By Alan Berolzheimer, Ph.D, Flow of History Project Historian

American democracy is not static; it is constantly evolving. From the rhetoric and ideals of founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, to contemporary debates about the war in Iraq, domestic surveillance in the “war on terror,” the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, or the economic impact of Wal-Mart, the meanings of democracy in the United States and the dynamics of its exercise have been ever shifting. Undoubtedly, by nearly any measure the degree of freedom that Americans as a whole have achieved and enjoy today—including the ability to participate in politics and government and to choose their leaders—is fabulous. And yet, to say that “rule by the people” in America is the most effective, efficient, or humane form of government to be found anywhere in the world oversimplifies and obscures important historical truths that contribute to a fuller, more complex picture.

The Civil War was obviously a watershed in the evolution of democracy in the U.S. that was as revolutionary as the Revolution itself. The victory of the North, the destruction of slavery, and the preservation of the Union within the framework of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution undermined the structure of one system of democracy and inaugurated another. While the premise of full civil and political equality regardless of race represented progress, the new system of democracy itself was fundamentally flawed by the exclusion of women, and it proved to be easily distorted by violence, nativism, and concentrated wealth. Woman suffrage was the next major watershed in 1920, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally accomplished in the political arena what the 14th and 15th Amendments did not. But a funny thing happened along the way as access to the franchise and real political power expanded over the course of the 20th century: Political participation consistently declined, at least on the national level. Historians note that at the turn of the century, politics was a very popular activity and a focal point of community life throughout the country. In the 1896 presidential election, 80% of eligible voters voted. In 2004, only 66% of eligible voters were registered, and only 58% of the eligible population voted in the presidential election. (Interestingly, the percentages for whites and blacks in 2004 are nearly identical; Asian Americans voted in considerably fewer numbers. Among all racial groups, the percentages of people registered and voting increased as a function of income.)1 Many factors help to explain this decline, prominent among them the rising influence of money and mass media. Some historians, myself included, would argue that a new conception of democracy accompanied the expansion of the franchise in the 20th century: The citizen as consumer. All of these post-Civil War developments suggest ways to understand the dynamics of democracy in modern American history, and they are relevant to considering the state and meanings of democracy today.

For African Americans, the post-Civil War era began with the exhilaration of emancipation, freedom, and great expectations. Inevitably, with slavery abolished, the South in ruins, an entire economic and social system destroyed, and the pressing need for everyone to somehow still procure the means of fulfilling their basic needs, it would be a time of tremendous upheaval and transition. The story of Reconstruction—usually defined as the period from the end of the war until the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877—is fascinating and convoluted, involving many layers of conflicting interests and goals among the key players: blacks and whites, radical reformers and radical traditionalists, Northerners and Southerners, presidents and legislators, owners and laborers, missionaries and generals. The constitutional amendments of the time created the legal framework for full citizenship and voting rights for the former slaves. Missionaries and reformers offered aid in the form of teachers, nurses, food and clothing. The army on the ground offered a measure of protection from reprisal and manipulation at the hand of disgruntled Confederates. Most important, African Americans embraced their new freedom and acted upon it, by reconstituting their families, clamoring for education, practicing their religions openly, seeking their own livelihoods, demanding their rights to land, and organizing to participate in politics and hold elective office. But while real gains were made, a variety of powerful obstacles prevented African Americans from taking their rightful place in American society. Reconstruction turned out to be, in the words of Eric Foner, “America’s unfinished revolution.”2 In the end, African-American aspirations were largely thwarted by a potent combination of fierce resistance to black autonomy by most white Southerners and their determination to restore a society grounded in white supremacy by whatever means necessary, the widespread belief in the inferiority of black people among Northern whites, prevailing attitudes about work, dependency, and private property, and the lack of political will in the North to support black aspirations at the expense of preserving white privilege and getting on with the business of industrial capitalism.

Democracy in the post-Civil War South thus became democracy for whites only, as they successfully reconstituted a society based on the ideology of white supremacy and black subservience, enforced by intimidation, raw violence, and the law of Jim Crow. From the 1870s onward, the de facto but intricately developed rules of racial power and etiquette gradually became a formal system of segregation and disenfranchisement. A series of decisions by a conservative Supreme Court holding an ungenerous view of government responsibility to protect the rights of African Americans, culminating in the separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, severely weakened the impact of the Reconstruction amendments. Beginning in 1890 with Mississippi, every Southern state revised its constitution to impose restrictions on suffrage that effectively eliminated the black vote (and diminished the electoral fortunes of poor whites, as well), and within a decade the deed was legally accomplished throughout the region. At the same time, Southern legislatures enacted the Jim Crow laws that forced African Americans to use separate facilities in the public sphere, from train cars and theaters to rest rooms and drinking fountains. The Jim Crow regime would persist into the middle of the 20th century. On the economic front, prejudice, discrimination, and intimidation by whites for the most part excluded blacks from all but the most unskilled jobs in mining, milling, lumbering, and manufacturing, while debt peonage through sharecropping remained the predominant condition of Southern blacks in the King Cotton economy.

