. Be patient, because at first it will seem like I’m leading you far afield. But I promise, in the end you will understand the disfranchisement campaigns of today all too well.

After the Civil War, the two great parties of the United States faced each other across a geographical divide. The political party to which you belonged was almost entirely determined by which side you backed in the War Between the States.  This left the U.S. in the curious position of being a two-party system composed of two geographically determined one-party regions.

The North was Republican and the south was Democratic.  Southerners identified Republicans with abolitionists and industrial interests. The former had destroyed their slave-based way of life and sent troops to occupy her ground, and the latter had exploited the South as a colony, extracting her natural resources and taking advantage of the desperate poverty and devastation that the war had brought. Northerners, on the other hand, identified Democrats with Dixie Secessionists who had threatened the sanctity of the Union, whose traitorous actions had brought devastation on a generation of Northern youth and emptied the nation’s coffers.  Thus, the Northerners “waved the bloody shirt,” and the Southerners voted “the party of the fathers.”

These were the sentiments of the majority of American voters, except for a segment of the Northern urban working class that declared itself anti-Republican (and was therefore Democratic), and a segment of the Southern population (black freedmen) who did not dare to declare themselves anti-Democratic, but who nonetheless voted Republican whenever they had the opportunity.

Neither party consistently held the balance of power. This was graphically illustrated by the disputed Presidential election of 1876. In South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, both Republicans and Democrats claimed the victory. The Democrats had raise ballot box manipulation to artistic heights, and the Republicans cried foul. In South Carolina and Louisiana, rival governments and administrations—one from each party—sprang up and effectively began a small-scale civil war.  As it happened, the presidential race between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden hinged on the disputed returns from those states.  The House of Representatives had a Democratic majority and they launched a filibuster to prevent the electoral votes from being counted.  If they held out, they could have indefinitely delayed the inauguration of the new President (whoever he was).  It was looking mighty like Civil War could break out again.

So the center of decision shifted to certain small rooms. Hayes’ representatives met with the representatives from the South.  A compromise was reached. The South would concede the election if the North would agree to pull out its troops and allow “home rule,” and grant the South certain economic concessions.  This was done, leaving the South to quash the nascent black Republican vote in its midst, cementing the South as Democratic territory.

Still following? Good, because it hasn’t even begun to get complicated.

One party each, in two territories, does not a two-party system make—even if those two territories together call themselves a nation. And we all know the problems inherent in one-party systems: they can’t, by definition, be representative, and they tend to be controlled by the politically powerful and monied class.  In the North, the situation is a bit easier to explain, so that’s where I’ll start.

By the 1880s, in the north and north-western states, there were three distinct groups, with three different sets of political interests: the farmers; the urban workers; and, the commercial classes.  The Republican party was controlled and run for the benefit of the commercial interests—banks, industrialists, and the monied Eastern aristocracy who were most often involved in these pursuits. The farmers, who might in ordinary times have been Democrats, were compelled by the lack of political alternatives to remain members of a party that opposed their interests.  The urban workers, many of whom were immigrants and had arrived since the Civil War (and who were thus not as susceptible to the coercive power of American political labeling) actually did become Democrats, and formed the bedrock of the Democratic city machines that we can still see in play in cities like Chicago today. But they were not the same kind of Democrats who inhabited the South (the implications of this will become clearer a bit later). They had little influence outside their urban environment and remained apart from the growing conflict of interest between the farmers and commercial interests.

Western farmers suffered from high interest rates on their farm equipment, steadily falling commodity prices, and the exorbitant rates charged by grain elevators and railroads (owned by Northern industrialists) that had a choke-hold on transport.  They also suffered from increasing money shortages. Bankers and creditor-bondholders, who formed a powerful block in the Republican party, urged the government to keep the money supply at existing levels, while the population and the economy of the nation expanded. This forced general price levels down to a point at which it was no longer profitable to redeem paper “greenbacks” in gold to finance imports.  The banker-creditors hoped that if the currency continued to contract, the U.S. would have to go back onto the “hard money” system of the gold standard.

Contraction was a blessing to banker-creditors, but a burden on the the nation’s producer-debtors, and it eventually drove the nation’s farmers into the Populist revolt.  To use historian Laurence Goodwyn’s example:

Letting 10 farmers symbolize the entire population, and ten dollars the entire money supply, and ten bushels of wheat the entire production of the economy, it is as once evident that a bushel of wheat would sell for one dollar. Should the population, production, and money supply increase to twenty over period of, say, two generations, the farmer’s return would still be one dollar per bushel. But should population and production double to twenty while the money supply was held at ten—currency contraction—the price of wheat would drop to 50 cents. The farmers of the nation would get no more for twenty bushels of wheat than they had previously received for ten. Moreover, money being more scarce, interest rates would have risen considerably. A person who borrowed $1000 to buy a farm in 1868 would not only have to grow twice as much wheat in 1888 to earn the same mortgage payment he made earlier, he would be repaying his loan in dollars that had twice as much purchasing power as the depreciated currency he had originally borrowed.

