The genealogy of white supremacy and vote suppression in the USA

(The nightly post from Heather Cox Richardson on March 16, 2020, triggered something for me. What follows was my Facebook post the next day.)

I remember well that in my 4th-grade Virginia history and 11th-grade American history classes we learned that the right to vote and to have a voice in the law-making processes in Virginia was connected with property. If you were a male who owned land, your voice counted. If you did not own land, you were not taken seriously.

We learned that the creation and maturation of democracy involved, as an early step, the overthrow of that presupposition. We also learned that democracy was a good thing. Agreement in valuing democracy was essential to the meaning of America.

The expansion of the franchise—the right to have a say in what the government should do—came in stages: first land-owning white men, then white men who did not own land, then much later black men, and later still women.

It seems to me now that each expansion of the franchise diminished the plausibility of this democracy thing somewhat in the collective mind of an ill-defined Set of the wealthier class of people. This Set consisted of white men who owned far more property than other people. But it was not formally defined. No one had a membership card, and no one was an offficer. It could not be defined and organized because membership in it would mark one clearly as anti-democracy and hence anti-American person. But it persisted through the decades and became more and more alienated from America while wanting to call itself the true America.

This Set is represented in American history by the slave-owners, then the resistance to Reconstruction and the organizers and enforcers of Jim Crow and the opponents of woman suffrage. For a time it became more organized, with membership and officers and even a uniform, as the Ku Klux Klan.

But eventually that move—wearing the white uniform—became a PR disaster. From it the Set learned an important lesson: the anti-democracy spirit must be disguised and denied. It must be denied publicly and if possible (and it turned out to be not only possible but easy!) within one’s own consciousness. But how to disguise it? By including in a very public way, so far as possible, the very people you are intent on disenfranchising! Which of course meant deceiving them.

This turned out to be less easy. It has never been possible to deceive and include many black people. It has been somewhat more possible to deceive and include white women, because many of them have been married to propertied white men. But still these heirs of the second and third waves of the progressive enfranchisement in American history have been more resistant to deception-inclusion than working-class white men. A significant percentage of these proved utterly gullible.

Why? It has been possible to convince working-class white men that they share the aims of the Set. You just have to stir up nostalgia for the way things were before nonwealthy men, women, and blacks were empowered. If you connect with that nostalgia, and the attendant resentment, you can induce in them obliviousness to the fact that they are not propertied—not really—and do not share in the franchise. Of course they can vote. But they aren’t calling the shots, and the legislation that the Set, sponsors does not really benefit them. But they don’t notice.

Skillful use of television, radio, and most recently the Internet has powerfully enabled this project of deception and faux-inclusion. And it has succeeded so magnificently that it became possible once again, for the first time since the demise of the Ku Klux Klan, for the Set to use a name and have an organization with official members and officers.

It is now called the Republican Party. And its grand exalted wizard is—no, not Donald Trump. They tell him he is, but he is really their useful idiot. The real man in charge is Mitch McConnell, who rules the Senate with an iron fist and thus controls all legislation and all judicial appointments.

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