Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Suppressed Minority

As mentioned in my last post, I finished the Lapham's Quarterly, Fall edition called "Rivalry and Feud" a few weeks ago.  The last essay from this edition that I would like to comment on was titled "Raising Cane" by Joanne B Freeman, a professor of history at Yale University.

Freeman's essay reflects on the events surrounding the "caning" of Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Democratic representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina.  Freeman places this historic event in the context of the times, connecting it to the events that led up to the attack, while also reflecting on the changes that occurred, politically and socially, afterwards.  It is an interesting reflection, reminding us of how dramatically the positions and priorities of the two political parties have changed, as well as how integral slavery was, economically, socially and politically, at this time.

A few of the basic points of the essay which stand out, concern the stark differences between the Republican and Democratic parties then and now.  At that time, in the decades before the Civil War, the Democrats controlled the South, and was the party of slavery while the Republican party was in its infancy and represented the northern, anti-slavery viewpoint. 

While it would be best to read Freeman's article yourself, I will summarize the most important aspect.  Sumner had attacked, politically and personally, a number of Democrats for their pro-slavery stance, during his 5 hour speech to Congress in May, 1856.  One of those men was Andrew Butler, a Democrat from South Carolina and a relative of Preston Brooks.  This verbal attack by Sumner was treated as more than a political speech, but a condemnation of the South and its traditions.  It was also marked a deviation from past debates about slavery in Congress, and indeed, control of Congress itself, as the Southern Democrats were known for their stronghold on the halls of Congress and successful silencing of other perspectives. 

Freeman interprets Sumner's bold speech as being directed as much to the nation as those in Congress.  Whether one might call it the tipping point in the national discussion about slavery, or one of the events that created the impetus to wage a civil war over slavery, the speech, the caning, and the reactions on both sides eventually led to violence on a national scale within a decade.

While the battle over slavery was the main point of the time, an underlying stream of conflict was also at play:  the lack or representation by the minority in Congress.  Sumner's aggressive speech was as important to some in its attack on slavery, as the fact that a northern representative was standing up for a minority viewpoint.  Sumner seemed to be saying, hey, slavery is bad, but so is the fact that the opinions and beliefs of a large swath of the American electorate is being suppressed. 

If it is true that elections matter, that newly elected representatives feel empowered by the tilting of the political spectrum in their favor, and that mandates to govern are part of the spoils of winning, it is also true that our founders believed in and created our representative form of government, so that all voices could be heard through their representatives, even if they be in the minority.

As each party will tell you, it is important to govern for the benefit of all people on both sides of the aisle, when that party is in the minority.  Once a majority however, that tone seems to fade.

It is certainly worthy of debate to take sides on the premise, which comes first, the minority party with a strong leader who inspires a change of governance, or a minority opinion with a strong following which inspires a party to embrace this new message?  Was time ripe for Sumner's actions, reactions to his speech, and the growing power of the Republican party because the populace was already leaning towards an anti-slavery perspective?  I would imagine that many Sumner like speeches took place in the years preceding which created less than a ripple in the national conscious.  As they say in comedy, timing is everything!

That being the case, it is easy to see how the election of President Trump was inevitable.  Far too many middle class, working class people had become disappointed with the constant revision of the rules by the rich and powerful, both elected and those behind the scenes with their unlimited buying power.  This lack of representation was amplified even further during the 2008 recession when it was clear that those responsible, banks, lending agencies, Congress, and rich corporations, were rescued by the taxpayer, slapped on the wrist, and then accumulated even more resources during the recovery.  The boom and bust cycle had once again enriched those at the top to the detriment of everyone else.  The sad part, the less than democratic part, was that those who profited were the minority who had the majority of influence.  Representation was lacking, and so a populist message was all the more attractive. 

The suppressed minority has nothing to do with population, everything to do with representation.  And, when representation is defined by campaign donations linked to "free" speech, by gerrymandered Congressional districts, by voting laws which keep people off the voting rolls, and by a requirement that a large sum of money and negative campaign tactics be more important to winning an election than actual positions on the topics, then we are all a part of the suppressed minority. 

Perhaps this is the most important take away from the recent blue wave of the 2016 midterms.  Not that there was a rejection of some of the baser rhetoric associated with President Trump and the "new" Republican party.  Not that women, minorities, and the young voters all indicated the desire for a different direction.  Not even that a check in presidential power, which all of us should embrace, GOP or Democrat alike, was chosen. 

What is most important is that our democracy can and does work.  It works by presenting us with choices, general and specific, as to how we want to move forward.  It works by allowing us to choose our leaders every two years, even if those choices seem to contradict the elections previous.  And it works by giving the suppressed minority the opportunity to make its opinions heard and increase its representation in our local, state and federal legislatures.  Even, and especially, when the suppressed minority is the majority of the population.