It’s easy to see that the farmers and the commercial interests did not want the same thing, though both were nominally members of the same party.

But the Populist movement didn’t begin in the West. It began on the Southern frontier. And here’s where things move from complex to positively intricate.

In 1876, with the Hayes compromise, the Southern Democrats managed to rid themselves of the last vestiges of Republican rule, though some states, like Mississippi, had shed that rule earlier.  At this point, most Reconstruction historians assert, the South was essentially a one-party region controlled by a white supremacist Democratic party that directed, by fair means or foul, the entirely subdued, though latently Republican, black political community.  Many (white) Southern historians see this as the triumph of justice and the return of home rule, while Northern historians tend to see it as the final defeat of civil rights and democracy in the South for a very long time to come.  But whatever they see it as, they see it. This is a watershed moment.

The victorious Southern Democratic party found itself, on the morning after Reconstruction was terminated, with no enemy to unite its various constituents.  After an orgy of violent retaliation against Republican carpetbaggers and Black political leaders, the Democrats were left with nothing to do except contemplate themselves.  It is easy enough to rally a white man’s party when there is (allegedly) a black man’s party, but when there is only one party, all made up of white men, it becomes glaring obvious that although all white men may be equally white, some are more equal than others.

The white farmers who lived in the primarily white hill counties of Southern states like Georgia were not happy to find themselves becoming subject to the merchant in much the same way that freedmen of the plantation low country were subject to the planter elite, under the crop lien system.  In the crop-lien system, the merchant or planter agreed to furnish seed and supplies to the farmer and his family, on credit.  The farmer then pledged, in advance, to repay the loan through income generated by selling his or crop. The system favored the creditor because merchants or planters were usually the only suppliers of goods, and they could set their prices according to their whim. Since they usually also collected the crop from the farmer (using their own machines to do the weighing) and sold the crops themselves, they got the farmer coming and going.  The temptation to cheat the farmer appears to have been quite hard to resist; unscrupulous creditors were the rule rather than the exception. Farmers were economically bound to their creditors, politically dominated by them, and often unable to read, so they could not check the validity of the accounts kept by the merchant of planter. Most were reduced to a state of debt peonage and kept there indefinitely.  Historian Stephen Hahn describes the situation:

As the class structure of the hills came increasingly to resemble that of the black belt, as the white farmers in the hills were forced into tenancy by the merchant elite’s monopoly on credit and increasing ownership of land, the position of the black belt planter-merchants and the hill country merchant landlords appeared to converge; a single ruling class with two branches seemed to have arisen.

Though, in the political power battle among the Democrat elites, the merchants were defeated by the planter-elite, their interests were still more closely allied to those of the planters than those of the tenants they exploited.

And it was out of that class of exploited Southern white yeoman farmers that the Populist movement emerged. It began in Texas, on the Southern frontier, in September of 1877, when a group of farmers formed the Farmer’s Alliance, a rural self-help organization.  Many of these farmers had moved west to Texas to escape the tenant farmer system in their home states, and had found that the system followed them wherever they went. One of the founders of the Alliance was a man named S.O. Daws, who traveled around lecturing to people and persuading them to form “sub-alliances” based on the idea of “trade stores”—stores that were owned and operated by the farmers themselves, as collectives. Daws also spoke against the crop-lien system and the gold standard, but the Alliance maintained a strictly non-partisan political stance, and its members stayed firmly entrenched in the Democratic party.

The Texas Alliance sponsored mass cotton sales from Alliance warehouses, “bulking” all of the farmer-members’ cotton, and selling it at a decent profit directly to eastern dealers. In 1886, the Knights of Labor began their Great South Western Strike against Jay Gould’s Missouri-Pacific railroad, and a large segment of the Alliance membership urged support of the strike.  Though the Knights were defeated, the Alliance’s membership increased and the organization solidified its radical stance.

Charles Macune, an Alliance organizer, called a conference in January, 1887, in Waco, Texas.  Out of this conference was born the National Farmer’s Alliance and Cooperative Union, and Populism spread beyond the borders of Texas with spectacular results, blooming in ten Southern states in an eight-month period. The Western states also began to form sub-alliances in 1888, and the Alliance’s popularity there grew steadily. By 1888 the Alliance had over million members.

The cooperative movement was at the heart of the Populist struggle—through cooperation, the farmers could take control of their own economic destiny and free themselves from the yoke of their creditors. But despite the general popularity of the Alliance, it was impossible for the groups to find bankers who would honor the collateral of the Alliance Exchange, and without financing the famers could not make the Cooperative Exchange run.  The banker’s reluctance to participate in cutting his own financial throat may be easy for us to understand, but it was a rude awakening for the Southern white yeoman farmer of the 1880s. When the Texas Exchange failed due to lack of funds, the focus of the Alliance shifted from cooperative movement to political movement—Alliance members realized that only by gaining political power could they ensure their survival.  They could no longer afford to be non-partisan, but this required that their members in the South break ties with “the party of the fathers.”

