When President Biden spoke on Sept. 1st, to tell the nation that democracy is in danger, his warnings echoed the words of many who have been paying attention. Especially those who study the past.
Not a month earlier, the president met with a group of handpicked historians who told him that democracy was teetering, hanging on by a thread.
After The Washington Post reported on the historians meeting, it didn’t take long for some to raise questions, not about the fact that democracy is in peril, but about the monochromatic makeup of those delivering that message.
It seemed the Biden administration had only invited white experts to advise the president — four historians and one journalist: Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, University of Virginia historian Allida Black, presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Jon Meacham, who is also an occasional speechwriter for Biden, and journalist and Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum.
But it wasn’t only the lack of diversity in that group, it was where that lack of diversity seemed to lead.
“They compared the threat facing America to the pre-Civil War era and to pro-fascist movements before World War II,” read the Post’s sub-headline.
Those comparisons leave out important parts of U.S. history that resonate today, says Kenneth Mack, a professor of law and history at Harvard.
“We don’t really have to look outside the United States, nor do we really have to look all the way back to the Civil War to think about things like voter suppression, demagoguery, and fascist tactics,” he says.
“We’ve had the death of democracy happen right here, in the United States,” says Mack. “African Americans experienced this directly.” He’s talking especially about the overthrow of Reconstruction, and all that followed, well up until the Civil Rights Movement.
Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker writer and the new dean of Columbia Journalism School, adds, “The formative experience around American authoritarianism has been the treatment of people of African descent and people of Indigenous descent.”
Cobb says the meeting missed the point.
If you don’t examine how democracy has died for people of color in this country, you might miss how freedom fades not in big bombastic moments, but in slow ongoing repression.
And if you exclude the voices of scholars and writers who understand an anti-democratic, fascist order as heritage, rather than an aberration, you might miss how democracy has before been pulled back from the brink.
“In having an all white room,” Cobb says. “you kind of replicate the kind of gaps in perspective that we’ve seen that have facilitated this problem in the first place.”
It’s Exactly What Is Happening Now
Reconstruction was a bold plan to repair the wounds of slavery, and build out of the ashes of civil war a multiracial democracy. Rather than accept equality, it was violently overturned by Southern whites.
“At the turn of the century we lost everything,” says University of Connecticut Professor Manisha Sinha.
“It all went down the drain because of a very reactionary Supreme Court and because of state laws and local authorities who were willing to subvert elections and not allow people to vote.”
“Sounds familiar?” she asks.
There was rising white supremacist domestic terrorism, lynchings and the reign of the Ku Klux Klan, and what Sinha describes as “racist authoritarianism.”
In many ways, she says, “it’s exactly what is happening now.”
Both Sinha and Mack note that the past cannot just be grafted onto the present. But it’s important to understand how racism and white supremacy have always been at the center of threats to our democracy.
“If you talk to scholars of race, that’s the kind of perspective that you get,” Mack says.
Mack says he is glad the president is meeting with scholars to talk about the lessons of history. “The group that Biden had in was a very distinguished group,” he says.
“But the real question is, are there other people who would add to that discussion and enrich it and bring something that the people who were invited didn’t bring?
Erica Loewe, White House Director of African American Media, told NPR in a statement: “Since day one, President Biden has regularly engaged with diverse stakeholders and community leaders who offer different perspectives on a variety of issues. As a result, he has consistently taken action to ensure personnel and policy decisions reflect the diversity of this nation.”
Whose history is being centered?
We can not know exactly what the historians said to President Biden, or whether they talked at any length about reconstruction and the death of democracy.
But two of the historians appeared on TV afterword to talk about the meeting.
Both Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz and Presidential historian Michael Beschloss confirmed and reiterated the Post’s reporting on the two key moments in American history they picked to focus on — the lead up to the Civil War and the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Beschloss talked to MSNBC’s Jonathan Capeheart. “If we were living in 1940,” he said to Capeheart, who it’s important to note, is a Black man, “you and I would’ve said there’s a serious danger that America will not be a democracy.”
The “we” is telling; America at that time was already not a democracy for most Black people.
Beschloss went on, saying, “There are people from within who wanna make this an authoritarian system.”
He didn’t mention that in the 1940’s many Black people already lived under authoritarian systems, like Jim Crow.
