The Washington Post described the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol as “would-be saboteurs of a 244-year-old democracy.” But true democracy in America is only 55 years old, dating to 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act guaranteed suffrage—at least on paper—to all American citizens, regardless of race. Four decades later, a multiracial coalition elected a Black president. As in the past, the rise of Black men to political power made some white Americans question the wisdom of democracy.
That president’s successor, and many of his supporters, now insists that he must be allowed to remain in power despite having lost his reelection campaign, arguing that his opponent’s victory is illegitimate regardless of the results, and demanding that votes from predominantly Black constituencies in swing states be thrown out. As Trump put it, “Detroit and Philadelphia—known as two of the most corrupt political places anywhere in our country, easily—cannot be responsible for engineering the outcome of a presidential race.” Presenting the disenfranchisement of Black Americans as an exercise in good government is one of the most recognizable constants of American history.
Adam Serwer: If you didn’t vote for Trump, your vote is fraudulent
Although these arguments by definition involve rejecting the results of a democratic contest, those who insist that Trump remain in office see themselves as defending democracy by disregarding votes that were never meant to count. Like most of the political ills that Trump has brought to the fore, this one predates him by many years, and has found a home in both political parties at one point or another.
The 1898 pogrom that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, shattered a thriving middle-class Black community, killing dozens and overthrowing the city government. But the thing that preceded it was a declaration of independence.
Before he forced the Republican mayor of Wilmington, Silas Wright, to resign at gunpoint, Alfred Waddell, a Democrat who had engaged in armed insurrection against the United States as part of the Confederate Army, addressed a crowd of white men at the city’s courthouse. There, he read from a set of resolutions that would become known as the “White Declaration of Independence,” which proclaimed that “the Constitution of the United States contemplated a government to be carried on by an enlightened people,” and that “its framers did not anticipate the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African origin.” In America, despotism always arrives cloaked in the language of freedom and liberty.
The “time has passed,” the document explained, “for the intelligent citizens of the community owning 90% of the property and paying taxes in like proportions, to be ruled by negroes.” White men who shared political values with the city’s Black population were “unscrupulous,” merely “affiliating with the negroes so that by means of their votes they can dominate the intelligent and thrifty element in the community, thus causing business to stagnate and progress to be out of the question.”