Macune came up with a daring and innovative “sub-treasury proposal,” which asked the federal government to underwrite the Farmer’s Cooperatives by issuing greenbacks to provide credit for farmers’ crops. This would make the national currency more flexible. Goodwyn explains, “The People’s Party was to wage a frantic campaign to wrest effective operating control of the American monetary system from the nation’s commercial bankers and restore it, ‘in the name of the whole people,’ to the United States Treasury. It was a campaign never to be waged again.”

In the Midwest and the Northwest it was easier to make this switch from cooperative venture to political party because in those regions the farmer-commercial interest-urban worker triangle was relatively simple.  But in the South, the situation was complicated by the presence of freedmen and the idea of “the party of the fathers” was even more emotionally charged than Northern “bloody shirt” ideology. “If Texas had led the Farmers to the Alliance,” Goodwyn wrote, “then Kansas led the Alliance to the People’s Party.”  He should have gone on to say, “Where Kansas led, Texas could not follow.”

Most of the historians of the Southern Populist movement claim the Democratic party was under the control of an economic elite.  A few emphasize the merchant, and say that he wielded the most economic and political power.  More emphasize the planter, but even they would agree that in the white hill counties where Populism emerged in the South, the merchant ruled the roost.  Those who emphasize the planter argue that the hill merchants were ultimately dominated by the power-base of the Democratic elite, which had its home in the lowland plantation counties, despite the fact that planter-elites were never more than a small minority of the South’s white population. Ironically, the planter’s power lay in the so-called black vote, for they controlled territory inhabited by a substantial number of freedmen who consistently voted (or, shall we say, were voted) Democratic, and who, by their sheer number, gave the Democratic Party the “majority” it needed to remain in power.

Yes, we’ve finally made it to the voting part….

On the one side, we have the Populist team, composed of poor white farmers from the hill counties, who had little in the way of economic power to wield against the Democrats who controlled state government. But what the Populists did have was numbers, and their numbers translated into votes that, unlike those of black freedmen, were not usually subject to coercion. Methods of coercion traditionally used to subdue black voters were hard to use against white voters, because the same whites that the Democratic elites wished to subdue were those they had recruited into the rank-and-file of organizations like the Klan. In fact, it was just this segment of white voters who had traditionally been used to keep blacks “in their place,” and they were not likely to police themselves in a similar fashion. Certainly they would not club themselves on the head to uphold the Democratic elite that oppressed them.

Thus, the Populists had real numbers and real votes, but not much else with which to threaten the Democrats.  They did have one more power, which also was a product of their numbers and their traditional status as “subduers of the black vote”—the more Populists there were in an area, the more black votes those Populists could claim.  The Populists either persuaded or coerced the votes of all freedmen within their reach, and there is no reason this should be surprising. Despite their avowed radicalism, Populists were southern whites and had cut their teeth on Democratic methods and had grown up with Democratic attitudes.  Antiracist populists were rarer than hen’s teeth.

Freedmen were pawns caught between the two parties. Some progressive historians have the nerve to lament that black voters “failed” to support the Populists, and thus failed to work for their own liberation, but this is a harsher judgement than freedmen deserve. Immediately upon the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, and for the brief period that freedmen were granted the right to vote, they consistently voted the Republican ticket. Voting Republican became impossible, or, at the very least, hazardous to life and limb, when the southern states were captured or handed back to the Redeemers; historians of Reconstruction generally agree on that point.

Unfortunately, historians of Populism rarely look back at those histories of Reconstruction when they criticize black voting practices during the Populist revolt. Instead, they merely remark that blacks in the low-country consistently voted with the Democrats during the Populist period.  If one were not inclined to follow the usual rigid period divisions of the Southern historian (“Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877,” “Populist Movement, 1880-1896”), the connection is easier to make between the fact that the black vote was suppressed at Redemption, and the fact that freedmen “voted” Democratic during the Populist era.

It is reasonable to assume that if the Democrats controlled the black vote in 1877, they would still control it in the 1880s. And the Democrats not only controlled the votes of living freedmen—as a later Congressional investigation showed, during the post-Reconstruction period, “Negroes who had been dead for years and other who had long since left the country” somehow voted Democrat as well. Thus it is a mistake to assume, as many Populist historians do, that freedmen held the balance of power in the Populist-Democratic political power battle.  What is clear is that the Democrats held the balance of power through manipulating the number of black votes.

Historians might be confused by Populist party rhetoric in 1880s. Tom Watson, for instance, urged freedmen to respond to the Populist party’s call.  Too many historians have interpreted this as a sign that Populists bridge the racial gap and saw a wider class connection between the white and black tenant farmer, but this is just a mirror trick.  There was just as much rhetoric from the Democratic party calling for black support.  Neither party based their calls on the unfounded assumption that blacks in the South possessed independent political power, or could respond to any call. Any disappointment Populists voiced with the lack of black voter “respond” was probably due to their frustration that they could not wrest away power over black votes from white Democrats.