Undergirding the social, economic, and political relations of white supremacy, white-on-black violence was an ever-present threat that circumscribed the lives of African Americans in the South. Lynching—which claimed the lives of roughly 5,000 Americans, mostly black, between 1882 and 1950, peaking at around 200 annually in the 1890s3—and race riots, sometimes premeditated—n which white mobs marauded through black communities burning homes and businesses, destroying property, and murdering innocent victims at will (Wilmington, NC in 1898, Atlanta in 1906, East St. Louis in 1917, Chicago in 1919, Tulsa in 1921, Rosewood, FL in 1923, were only the worst, and not just in the South)—were the most extreme manifestations of what can fairly be called a culture of violence intended to ensure that African Americans understood their subservient place in the social order and would stay there, at the risk of their lives.

Ironically, the Jim Crow regime coincided with a sustained burst of reform energy that swept the nation from the late 19th century through World War One, which historians call the Progressive Era. The juxtaposition of these long historical episodes, one predominating in the South and one in the North and West, reveals the deepest contradictions in American democracy at the beginning of the modern era. The various strands of Progressive reform were responses by middle-class, educated, and professional Americans to the rapid pace of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization that characterized the period. These trends raised fears about the unchecked power of concentrated wealth, intensified class conflict between workers and employers, abundant opportunities for political corruption, alien cultural mores about alcohol and sex, and how the nation would be able to assimilate tens of millions of these immigrants and their children into the American mainstream and turn them into loyal citizens. From the viewpoint of the Progressives and their allies in other social groups, these were all threats pointed straight at the heart of American democracy. The significant social, economic, and political reforms that emerged during this period included federal regulation of business, professionalization of municipal administration, widespread construction of playgrounds and kindergartens, introduction of electoral measures such as the referendum and the direct election of U.S. senators, and further attempts to suppress the consumption of alcohol which culminated with national Prohibition in 1919. Evaluating the effects of these myriad solutions on the institutions and practice of democracy is complicated and difficult to summarize—except to say that in some ways individuals became more empowered to influence public affairs and the conditions of their lives, and in some ways they became less empowered. Taken as a whole, the reforms implemented during the Progressive Era struck a balance between promoting equity and social justice on some levels, and imposing control over the behavior of groups defined as “other” by Middle America on other levels.

Progressivism also had a racial dimension. In the South, advances in education, public health, workplace safety, and civic efficiency primarily benefited white people. Furthermore, the disfranchisement of African Americans significantly reduced the potential constituency of advocates for progressive change in the region, and helped create the political reality of a one-party state in the region (Democrats). Later in the 20th century, the strength of that one-party rule constrained further progressive reform, again along racial lines, in the shaping of the Social Security program during President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the enactment of civil rights legislation during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. In the North and West, while African Americans were not necessarily formally excluded from taking advantage of economic and political reforms, white prejudice and racism were still the norm, and blacks were viewed by many Progressives as alien “others,” just like Chinese, Japanese, and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Exclusion from many jobs, as well as segregated housing, schooling, and recreational facilities such as beaches were also the norm outside the South, and as noted above, race riots instigated by whites were a common occurrence in Northern cities during the first quarter of the 20th century.

The other side of the story is that African Americans did not simply acquiesce to white repression and discrimination or accept the status of second-class citizens. They resisted, in ways subtle and overt, borne of communal confidence in the promise that America would eventually prove itself faithful to its democratic ideals. They sought and found ways of pushing back against the insults of personal prejudice and the restrictions of structural racism, they continued to develop their distinctive forms of vernacular culture, they worked to strengthen the economic bases of their own communities, they pressured government leaders and open-minded whites to recognize the justice of their claims for full equality. African Americans acted on their own behalf to exercise the freedoms due them in a democratic society, as far as whites would let them. And when white intransigence proved too stubborn or lethal, blacks backed down, accommodated themselves to the realities of superior force and power, and suffered. Such were the limitations of democracy in the early 20th century.

