November 8, 2018
On the Election That Was and All That It Wasn’t
For some reason, this year I found myself reflecting upon the words of John Roy Lynch. Lynch led a truly amazing life. Born a slave in the waning days of that atrocious institution, he rose to become the first African-American elected to the United States Congress. A fierce advocate of Reconstruction, Lynch saw the promise of America, even when he felt it had turned its back on him.
Lynch wrote two books: 1913’s The Facts of Reconstruction, in which he correctly argued that Reconstruction had in fact greatly benefited the United States, and his 1937 autobiography, Reminiscences of an Active Life, which includes much of The Face of Reconstruction, yet excludes the glowing praise he had heaped upon the Republican Party twenty-four years earlier. In truth, he didn’t have much to say in favor either party at that point.
It is in the final chapter of the latter book that the cause of my reminiscences can be found, for there, Lynch laid out what he saw as true democracy. In his words, there was hope – hope that America’s better days were ahead of it, hope that the question of race would soon be a thing of the past. He wrote:
“[I]t is a fortunate thing for the race to have the race question completely eliminated from politics so that the colored voter’s identification with any political party will be solely one of choice and no longer one of necessity. With both of the major parties conceding to colored voters the same rights and privileges enjoyed by the other groups of which our citizenry is composed, the colored American can then support or oppose the candidates of any party without running the risk of jeopardizing the civil and political rights of his race.”
We are, alas, far from achieving this utopian vision. There is the prevailing belief that the “other side” – regardless of whether that side is Democrat or Republican - is somehow working against us and that only one party is truly defending what we hold dear. This means that there is no real choice on Election Day; it is instead a matter of survival. We vote the way we vote because we believe the other side is going to work against us, that with victory will come a complete dedication to taking away what we hold so dear – our way of life, our rights, our status in society. Lynch would argue that this is not true democracy, for there is no real choice. In our minds, only one candidate is actually acceptable.
Lynch saw the potential for something different. He envisioned a world in which the candidates on the ballot disagree on such things as tax policy, education, and military spending, but not on the fundamental rights of all of its citizens to be treated equally under the law and respectfully by society. Far too often this is not the case. Far too often the case is made for one over the other, for legal rights for one group, yet exclusion for another, for one group’s praiseworthiness and another’s demonization. Lynch believed people deserved better than this, and he was right.