It may well be that the failure to literally “capture” those black votes was the downfall of the Southern Populist movement. But other factors doubtless contributed, including Democratic control of the polls and the state militias. In many Southern counties, Populists were defeated through rampant voter fraud, harkening back to the tactics that Democrats had used against Republican voters during Reconstruction. But Populists were also defeated by their own inability to convince enough white yeoman farmers that their oppression was a direct result of the actions of the Democratic elite, and that reform could not be accomplished within the Democratic fold.

I’m going to digress slightly, just to make the situation even more complex…

Remember that the South was Democratic only because the North was Republican: to be anti-Republican in the Reconstruction period was to be a Democrat.  And remember that in the North there was a group of urban workers who called themselves Democrats, but who I said were quite different from Southern Democrats.  Remember that the Democratic elite in the South was composed of planters and merchants. And remember that the Republican elite in the North was composed of bankers and commercial interests. Got that all in your head? Great. Just hold it there, and I’ll tell you a couple of things that will start tie everything together.

Before the Civil War, most of the rich planters in the South were Whigs. They were also Secessionists, which gave Whiggery, after the Civil War, a bad name, even in the South, since the Secessionists had lost.  Before the Civil War, most of the white yeoman farmers had been… Democrats!  Right after the Civil War, the Secessionists were stripped of most of their rights (including the vote), and a lot of their property.  It took little while, but most of them got their land back, a lot of them got their fortunes back, and almost all of them got their slaves back under the new name of the tenant system.  It took them just a little longer to get their votes back, and by the time they did, the Southern Democratic party had already defined itself as the party of the South.  Even though the word Democratic left a bad taste in their mouths, when they regained their political as well as their economic clout, they joined the Democrat party and then took it over. In fact, most of the Southern Democratic leadership after Redemption had previously been members of the Whig party.

This explains the dilemma of the southern white yeoman farmer. His party since the days of Jackson was overrun by the old Whigs, who became the new Democrats, leaving him voiceless, confused and oppressed.

Finally, I have reached the moment where I can turn the discussion to disfranchisement.  We know from the histories that most Southern states passed disfranchisement amendments after the Populist wave crested and broke in 1896. (Mississippi Goddamn was the only state to pass disfranchisement laws before 1895, but then it’s always been… special.)  These disfranchisement acts were ostensibly passed to put an end to the black vote, and Populists had a special investment in getting rid of it because they believed that the black voter (or the way blacks were voted by their Democratic masters) had caused the defeat of the Populist party. Populists saw disfranchisement as a way to end corrupt election practices, such as Democrats stuffing ballot boxes with black votes, and using black numbers to swing elections.

On the surface, it’s more of a challenge to explain why Democrats pushed for disfranchisement. Logically speaking, it would do the Democrats no good at all to rid themselves of the black vote, since they controlled it, and, in fact, used it as a lever to pry power out of Populist hands.  Indeed, without the black vote, Democrats might lose control of the polls, since there just weren’t that many white Democrats, even if you included the dead ones or the ones who had long since left town. Thus, Democrats had to have another reason for supporting disfranchisement, and they had a good (evil) one:  the elimination of universal white manhood suffrage.

Seen in these terms, the situation is clearer.  The Democrats were eager and willing to disfranchise black voters if, along with them, they could manage to disfranchise the majority of poor white hill country voters as well.  Democrats could then retain political power while substantially reducing the threat of future uprisings and protests caused by poor white dissatisfaction with Democratic rule.  Democrats had been scared silly by the Populist movement, and set out to abridge the Constitution with enthusiasm.

The yeomen of the Populist party were not entirely unaware of the intentions of the Democrats, and did protest against the general property and literacy qualifications the Democrats wanted to impose. The Populists knew those rules would apply to them as well as to Southern blacks.  But the proponents of disfranchisement created loopholes that would be applied to poor whites, ostensibly to protect them from the effects of the new laws. Even many of those who know some of the history of disfranchisement will say that the “understanding clause,” which allows illiterates to register if they can understand part of the state constitution as read to them out loud, was designed to disfranchise blacks, and it certainly was applied to that end.  But it was introduced to reassure poor whites, as were other clauses that have the power of discrimination to voter registrars, who might be more “understanding” the political aspirations of white voters than of black voters.

Carter Glass, a leading Democrat at the Virginia Convention, said, “Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose; that exactly is what this convention was elected for!”  The Louisiana convention further proposed the well-known “grandfather clause” that allowed those entitled to vote on January 1, 1867, and their sons and grandsons, to register without application of literacy or property qualifications. This turned voting into an hereditary right.  The state conventions all borrowed freely from each other, swapping around complex franchise and loophole provisions.  But most of these loopholes and special clauses had time limits, after which they would expire. The Democrats who ran the conventions were aware of this, and though the provisions lulled poor whites into a false sense of security, the plan of the elites was to disfranchise them all a little later on.  The poll tax, which was instrumental in preventing poor Southerners, black and white, from voting had no such time restrictions. The Democrats were also aware of this; indeed, in Mississippi it was the Delta (the Black Belt, Democratically-controlled planter counties) which insisted on including the poll tax.

