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Two Centuries of Compromise


Bouie has an interesting comparison between the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and what we face in 2020.

Constitutional government depends on good faith adherence to the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Discard the former, and there’s nothing in the latter to keep a democracy (or if you prefer, a republic) from falling into unenlightened despotism.

The Missouri controversy was, of course, settled with a compromise. Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state, and Maine would enter as a free state, but Congress would prohibit slavery in all land of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36° 30’ parallel. This defused the fight over the territory, but could not resolve the conflict over the Union. This was legislation, a good faith agreement between two irreconcilable sides, not a permanent addition to the constitutional framework.

Nor could it be permanent in a country where sectionalism made it impossible to meet the supermajority requirement for amending the Constitution. There would be no neutral ground for mediating sectional conflicts over slavery. Instead, Americans would try as much as possible to suppress disputes through a careful balance of power and territory. It was the only option in a society where both sides, North and South, feared domination should one side win the upper hand. Or, as Van Cleve writes,

they believed that under the Constitution long-term capture of the federal government by one section or the other was entirely possible, and that no reciprocity in governing would then be required, so that the losing side would be exploited by the victors in a zero-sum game.

Our conflict isn’t the same, but the dynamic — fear on both sides of long-term defeat and permanent domination — feels familiar. Liberals fear suppression at the hands of a narrow political minority, its power amplified by courts and counter-majoritarian institutions; conservatives fear the same at the hands of a progressive coalition, its power amplified through the organs of cultural influence.

The election in November will shape the future of this dynamic — either strengthening conservatives and freeing them to act without restraint or giving liberals a chance to make political, economic and judicial reform a reality — but it won’t resolve the conflict. The divides are too deep, tied to fundamental questions of ideology and both national and personal identity. We need a compromise, an agreement for the sake of democracy and constitutional government, but it’s not clear we can forge one. And even if we could come to a truce this year or the next, it’s also true that nothing lasts forever.

I’m increasingly believing the best historical analogy is the development of Jim Crow, where white southerners were so angry at the rise of Black political power in Reconstruction and so bitter about the end of slavery that they engaged in massive violence, electoral fraud, and any tactic possible to reassert white power in the South and, to some extent, the rest of the nation too. The Obama coalition, for as mild as it was from a policy perspective, has unleashed the same kind of frothing anger over not only a Black president and Black lives mattering but over the whole coalition of liberals that allowed that to happen. The main difference for me between 1898, when the Wilmington Riot overthrew in a localized coup the biracial political coalition leading the city, is that there is very little that is sectional about this today. Whether we see ourselves in a situation something like 1820 or 1860 or 1898, it’s hard to see anything anything but a lot of messiness and a lot of violence going forward. And that most of the peace in this nation, such as it has been, has resulted from compromises that ensure white supremacy should not less us rest easy since that is by no means an acceptable result in 2020.

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