Democratization and political terrorism
The formation and destruction of the two-party system in the Red River Valley of Louisiana, 1865-1868.
One hundred and forty years ago, the U.S. government, controlled by a Republican administration, attempted to extend democracy to a region that had been ruled by an oppressive regime. This effort evoked violent opposition carried out by terrorist organizations. Unable or unwilling to prevail against the terrorists, and with public opinion disillusioned with the military occupation, the government withdrew its troops from the region. Thereafter democracy withered, and the region became a one-party state.
This intervention took place within the United States itself, after the American Civil War. Called Reconstruction (1865-1878), it represented an effort to democratize and liberalize the ex-Confederate states through a policy of universal suffrage, civil equality, and economic modernization. It was an exercise in “nation-building” in the sense that the North attempted to impose its own view of the “nation” upon the South. However, the Democratic Party—both openly and in the guise of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan—decisively defeated the Republican policy.
The failure of Reconstruction had profound consequences for the South and the nation:
- It made the South a one-party region (the “Solid South”) in which the Democratic party, after gaining power through violence and intimidation, suppressed the Republican party. It was the most egregious example of political oppression—both in its scale and duration—in the history of the United States.
- It gave southern Democrats disproportionate influence in the nation’s politics, thus distorting and diluting representative government.
- It weakened the power of the federal government to regulate elections and protect individual rights. Only after 1965, when the civil rights movement persuaded the federal government to pass the Voting Rights Act, which re-enfranchised the black population, did the United States become a functioning democracy.
- It helps to explain the persistence of racially polarized voting throughout much of the present-day South, as illustrated in the 2008 presidential election.
A large sub-region, the Red River Valley of Louisiana possessed all the main characteristics of the South. Overwhelmingly rural, with only three towns of any size, its plantations produced half of Louisiana’s cotton. Blacks comprised a majority of the voters. Although it was large enough to contain three fairly distinct sub-regions, each consisting of a major town and its rural hinterland, both Democrats and Republicans treated the Valley as a strategically important whole. The Red River Valley was the key to Republican control of Louisiana. In the presidential election of 1876, Republican control of Louisiana was the key to Republican control of the White House. Despite repeated federal intervention in the form of troop deployments and prosecutions, whites succeeded in defeating and then suppressing the Republican Party by means of terrorism and paramilitary violence. Why did a nation committed to democratic and egalitarian ideals permit political violence to triumph in a region which it only recently defeated in war? Why did a two-party system take root in the post-Civil War South only to be destroyed when one party suppressed the other?
M.L. de Vries MA, PhD student