Mississippi is a special case because it passed disfranchisement laws in 1890, before the Populist movement exploded onto the scene, but it illustrates the effectiveness of disfranchisement laws in damping the power Populists in that state.  A proponent of the poll tax in Louisiana took Mississippi for his example:

It reduces the electorate and places the political control of the State in the hands not of a minority of the voters alone, but of the minority of the whites…. Take the case of Mississippi, for instance. The poll tax gets rid of most of the Negro voters there, but it gets rid of a great many whites at the same time—in fact, a majority of them.

Van Woodward notes that, “The total vote in the 1896 Mississippi state election, whene the Populists made a hot fight, was only 64,339, including the Negroes. Less than half of the whites voted—the law ‘discouraged’ probably 6,000 Negroes who would have been qualitifed, who might have voted but of the poll tax; but it discouraged 60,00 or more white men from voting.”

The Democrats were aware of the potential of the poll tax and other requirements to disfranchise poor whites, and, indeed, looked to the example of areas where this had already happened. It may be that the 1896 election would have been a Populist victory rather than just a “hot fight” if those likely to vote Populist had not already been disfranchised. It is astonishing, considering the stranglehold that Southern Democratic elites held over the political operations of the South, that populism made such a strong show through 1896.

The Democrats who ran the disfranchisement conventions, beginning with the first one in Mississippi, were aware of the feelings of those about to be disfranchised.  They knew they could not expect voters to pass measures that would deprive themselves of the vote and chose to deal with this fact by not submitting the measures to the voters at all.  Only Alabama’s convention allowed the electorate to vote for the ratification of disfranchisement measures.  The others simply declared them law. Most justifications for this action were based on the need to take the decision out of the hands of freedmen, but this was disingenuous. In fact, in Alabama, where these were put to the vote, the disfranchisement constitution was consistently rejected by white counties and passed in black counties with majorities that included a substantial segment of the black population.  This last makes two points clear:  1) Black voters in black belt counties were kept so well in hand by Democrats that they were coerced into voting themselves out of the vote; and, 2) White counties were filled with voters who knew that passing the new constitution was not to their benefit—they did not want to disfranchise freedmen badly enough to disfranchise themselves.

The ruling political elite in the South had overcome the setback of losing the Civil War, and had colonized the Democratic party. Its interests diverged from those of the majority, black and white. Planters and, in a subsidiary position, merchants held both black and white farmers in an economic stranglehold, reducing them to debt peonage. To prevent any threat to its political supremacy by freedmen, the ruling elite, assisted by poor whites who were convinced that racial solidarity was of primary importance, effectively disfranchised freedmen at the end of Radical Reconstruction, through a process of Redemption that concluded in 1877.  Then, when the threat of black domination was ended, and poor whites became disenchanted with ruling class policies that kept them in penury, the elites kept them in line by wielding “the black vote” against them — winning elections through coercion and fraud, and ensuring that a fictitious majority was gained by the Democratic party.  When popular disgust at this tactic became widespread, and a hue and cry was raised to prevent Democrats from casting black votes in their own favor, the Democratic elites responded by passing laws that disfranchised both black voters and poor white voters.  Thus, Democrats ensured that their opponents, black and white, would have a hard time challenging them in the political arena.

Populist power was further reduced by the inability of almost all white Populists to recognize that they and black freedman had common interests. But the tendency of Southerners to view the political battle throughout the lens of racial conflict was not complete. The Governor of Alabama assured the convention of his state, in 1896, that the question of disfranchisement was not based in race, but in class.  Sadly, those he intended to deprive of power were not nearly as perceptive.

The Populist movement could not succeed in the states if it failed in the South, and by 1896 its failure in the South was complete.  The death of the Western populist movement took longer.  Goodwyn explains that it succumbed to the blandishments of the Democratic and Republican parties, compromising its stand on the “sub-treasury” idea, greenbacks, and monetary expansion with the Democratic placebo of the “silver standard.”  Many Western Populists were absorbed back into the Democratic party, and continued their political careers. Some remained die-hard Populists and also continued their political careers. But the latter was not an option in the Southern states, for in the South there existed no true Democratic path to reabsorb them. A large number, the overwhelming majority, were disfranchised and their political lives effectively ended. Those who continued in Southern politics, like Tom Watson and “Cyclone” Davis, succeeded as Southern demagogues—outrageous characters of the sort that the South famously produces, railing against Jews and Catholics and proclaiming white supremacy.

It would be terrible to end this article by leaving you stranded in the middle of 1896, which was a mighty inhospitable time for progressives. Instead, I’d like to end with a passage from C. Van Woodward’s Origins of the New South. He speaks of the history of disfranchisement in Virginia, by no means the worst of the Southern states:

Between the presidential elections of 1900 and 1904 the franchise restrictions of the Virginia constitution went into full effect. The total vote in Virginia in 1900 was 264,240, while in 1904 it was 130,544—a decline from 147 voters per 1000 to 67 per 1000. Nor can it be assumed that this decrease is to be explained by the elimination of the Negro voter, for while only about 35% of the males of voting age were colored, the poll was reduced by 51%.  Not until 1928 did Virginia cast as large a vote in a Presidential election as she did in 1888. This was a temporary rise. When Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Wendell Wilkie in 1940, Virginia cast 61,000 fewer votes than when Harrison defeated Cleveland, and in 1944, fewer by 37,166 than she cast 56 years earlier…. In the meanwhile, however, the electorate had been doubled by the enfranchisement of women and the population had increased by approximately 1 million. In 1940 fewer than 10 in every 1000 of the population were voting, as against 147 in 1900.