But the black struggle did progress incrementally and the work and victories of those early civil rights pioneers laid the foundation for a fuller triumph in the 1960s. Considerable research attests to African Americans’ grassroots passion for politics upon their emancipation, and while that energy was effectively suppressed in the South for three generations, the taste for democratic political power never disappeared. W.E.B. Du Bois stands out as the leading apostle of full black political and social equality. He was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, which led the fights against lynching (spearheaded by black woman, Ida B. Wells) and for the enforcement of voting rights statutes. We tend to juxtapose Du Bois’ uncompromising stance with Booker T. Washington’s explicitly accommodationist message emphasizing self-help and economic development as the two strategic poles of black action. But it is more accurate to understand their philosophies as part of a continuum of responses available to a group of people mired in a subordinate position in society. Who is to say and how is one to determine whether an “idealist” or “realist” approach is more constructive at a given historical moment? Derided as a sell-out by many, Washington achieved new respect when black nationalist sentiment caught fire during the most fertile years of civil rights organizing in the 1960s. And despite the popular perception of Washington and his predominant public posture, he did in fact publicly protest lynching and disfranchisement, he secretly initiated lawsuits against Jim Crow segregation, and he used his personal financial resources to support the kind of work the NAACP would later undertake.4

This is not the place to narrate the early history of the 20th-century civil rights movement. Suffice it to say that leading up to the groundswell of action that gathered unprecedented momentum following the Brown decision and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1954-56, many other organizations emerged to take up the fight for black equality (including the Communist Party and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union), many more lawsuits were pursued, many more campaigns were organized (such as the Double V campaign during World War II), and, not incidentally, African-American influence on mainstream American popular culture continued to grow, opening another social space in which the struggle for freedom and equality could be advanced (Harlem Renaissance, blues and jazz music). Progress was achieved, but slowly and with reluctance on the part of most white Americans. For example, African Americans returned to the Democratic Party en masse when Franklin Roosevelt championed the little people against plutocrats, but while the New Deal offered some new opportunities for blacks in its significant reshaping of American democracy, its record was marred by racial discrimination and segregation. Similarly, the armed forces remained segregated in World War II—the “Good War” against tyranny and racist ideologies—and Roosevelt only agreed to outlaw job discrimination in defense industries in response to the frightening prospect of social disruption in the event of an enormous march on Washington threatened by black union leader A. Philip Randolph. President Truman established a Committee on Civil Rights that recommended sweeping reforms in 1947, but Southern leaders reacted with alarm and legislation went nowhere. The question of why events and historical forces converged in the 1950s and 1960s to produce changes that had been elusive for a century will be considered during the Flow of History book groups in fall 2006.

Clearly, democracy is an imperfect institution, and the contours of American democracy throughout our nation’s history have been fundamentally shaped by other ideological imperatives, by the power of wealth, by the complex social relations of power that constitute any social structure at a given point in time, and by individuals’ desire and willingness to take positive action to influence or control the conditions of their lives. During the 20th century, politics was not the only arena in which the meaning of democracy in America became transformed. The expansion of a certain kind of economic democracy was equally important. The maturation of the industrial monster that so concerned turn-of-the-century Progressives produced material affluence of historic proportions, made possible continually rising standards of living, and significantly widened the opportunity for American families of all stripes and backgrounds to achieve adequacy. Indeed, new levels and modes of consumption and comfort redefined the very meaning of adequacy, and along with it the meaning of citizenship. By mid-century—at the very time a key set of democratic assumptions was finally undergoing radical change in the political sphere—access to a specific configuration of consumer goods and experiences had become widely understood as the birthright of every American, a principal benefit of American democracy. The so-called “American standard of living” was an ideological as well as a material construct. The concept, and the apparent reality, smoothed over various fault lines of social and economic difference that otherwise fractured the national body politic, including race. It was a compelling basis for imagining a unified national community, a participatory national democracy: The consumer fulfilling the functions of citizenship, citizenship essentially grounded in the right to be a consumer.

Thus, the period of American history since the middle of the 20th century can be seen as characterized by yet another system of democracy, in which the political and economic variables have been jumbled up and rearranged in comparison with previous eras. And it is a system that continues to be shaped by factors of race and class, not to mention gender, region, and others. What are the relationships between the political, economic, and social dimensions of this incarnation of American democracy? How do they reflect aspects of continuity and change? Has it been superseded by another set of arrangements or priorities or ideologies? What does “democracy” mean today and to what extent do individuals or groups have the power to make or influence decisions that affect their lives? These questions make excellent topics for discussion.



1. For voting statistics, see census data at:
2. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).
3. See Jerrold M. Packard, American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow (New York: St. Martins, 2002), 130.
4. Robert J. Norrell, The House I Live In: Race in the American Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 46-47, 62-64.