How will healthcare policy change in the United States, or immigration policy? How robust are America’s institutional checks on executive power? These are largely questions about Congress, says David A. Bateman, Government.
“Once I started studying Congress, I increasingly came to believe that it’s the key U.S. democratic institution,” Bateman says. “It’s the only institution in the country that brings people together and forces them to do the job of reconciling across different groups.”
Bateman’s other main interest is political parties. “We assume we vote for a certain political party because it’s somehow closer to what we believe,” Bateman says, “rather than recognizing the degrees to which political parties shape what we believe.”
The United States Congress, political parties, and the electorate—Bateman studies how these entities have shaped each other throughout the nation’s history. “It’s messy,” he warns, with lots of insights for today.
Southern Democrats after the Civil War
Bateman says the United States Congress is somewhat unique, a structure that in theory allows for ongoing responsiveness between citizens and the government. “Most legislatures don’t truly do the work of representation,” he explains. “Parties do the work, so you vote for the party and its platform, and you know what they’re going to do.”
United States Representatives are more directly beholden to the desires of their unique set of constituents. This responsiveness introduces degrees of dynamism and complexity. One group of representatives Bateman studies—southern Democrats after the Civil War—tried to walk a politically fine line with their constituents to hold onto their seats.
In his book, Southern Nation: Congress and White Supremacy after Reconstruction, Bateman collaborated with Ira Katznelson (Columbia University) and John Lapinski (University of Pennsylvania) to investigate the role of southern Democrats in Congress between the Civil War and the New Deal. The book was published in the spring of 2018 by Princeton University Press.
“We have a good understanding of how southern Democrats worked with Congress before the Civil War and before and after the New Deal, but in between, it’s a lot trickier, because they were weaker and more fractious,” Bateman says. “Starting around 1890, southern Democrats always worry that African Americans will turn out to vote in substantial numbers and elect either a fusion candidate or a Republican.”
The demographics of their region put southern Democrats in a dilemma. “They had to make a series of choices between doing things that would be good for their region and preserving white supremacy,” Bateman says. “Because African Americans could vote, southern Democrats were willing to risk federal supervision—and made some choices that we might be surprised by today.”
In the late 1880s, for example, southern Democrats supported a much needed injection of funds for schools, which was to come with federal conditions for nondiscrimination on the basis of race. “They wouldn’t do this again until the 1970s,” Bateman says. “They were willing to at this brief moment, and then the politics of the region removed the opportunity.” By the 1890s, the region’s white Democrats had decided to disenfranchise black voters instead.
Democratization and Disenfranchisement, Occurring Simultaneously
If the dynamics of the American electorate are fluid and influential, understanding how the electorate is shaped is paramount to understanding American political development. In another book, Disenfranchising Democracy: Constructing the Electorate in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, Bateman goes further back in American history to look at patterns in the formation of the body politic. He compares those patterns to democracy-building in the United Kingdom and France.
“In the U.S., people have noticed that there’s this pattern of democratization and disenfranchisement occurring at the same time,” Bateman says. “So before the Civil War, as states removed property qualifications for voting rights and removed the requirement that you pay taxes—there was simultaneously the imposition of explicit racial disenfranchisements.”
The disenfranchisement of African Americans and other minority communities wasn’t a unanimous desire at the time, Bateman has found. “It was always very contested,” he explains. By the 1830s, however, a pattern emerged: those most strongly in favor of granting voting rights to the white working class were also the most strongly in favor of the disenfranchisement of minorities.
Bateman says one argument that’s been used to explain this is that the group demanding the right to vote, the white working class, was also the most racist group at the time. “There’s definitely a lot of truth to that,” Bateman says, “but one of the things that’s also going on is that you have a top-down effort to coordinate disenfranchisement. There was surprisingly little popular demand for it. The disenfranchisement of African Americans is a way by which the political parties, and especially the Democratic Party, reassure slaveholders.”
“Parties try to sustain their coalitions by enfranchising some and disenfranchising others.”
Bateman continues, “The story of American peoplehood was that this was a country where everybody had opportunities, but it was very explicitly white men. I argue that this ideology was crafted in large part at an elite level by political parties who are trying to achieve their own policy and political goals. To win support and reassure their allies, they offered white men a civic status and vision of national identity that valorized them over others. In complicated ways, we are still living with the legacy of that.”
With key differences, Bateman still found a similar pattern in the United Kingdom and France. “Parties try to sustain their coalitions by enfranchising some and disenfranchising others,” Bateman says.
State Constitutional Conventions
With two book completed, Bateman is looking forward to his next project, which will be compiling a database of state constitutional conventions. “State constitutional conventions used to be a very important part of American politics,” Bateman says.
Through the mid-twentieth century, each state had two conventions every decade with 100 or more people elected to rewrite the entire constitution. The database will analytically collect these revisions, along with legislative amendments, referenda, and initiatives. The effort, with funding from Cornell’s Institute for Social Sciences, will provide easy and searchable access for researchers, students, and teachers.
Weak Parties, Strong Partisanship
Bateman writes about present-day politics in addition to his historical work, examining most recently, how polarization in American politics is measured and defined. But what he’s discovered about the history of politics in the United States also speaks to the present moment.
“You see now a similar rhetoric as you saw before the Civil War, during this pattern of democratization and disenfranchisement,” Bateman says. “In the 2016 election, there were echoes of the same type of articulation—that America is for white people, that its purpose is to serve the interests of white people, without class distinctions.”
The rhetoric itself is not so unique. More surprising is its incorporation into the platform of a major national party in 2016. “A few political scientists have talked about this. We seem to have weak parties and strong partisanship,” Bateman says. “The parties, at the national level, have always tried to weed out unqualified or authoritarian-leaning candidates. This time, the Republican Party failed. Because of partisanship, the major nominee to either party is going to get 40 to 45 percent of the vote. That’s a very dangerous situation to be in.”
Without the political party serving as a check in the system, Bateman says it’s now up to the other institutions—namely the courts and Congress. As such, Bateman suspects some people may begin to appreciate Congress more. “The worry is that parts of Congress aren’t doing what they’re supposed to—the work of reconciling across different groups. But the promise of Congress and the hope for America is that they will,” he says. “We will see whether this promise is fulfilled.”