Most view the civil rights movement as a huge victory for black voters, and indeed it was.  But ironically it resulted in enfranchising even more white southerners than blacks. And it is these white voters who are once again being played, this time by Republican elites, with promises of benefitting from disfranchising non-whites.  In the end, however, they will lose their votes along with, or soon after, those they despise.


Coulter, E. Merton. The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1947.

Gaither, Gerald H. Blacks and the Populist Revolt. The University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa,1977.

Gillette, William. Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1979.

Goodwyn, Laurence. The Populist Moment. Oxford University Press: New York, 1978.

Hahn, Steven, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890. Oxford University Press: New York, 1983.

Harris, William C. The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1979.

McMath, Robert C. Jr. Populist Vanguard, A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1975.

Trelease, Alan. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Harper & Row: New York, 1971.

Van Woodward, C. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1951.

Wiener, Jonathan, Social Origins of the New South, Alabama, 1860-1885. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1978.

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22 August 2013, PTSD & Trauma News Roundup

August 22, 2013 / no comments

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We know it’s bad… when it happens to a white woman

CNN featured the story of Michele Cross, a University of Chicago student who was diagnosed with PTSD after she returned from her studies in India.  CNN and other news outlets who discussed the story never failed to mention that Cross was a “fair-skinned, red haired” woman, as opposed, one assumed, to all thosee dark-skinned, dark-haired Indian women who inhabit the continent.   The story Cross originally told in a CNN iReport under the screen name of RoseChasm” rack[ed] up more than 800,000 page views” within 3 days of publication. Could it be because Cross herself emphasized her whiteness, her hair color, her blue eyes in a short piece of dramatic prose, full of florid passages like the following:

There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller’s or the tailer’s I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women’s bodies to be taken, or hidden away.

I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took.

If everything Ms. Cross says is true, she endured a level of harassment that was awful. And of course no woman should have to put up with that.  But I find it incredible that in all her description, she did not find it in her heart, even once, to mention what daily life must be like for Indian women, who have been in the streets  protesting a campaign of murder and rape waged against them by their countrymen.  A “South Asian Studies” scholar, Cross did not for a moment contextualize her own suffering — nope, this was all about her.  And the public ate it up—this story of a white woman pawed by native men.  Though Cross claims she is not the only UC student who experienced this harassment, at least one  other woman on the trip attempted to counter the tone of Cross’s narrative.  Katherine Stewart, a black UC student, confirms that there were attacks on women in the program, but takes issue with—what she tactfully does not say outright—the racism evident in Cross’s response. Stewart wrote:

RoseChasm does not address the fact that there are warm and honest men in India. When we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism….

I understand RoseChasm’s pain, and I too had a hard time readjusting to life in America after my experience in India. I truly hope for her to be well again, but I will not sit back and allow the image of India’s men to be tarnished by an article that does not articulate other sides to India. I experienced love, excitement, and awe in India. And while I did experience unacceptable harassment, I know that my ability to not generalize a population will allow people to see that we must find another way to deal with this issue.

You can bet Stewart didn’t get 800,000 hits in three days.

You’re all whiners… or maybe not

Psychologist Michael J. Hurd (Ph.D., LCSW) rants on delmarvaNow!com about the lack of definition of “trauma.”  This pretty much sums it up: “Our government and educated intellectuals (psychiatrists included) have frankly turned many of us into a bunch of babies.”  His “argument” seems to be that if psychiatrists didn’t go around inventing ridiculous diseases, we wouldn’t have them.  Just makes you want to jump up and run to his office for therapy, doesn’t it?

On the other side of the spectrum is Michael Pond, a therapist who works with First Nations patients in British Columbia. He thinks it’s a good thing that the diagnosis is now “pervasive”:

And before anyone rolls their eyes derisively, according to the updated criteria for the illness in the new DSM 5, the bible of psychiatry, it’s very likely the diagnosis is correct.

I treat a lot of First Nations people for addictions, depression, anxiety and aggression. But the more they reveal the extent of the horror they experienced in residential schools, the more obvious it is to me that my clients actually suffer from PTSD, and all the other problems are symptoms of it.

The pervasiveness of the condition, Pond argues, will help us take the victims of violence more seriously.

