Centuries later, Americans exist between these two 19th-century poles — reconstructionist and redemptionist — and their opposition deepens the 21st-century social fractures confronting us about everything from classroom curricula to voting rights to the notion of truth itself. Understanding the deep roots of these contemporary conflicts is crucial to any effort in 2022 and beyond to thwart their toxic effects on US politics — and the lives of everyday Americans.
The racial and political reckoning of 2020, one that spilled over into 2021, played out in large part based on the framework of American democracy that came into being during the Reconstruction period. That’s because the clash between the reconstructionist and redemptionist perspectives was, at its heart, a battle over the story we told the world and each other, about ourselves and our country. That battle continues and will likely define the politics of 2022.
Over time, from the late 19th century until the 1960s, and with a reach that carried well into the 20th century in ways that are still visible today, they successfully reshaped American memory regarding the cause of the Civil War. They enshrined myths and lies of Southern nobility into history textbooks, films, and popular culture — and found willing allies (first in the Democratic Party) in the Republican Party of the late 1960s who, in pursuit of economic greed and political stability, betrayed the struggle for Black equality they had once supported.
They did so at the expense of the nation’s soul — and this struggle continues to play out in our own time.
It’s happened quite literally in the public square. Monuments in praise of the Confederacy that sought to forever render Black Americans inferior — themselves erected in a concerted effort to fashion communities in a redemptionist image — took on new dimensions of complexity in the shadow of protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Likewise, BLM activists’ call to “defund the Police” were rooted in a Reconstruction-era criminal justice system that targeted Black people for punishment and whose determinations of Black criminality helped to facilitate the grotesque system of mass incarceration that America has today.
These efforts at repurposing memorials and symbols related to America’s history of racial violence is part of a larger process that may lead to national healing. Consider the recent efforts to atone for a massacre and coup d’etat that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 and left hundreds dead — a brutal imposition of White political rule after the progress of Reconstruction.
After the grotesque display of violence, privilege and racism at the US Capitol during the January 6 insurrection, those who insisted “this is not who we are” were not entirely incorrect. The wildly unhinged (and modern-day redemptionist) attempts to overturn a federal election and to minimize the ongoing threats to our democracy for that purpose are not all of who we are.
The ongoing battle between reconstructionists and redemptionists will shape American politics in 2022 and beyond. Whether they are the backdrop to the anniversary of January 6, the challenges confronting the Biden-Harris administration or the GOP’s anticipated success in the midterm elections, these competing worldviews continue, for better and worse, to forge our national identity. But they do not predetermine our destiny unless we let them.