February 11, 2019

VALDETARO | The Political Stakes Are Always High

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Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a new dueling columns feature. In our very first feature, Michael Johns ’20 and Giancarlo Valdetaro ’21 debate, “How have the stakes of American politics risen so high?” Read the counterpart column here.

As the rhetoric of both parties, the power grabs of outgoing Republican administrations, and the recent response of Democratic leaders to scandals in Virginia suggest, these certainly are uncommon political times we are living through. The public is not only increasingly polarized, but also increasingly isolated, as the number of counties close to the median voter has more than halved over the past two decades.

And yet, to claim that our current political environment involves abnormally high stakes is to sanitize history. For the historically marginalized, the stakes of American politics have always been, and still are, high. Unfortunately, their height is only recognized by the political mainstream in hindsight — after years of grueling work by each marginalized group to establish themselves as worthy of the protection that being an American confers.

The history of race in the United States is the premier example of this, especially when concerning African-Americans. From the Three-Fifths Compromise to the Compromise of 1850, and eventually to the Civil War, every political conversation has high stakes when the everyday consequences of the status quo are the lash of the whip and other unbearable forms of torture. Despite this, slavery and the inferiority of African-Americans were continually contested by activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Furthermore, as Martha Jones documents in Birthright Citizens, the stakes of politics were so high that everyday interaction with the state and its legal system by African-Americans came to have significant symbolic political meaning.

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe helped to reveal the heights of these stakes. Her opinion-shifting book Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave explicit descriptions of slavery’s brutality, depicting the practice in a way too nightmarish for much of the public to stomach. Only emphasizing the grave importance of Stowe’s novel were the reactions of Southern states. Outraged at the book’s depictions, they censored, outlawed and published narratives to compete with it, a characteristically paternalistic response to a book that jeopardized their power in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Unfortunately, the end of slavery did not mean that the political stakes had fallen. Well into the 20th century, African-Americans continued to experience the effects of politics through violence, frequently in the form of lynching. From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African-Americans were extrajudicially lynched for crimes they often had no involvement with. During these acts of terror, white perpetrators displayed a savagery characteristic of their stereotypes of African-Americans, mutilating their victims before, during and after murdering them. Beyond these barbaric executions, white perpetrators planned acts of political violence against African-Americans who had or were seeking power. The 1875 Mississippi Plan, 1898 Wilmington coup and the 1921 Tulsa Riot all served to oppress African-Americans by suppressing their vote, forcing them out of power or simply burning their neighborhoods to the ground.

These events, with stakes of life or death, were the direct result of American politics, enabled only by Rutherford B. Hayes ceding political control of the South to the Democratic Party in 1877. After this concession, it took years of activism by groups such as the NAACP to get the political mainstream to look up again. Even then, it took events such as the murder of Emmett Till and the broadcasting of the crackdown on the Birmingham Children’s Crusade to spur political leaders to act decisively at last.

More than a half-century after the first pieces of civil rights legislation, and three years after the inauguration of an explicitly racist president, it is impossible in so few words to do justice to all the ways politics still does have an impact on any marginalized group, much less all of them. As Liel Sterling ’21 explained in The Sun last year, gender equality is not codified in the Constitution. Stripping legal immigrants of their citizenship is becoming part of the Trump administration’s immigration policy. The Justice Department has argued that the LGBT community is not protected under the Civil Rights Act. States like Kentucky have implemented Medicaid work requirements, especially harmful to the poor. Crucial disability insurance is becoming a political chess piece. For racial minorities, women, immigrants, the LGBT community, the economically disenfranchised and the disabled, among others, political decisions still dictate everyday life.

However, if there’s anything this white guy’s view of the African-American experience can offer, it’s recognizing the political stakes for what they are. In 1867, when Radical Reconstruction began to respect the rights of and foster equality for African-Americans in the South, it was a time of hope. They held political conventions, were elected to Congress and established a foothold in American politics that was challenged — but never relinquished. It was only when powerful Union politicians lost their appetite for continued action that most of this hope evaporated.

Fortunately, we live in a day and age when it is possible to document and distribute the ever-high stakes of politics. So, when refugee children are put in cages, minority communities are over-policed with deadly consequences and people live on the streets at all times of the year, it is important that we remember this lesson, lest we be lulled into complacency. The stakes are always high, and it shouldn’t be difficult to see that any longer.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at gvaldetaro@cornellsun.com.