Making money off of war…

HeroBracelets.org (don’t let the “org” fool you — it’s a commercial endeavor) was founded by Chris Great, an advertising executive who speicalizes brand development, marketing and entrepreneurship.  His company markets commemorative bracelets to soldiers and their families for prices ranging from $14 to $134.50, says it donates $2/bracelet to “military support organizations.”  One of these organizations is the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (where do they get these names?), to which they recently donated $150,000 in bracelet money (which means they sold at lest 75,000 bracelets, at, say, an average price of $25, which totals to something around $7.5 million earned from soldiers and veterans and families.  IFHF raised money to build a treatment center for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) on the Navy Campus of Bethesday, as well as other centers for treatment and study of TBI.  We’re talking big, big bucks here — these centers can cost upwards of $50 million, so HeroBracelets.org’s $150,000 is a drop in the bucket.  But Herobracelets has certainly used this as a PR opportunity, marketing its bracelets as a way to “support our military”:

HeroBracelets.org gives them an opportunity to spread awareness by wearing their bracelet, and it allows them to make a financial contribution to a charity of their choice.” said Christopher and Loree Greta, founders of HeroBracelets.org. “$2 per bracelet may not seem like much, but it has certainly added up – and $150,000 later, it’s allowed us and our customers to make a difference for the thousands of service members and their families who rely on Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the NICoE Centers for treatment of their invisible wounds.

$2/bracelet.  Doesn’t seem like much to do for our veterans, does it.  Especially when it’s them and their families forking over the money in the first place.


It’s rare that clinical studies include PTSD with comorbid disorders, so it was nice to see this August 7 randomized clinical trial on Naltrexone and Prolonged Exposure Therapy in patients with both PTSD and alcohol dependence. It’s tough to do a double-blind study for psychological interventions, since therapists need to be trained in the methods they use. Thus, this was a single-blind study, meaning the patients did not know whether whether they were receiving the medication or a sugar pill, and did not know if they were receiving Exposure Therapy (ET) or supportive counseling (SC). As usual, symptom severity was the measure of success, along with the Alcohol Craving scale: were symptoms and drinking days reduced more by the naltroxene or the Exposure Therapy or by both in combination? The group they studied was mostly between 36-43 years old, about 66% male, and the majority of subjects were black.  (An odd note here — blacks made up 70-75% of those given ET+Naltrexone and ET+Placebo, but only 50-60% of those given SC+Naltrexone and SC+Placebo.)  Also unusual is the fact that combat vets made up only about 15% of the study group. The predominant traumas were sexual assault and physical assault.  Like many other surveys, this one found that there was no significant difference between the effectiveness of Exposure Therapy and supportive counseling, and PTSD symptoms did not decrease significantly in any of the combinations. The study found that the patients prescribed naltrexone drank less often.   The best they could say about Exposure Therapy is that it “was not associated with an exacerbation of alcohol use disorder.”  That’s a good thing to know about one of the most frequently prescribed talk therapies for PTSD: at least it doesn’t make it worse.

Fund Raising

Veteran Doug Setter, and his colleagues Linh Lai and Dave Iten are doing a “four-mile open water relay swim across Bellingham Bay [WA] in honour of American and Canadian servicemen that lost their lives to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Along with other military stressors, Setter blames “the public’s [negative] perception of soldiers” for some of the stress veterans feel when they return home. It’s not clear what the swim is designed to do except “honour soldiers who killed themselves because of PTSD” and “shine a light on the challenges soldiers face with their duty is done.”  The swim is named after a local veteran who committed suicide after a tour in Iraq.

War on Film

Steven Grayhm of Astoria Film Co.(Los Angeles) is trying to raise $750,000 on Kickstarter to fund Thunder Road, a film based on a story told to him by Iraq war veteran Nick Carbonell, who witnessed the death of his best friend on a nighttime operation in Iraq. From the Kickstarter site:

Thunder Road is the story of returning U.S. soldier SGT. CALVIN COLE (played by Steven) whom we meet in present day Detroit as a troubled veteran who suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and tbi (Traumatic Brain Injury) from multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Initially resistant to the VA system COLE must find a way to assimilate back into civilian life before he ends up dead or in prison.

Through his rekindled friendship with his estranged childhood friend PFC. DARRYL SPARKS (played by Matt) who he served on the “buddy system” with and his newly formed relationship with a doctor at the VA Medical Center, COLE finds redemption and salvation through sharing his captivating experience as a combat infantryman. The film also explores the psychological repercussions of war and seeks answers to the growing epidemic of PTSD and tbi in returning soldiers.

A pretty predictable plot trajectory, and certain one right out of the mainstream pop culture representations of PTSD: damaged warrior helped back to health by a wise VA therapist, finds redemption in sharing his story of trauma.  A report on its quality will have to wait until the film is made, but I don’t hold much hope it’ll be groundbreaking. I’m sick of films that imply that the only two choices choices facing a vet with active PTSD are either winding up dead or in prison.  The vast majority of people with PTSD continue on with their lives, dealing as best they can, and commit neither crimes nor suicide.

This notion that sharing a trauma is an end in itself is very popular, despite the fact that thousands of such stories have been shared by traumatized soldiers, and that there’s no evidence that simply sharing these stories actually contributes to improved reintegration or happiness. Trauma survivors who make a practice of telling and retelling their stories, particularly for public consumption, over many years, rarely seem to move beyond the trauma of war.  It cheers the public up to see stories in which an earnest vet, traumatized in war, regains his ability to connect with his emotions and with his significant others, and it’s even better if he then shoulders the burden of dealing with other  vets like himself.  But that’s a rarity — the vast majority of vets who are treated for PTSD by the VA are still under treatment four years later.  If there is “healing,” it’s a slow process and conclusion is far from assured.  And one reason that it’s such a slow path to recovery might be that the public taste for trauma narratives does not seem connected to the public’s interest in ending the circumstances that cause trauma.

