Sunday, August 17, 2008

Pyrrhic victories, or how to shoot yourself in the foot

No one should draw facile parallels between historical events and current ones. Furthermore, there are host of important differences between government-sponsored elections (e.g., elections for federal or state office) and political party internal elections (e.g. primaries, caucuses, nomination votes). Yet the peculiar sort of Pyrrhic victory where those who manipulate an election end up with their efforts spectacularly backfiring does ring one particular historical bell worth contemplating now, as the Democratic Party heads into a convention with the option of holding a genuinely open election or staging a charade that would not count as any meaningful election at all.

Ever since my first doubts about the seriousness of the DNC's commitment to a genuine, non-symbolic floor vote arose - and they arose immediately upon noting that the announcement of a floor vote came from the candidates, not the DNC itself - a particular U.S. Presidential election keeps coming to mind: the Tilden-Hayes presidential contest of 1876 which pitted Republican Rutherford Hayes against Democrat Samuel Tilden. The stakes of the election were high, with the future of the effort to end systematic state-sponsored political discrimination in the former confederate states on the line.

The year 1876 was the most notable of the period in American history between the close of the war of Secession and the beginning of the war with Spain It was the year in which occurred the last of our important Indian outbreaks a conflict made sadly memorable by the massacre of Custer and his troopers on the Little Big Horn It was the year which marked the one hundredth anniversary of our independence an occasion fitly celebrated by the great Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia It was also the year of an election which resulted in a strange controversy that put our institutions to one of the severest tests they bave ever been called upon to endure

A brief, if dry, summary of the election and its aftermath:
Rutherford Hayes was nominated on the seventh ballot at a hotly contested Republican convention in 1876. The Republican platform called for the continued control of the South, civil service reform, and investigation of the effects of [far Asian] immigrations. The Democrats called for the end of reconstruction in the South, restriction of [far Asian] immigration and an end to land grants for railroads.

The two candidates were both experienced if dull. Hayes had been a General during the Civil War, had a law degree from the Harvard Law School and was governor of Ohio. The Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden, had been a district attorney fighting corruption in New York, where he became governor.
The campaign revolved around the issue of corruption. The Democrats accused Hayes of the crimes of the Grant administration. At the same time the Republicans continued to call the Democrats the party of treason. In the final days of the campaign Tilden was regarded as the favorite, and even Hayes believed that he had lost.

In the end, returns in three states, South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana were disputed. Tilden was one state short of victory. Congress appointed a congressional committee to investigate. The committee decided to award all the disputed votes to Hayes. Hayes, in return, however, promised to end reconstruction. Hayes became the next President. [source]
To appreciate the import of this synopsis, some more detail- but not too much more - is in order.

Prior to 1876, Republicans had been winning U.S. presidential elections and generally dominating federal politics since the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. The Democratic Party preexists the Republican one, predating the Civil War. But the antibellum Democratic Party split over issues of states rights, including the question of how to treat the question of slavery in new states joining the Union in the mid-1800s. The Republican party, while not most aptly regarded as the party of abolition (Lincoln and the Republican Party of his era had a complicated view of slavery as practiced in the U.S., regarding it more as a systemic political problem for maintaining the Union than as the crisis of individual human rights that it most definitely was), did in fact lead the Union to victory in the Civil War, and this included the Emancipation Proclamation. Subsequent Republican administrations, specifically those of Ulysses S. Grant, did want to involve the federal government in "reconstructing" the Southern states and this reconstruction did include an effort to reduce the ongoing systemic political racism in those states. With the Democratic Party tainted by its failure to fully embrace the Union cause during the Civil War, the Republican Party enjoyed political dominance because it had led the Union to victory and because of the role that Union victory played in ending slavery.

By 1876, Reconstruction was increasingly unpopular and so was the Republican Party. While many Republicans took it for granted that the party would hold onto the White House, the 1876 Presidential election was a squeaker. With over 80 per cent of eligible voters participating, the election become mired in dispute because of contested results in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana (no surprise that the fights were in Southern three states). The commission appointed by Congress to investigate the election did not - and perhaps could not have - ascertain the actual election results in each of these states.

Instead the 1876 Presidential election was brokered to yield the result that so many had expected: a Republican victory. By one electoral vote, Republican Ruthford B. Hayes took the White House.

But, this victory was no victory for ongoing efforts to eliminate political discrimination against blacks in the Southern states. To gain the White House, Hayes and the Republicans had to promise to end that aspect of Reconstruction as well as others, ushering in years of Jim Crow - years in which throughout the south the federal government essentially looked the other way as everything from the disenfranchisement to lynching of African-Americans occurred.


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