Last week, Democrats secured their first legislative win of the year, as President Biden signed a $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package. It was a major accomplishment, yet hardly dented the party’s to-do list. With complete control of Congress for the first time in a decade, Democrats’ have far-reaching ambitions. But with immigration, gun control, health care, and other issues competing for attention, lawmakers have to pick and choose.
As Democrats craft their caucus’ priorities, they should learn from their historical counterparts in the 51st Congress, which convened in 1889. In that year, Republicans retook Congress after a comparable period and with a similarly lengthy agenda. The ultimately tragic results of how they handled it show that one key issue then and now–racial justice–is just too fragile to ignore.
In the late 1800s, the GOP was the party of civil rights. After attempting to build a multiracial democracy during Reconstruction, Republicans were swept from Congress by conservative backlash in 1874. But when the party finally regained both chambers and the White House in 1889, protecting nonwhite Americans was only one of many pressing concerns. Not only had southern leaders eroded civil rights and disenfranchised many Black voters, but public outcry against big business was becoming unignorable. So too were demands for pensions for Civil War veterans and corporate calls for higher tariffs. And like Democrats today, Republicans enjoyed only narrow majorities: two seats in the Senate and four in the House.
Once in power, Republicans legislated efficiently. They created a massive pension system for Union veterans, financed by high taxes on imports that pleased industrialists. They also boosted funds to colleges, created the national forest system, and passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, enabling the federal government to block anti-competitive practices. Because the GOP would have lacked the votes to pass many of these laws, they created six new states in the Republican-leaning west, a far more aggressive variant of Democrats’ present plans for D.C. statehood.
To address attacks on civil rights, congressional leaders offered similarly bold solutions. Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge proposed a bill for federal oversight of local elections, empowering judges and marshals to ensure Black voters were treated fairly. Republicans also introduced the Blair Education Bill, which would have increased federal education funding to stymie the literacy tests used to keep African Americans from registering to vote.
But on these issues, the Republican caucus wavered. Lodge’s bill passed the House, but was filibustered by southern senators. The Blair Bill encountered similar opposition. Rather than invest the political capital needed to pass them, Republicans leaders relented. In exchange for southern support on tariffs and other major bills, the GOP dropped both civil rights proposals.
The results of this decision were disastrous. The clear demonstration of federal indifference to Black Americans emboldened white “redeemers” in the South. Aided by lynch mob violence, they passed a flurry of laws segregating public life and stripping electoral rights from nonwhite voters. Republicans, mostly content in the belief that they were less racist than their opponents, offered only statements of outrage and token gestures as the 70-year reign of Jim Crow began.
Racial justice may be less imperiled in America today than it was in 1889, but the difference is one of degree. Right now, state legislatures across the country are moving to pass restrictive voting laws. Motivated by Donald Trump’s false claims of electoral fraud, these bills are specifically designed to make it harder for nonwhite communities to participate in American democracy. Meanwhile, persistent racial discrimination in policing, housing, and education remain unaddressed.
Democrats have promised to fix these issues, but early indications are not promising. Despite proposing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and related measures, the absence of 50 Democratic votes to end the filibuster means these bills would likely suffer the same fate as Lodge’s 130 years ago. The result of their failure might be similar too. With a compliant Supreme Court and inactive Congress, Republican legislatures would be free to entrench unequal racial access to voting and ensure that our racial status quo, whose lethal effects were rendered plain this summer, remains in place.
Addressing race in the U.S. has never and will never be easy. But like Republicans in 1889, Democrats now must decide whether they care enough to take on the challenge, or are simply satisfied with using hollow language of racial justice to superficially distinguish themselves from their more vulgar opponents. America has watched the second path unfold before, and the cost was unimaginable. Democrats must choose wisely.