And the inevitable PTSD Diagnosis by Media section…

The L.A. Times says that journalist Michael Hastings “may have suffered PTSD from work as a war journalist.” Hastings died in a single-car accident, and in such cases there’s often speculation that the crash was a form of suicide. Despite the claim of journalists Richard Winton and Andrew Blankenstein, the coroner’s report seems to contain no evidence at all that PTSD had anything to do with Hasting’s death. Hastings may well have had PTSD, given his experiences in the war, and he may have said that he used medical marijuana to treat PTSD, but that’s a far cry from PTSD causing a suicide.  Perhaps the L.A. Times journalists confused the coroner’s comment that Hastings had died of “traumatic injuries,” with “post-traumatic stress disorder,” contemporary journalistic standards being what they are.

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Playing the Race Card: A Rightwing Meme

January 27, 2013 / no comments

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This is a revised version of an essay that appeared earlier on DailyKos.

Right-wingers love the phase “the race card.” They drum it into our heads, flood the media with its repetitions, and sponsor the publication of articles, tracts and books that condemn African Americans—at every opportunity and on widely disparate occasions—for “playing the race card.” Its use is so ubiquitous, so pervasive, that it’s crept even into the vocabulary of some progressives, who invoke it to criticize and silence African Americans who point out racism within the progressive movement itself.

As a white, antiracist progressive, I find this both a sad testament to the power of right-wing propaganda, and an appalling example of the unexamined racism that unconsciously underlies much contemporary white progressivism. Most progressives who use the phrase do so unselfconsiously, as if its meaning were widely understood and the conclusion foregone, but an examination of the assumptions and arguments that underlie the phrase easily reveal it to be completely counter to the principles of progressive politics.

Scholar Linda Williams, who wrote a whole book on the history of “the race card” as a concept, argues that the term is part of “an extended cycle of racial melodrama seeking to give a ‘moral legibility’ to race.” And melodrama it is, invoking the image of a super-charged “card” (racial guilt on the part of whites) which allows magically powerful African Americans to subjugate whites. In the drama, the use of this “card” makes white people helpless to defend themselves or their own rights because they are consumed by guilt. Resisting the card, then, becomes a kind of white heroism: “standing up to” those dominating African Americans who are “trying to take away our rights.” This particular melodrama conveniently omits any reference to the centuries-old structures of institutional racism upon which the Republic was built, and which we progressives are allegedly dedicated to disassembling. Continue Reading…

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White/Het/Male Privilege, Identity Politics & Progressivism

January 27, 2013 / no comments

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This is a slightly revised version of an essay I posted on DailyKos.

A refrain that I’ve heard again and again—primarily from white, or male, or heterosexual progressives in response to identity-based organizing—is that “identity politics” is counter-productive, and distracts “us” from the real issue. Often, in their opinion, the real issue is class warfare. They often blame the alleged fragmentation of “the left” on identity-groups who impede “our” progress. At best, they argue, identity is a “distraction,” and, at worst, a cynical tool of manipulation. The “neutral” position—consciously or unconsciously—assumes that the majority group (white, male, and/or heterosexual) is normative (the standard by which the behavior and ideas of all other groups should be judged).

First of all, I want to say this is an essay about pragmatics, and not theory.  Theory is wonderful and important, and I write about it all the time, but that’s not what I want to talk about now.  I want to discuss the myths that are impeding our progress as progressives. We’ve indulged them for a long time, but we have to put a stop to them now if we want an ice cube’s chance in hell of pushing a progressive agenda in the U.S. To make my points, I’ll use examples from my own life, because I think it’s easier to understand this particular problem if we personalize, rather than theorize.

Much has been written about “identity politics,” and I’m not going to try to recapitulate it here.  I will say, though, that if you’re not familiar with the various schools of thought on identity politics, you’ll likely miss some of the nuances of the essay, because I’m discussing a common reaction to a frequently misunderstood phenomenon.  Hence, I suggest that you turn to the very good article on Identity Politics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you need background for the discussion. I don’t entirely agree with the author, but the article provides an excellent theoretical overview of the uses and the problems of identity.

I start with the assertion that there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t define ourselves based on both conscious and unconscious, and chosen and imposed, identities.  To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, “We are who we think we are, so we must be very careful who we think we are.” I don’t care if your primary identifications include “left-hander,” “African American,” “Catholic,” “gay,” “Irish,” “Muslim,” “geek,” “middle child,” “Marxist,” “sports fan,” or “normal guy/gal.”  We all have identities, and multiple identities at that.  Who can fit themselves into just one or two simple categories and be satisfied? Individually, we all want our personhood acknowledged from our head down to our little toes. Continue Reading…

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