Beschloss pointed to a second reason that democracy felt perilous then, as it does now. “The Nazi Germans, the Italians, the Imperial Japanese — we’re living in a world where fascism is on the March,” he said.
But those rising fascist movements abroad borrowed heavily from America’s fascist tactics, from Jim Crow and America’s brutal treatment of Indigenous people. “A global thing,” says Manisha Sinha, “but homegrown in the United States.”
Wilentz also didn’t mention race and American history when he spoke with CNN. What he did say was the moments where democracy is at risk all have something in common — a crisis of legitimacy.
“The key to all of this is when the basic institutions of the country are being called into — the legitimacy of those institutions is being called into serious question,” he told CNN’s Michael Smerconish.
“That certainly happened before the Civil War and led to secession. The slaveholders’ rebellion in which they said, look, we don’t believe in your constitution. Your constitution is wrong.”
That was a moment when Southern whites rejected and questioned the legitimacy of the federal government. But across American history Black people and people of color have had a justified, deep distrust of American institutions.
Whose distrust and rejection of American institutions is Wilentz placing at the center of the story?
Wilentz has a history of getting race and racism wrong, says Jelani Cobb. He points to an infamous piece, entitled “Race Man,” that Wilentz wrote in 2008. “Sean Wilentz said that Barack Obama had run the most racist campaign in modern American history,” Cobb says.
In the essay, Wilentz accused the Obama campaign of “the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton campaign ad in 1988 and the most insidious since Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadephia, Mississippi, praising states’ rights.” That announcement, just miles from where 3 civil rights workers were murdered by the KKK, was seen as a tacit nod by Reagan to white supremacists.
“Here we have this crisis which is shot through with racial elements and that’s the person in the room,” Cobb says. “Yeah. That’s a problem.”
In the room where it happens
Scott Kurashige, executive director of the American Studies Association, says to really understand the past, and its role in the present, we must look to historians who study more than just those in power. There is value to the presidential historian who reads every scrap of paper a president wrote, he says. “But if that’s not paired with someone who’s analyzed the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the Black freedom movement, the movement of Japanese Americans for redress against incarceration,” you don’t have the full story.
It’s not enough to understand democracy is at risk, without learning from those who have borne — and still bear — the brunt of its loss.
“The people who’ve studied exclusion and people who’ve studied the struggle for civil rights and democracy for oppressed peoples have the biggest insights into how fragile democracy can be,” he says. They also have insight into something else, “What it takes to build a movement — what type of struggle, what type of sacrifice, what type of courage and determination it takes to obtain, and preserve democracy.”
Because if we have ample examples in our historical DNA for the death of democracy, we also have a blueprint for its protection, and rebirth. There were abolitionists who fought against the horrors of slavery in America. Then, after the failures of reconstruction and the imposition of a brutal system of Jim Crow, came the long fight for Civil Rights.
“It took lots of people, activists on the ground, working daily to reintroduce democracy in those parts of the United States where it had been taken away,” historian Kenneth Mack says. “And it was only reintroduced within my lifetime.”
The 1960’s struggle for equal rights was a massive movement led by Black people and people of color — people who maintained a stubborn belief in America’s promise as they pushed for a second attempt at reconstruction.
“I think it’s really important for us to remember that even as ordinary American citizens, you can actually push the pendulum of history,” says historian Manisha Sinha.
People must push, Sinha says, but those in power must act. “The only time American democracy has been protected has been when the federal government has responded in forceful ways,” she says.
The August historians meeting was not the only time President Biden hosted experts to learn from the past. Earlier this year he met with another group that included Annette Gordon-Reed, a Black scholar who studies race, law and history at Harvard. In previous speeches, Biden has compared today’s threats to voting rights to Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction America.
But Jelani Cobb says it’s still concerning that this meeting of all white historians happened at all. Especially at the same time that there is a movement by Republican politicians to sensor and silence the histories of Black people and people of color across the United States.
The campaign to outlaw the teaching of America’s racist — and anti-democratic — past is not a coincidence, says Cobb. The same politicians who are pushing history into the shadows, are also pushing and promoting voter suppression laws pulled directly from that past. “What they are doing is effectively turning off the light switch,” at the moment we most need to be able to see, Cobb says.
History after all, can be read like a map.
“There’s a map that will help us understand the moment we’re in, and we are plunging ourselves into complete darkness at that moment.”