The Readjustment

(This is co-written by Douglas and Bryan.)

Roy Moore is terrible. He has been terrible for years, and the scope of terrible that he brings to American society just greatly expanded this week.

It is easy to run a campaign as “not Roy Moore”; all that takes is a measure of compassion, humility, empathy for those who are less fortunate, and not ‘dating’ fourteen year olds as a man in your thirties. Judging from his statewide television ads, Alabama’s Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate — Doug Jones — seems content to meet that bare minimum standard.

There is lots of talk of “bipartisanship” and “working across the aisle”, which must sound great to people who have been living in some crag-based domicile for the last decade or so. The ads also play on his background as the federal attorney that put the surviving co-conspirators of Dynamite Bob Chambliss in jail for the rest of their natural lives, and urge “unity”. But unity with who? Republicans? The same conservatives who agitated racial animus to their political benefit until it blew up in their faces? The people in the Evangelical Church who are more than willing to blame the women who have come forward against Roy Moore? What iteration of that unity would benefit Alabama’s most vulnerable?

There is a resolution to this horrible situation out there, and its seeds can be found in Virginia.

Despite what the party would eventually become, the Readjusters in mid-19th-century Virginia initially formed because of one issue: financing debt owed to Northern banks after the Civil War.

The more conservative elements of Virginia politics wanted the payment of the debt to take the highest priority, even before funding schools — public schools having been a new development only after the war — and rebuilding infrastructure across the Commonwealth. This group, known as the Funders, included much of the Commonwealth’s old planter class for whom the operation of public services were secondary. The forces of the ancien régime gathered in the Conservative Party, and they dominated Virginia politics for about the first fifteen years of the postbellum period.

In opposition to this rose an unlikely figure: William Mahone, a former general in the Confederate Army and the owner of several railroads criss-crossing the whole of Virginia.

(If the name sounds familiar to those who live between Petersburg and Suffolk, it is because U.S. 460 bears his name, one of the few memorializations of Mahone in Virginia.)

Mahone initially made his home in the Conservative Party, but was unable to make any headway in convincing the party’s leaders to yield in their zeal to pay their creditors. The only thing that mattered to the Commonwealth’s wealthiest citizens was preserving the bond rating, and the respectability that came along with the rating remaining high. The Conservatives wanted the debt to be paid “dollar for dollar”.

Frustrated, Mahone set out to put together a political machine that could challenge the Conservatives. This movement would bring together newly-freed slaves and poor white farmers in Southside Virginia, as well as mountain Republicans in the Shenandoah Valley. They would be united by their desire to “readjust” the debt so that the Commonwealth paid as it could, but also to repeal the poll tax and tax the wealthy to fund the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed during the war and public education.

The Readjuster Party did all of this and more in the decade that they were a major force in Virginia politics, first winning the General Assembly in 1879, then electing former Petersburg mayor William Cameron as governor in 1881. Mahone would also be elected in 1881, being sent by the Readjuster majority in the Assembly to the United States Senate. And with the poll tax repealed, freedmen were elected to the House of Delegates for the first time, providing the margins of victory on several key bills, and receiving their first bits of real patronage in return.

Before long, though, the Readjusters would fracture as national politics drove members of their coalition into their respective camps: whites for the Democrats, while Republicans in western Virginia and Black voters gave their support to Republicans. In addition, Mahone was not willing to go as far as the party’s Black supporters wanted on equality, and ended up attempting to please all while satisfying none. Southern Democrats began the Redemption of the Commonwealth by 1886, and by the 1890s the party — and the gains it had made — was dead.

Today, we find ourselves amidst a Second Redemption, where the forces of reaction have been unleashed upon American society following last November’s election. Much ink has been spilled about “The Resistance”, and how it is standing up to Donald Trump’s agenda. But so much of this “resistance” ends up looking like the Doug Jones campaign for the U.S. Senate, where being “not Trump” and electing Democrats — any Democrat will suffice — becomes an end rather than a means.

We do not need a “resistance”. We need a Readjustment.

You can see the echoes of the Readjuster Party in the results from last week’s elections in Virginia. In the face of vile race-baiting against Latino people and transmisogyny on levels that should qualify them as a bar from public office, the far right got its teeth kicked in by a wave. A trans metalhead journalist, several Latina politicians, and a card-carrying socialist won seat upon seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates, coming up to the edge of breaking the Republican grip on that body for the first time in two decades. It even put a stodgy, tepid, almost-was-a-Republican candidate over the top in the bruising gubernatorial race.

How though? How, in the era of Trump, did this happen? Off year elections almost always favor the right as their base is older, whiter, and more attached to electoral politics. The answer is simple: a strong ground game and candidates that focused on improving transit infrastructure and expanding Medicaid under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act. According to exit polling, the most important issue in voters’ minds was health care, and those voters broke for Democrats nearly 3 to 1. This was much the same recipe that the Readjusters (and their spiritual kin, the Populists) rode to power. And like the Readjusters, this wave will have to surmount similar attacks on its base’s access to the franchise: gerrymandering and other voter suppression tactics may yet cost this crop of Democrats its majority in the House of Delegates.

This wave, though, wasn’t just limited to Virginia. In Knoxville, a socialist was elected to its city council. Socialists now sit in local offices from Allegheny County, PA to Moorhead, MN to Billings, MT. Multiple trans people were also successful in their bids for public office aside from Danica Roem in Virginia, and the LGBT organization Equality NC ran the table in North Carolina, where 45 of its 65 endorsed candidates won last Tuesday, including Vi Lyles becoming the first black woman to govern Charlotte. On top of that, a member of IATSE who came to prominence during the protests against Charlotte PD’s murder of Keith Lamont Scott, Braxton Winston II, won a seat on Charlotte’s City Council.

A consistent message and theme that ran through all of these races was a focus on economic justice and an unrepentant embrace of social equality. Vi Lyles, for instance, ran on a program that included forcing those who do business with the City of Charlotte to ban the box on job applications that would require an applicant to disclose felony convictions and a public employment program. This may not seem like much, but in a Dillon Rule state where the (illegitimate and illegally-sat) General Assembly had already once threatened to dissolve Charlotte’s government in response to actions taken by it, these are somewhat controversial steps.

But while this is all heartening, there are signs that not everything is going to go as well as we might hope.

In Charlottesville, the epicenter of many of the recent confrontations with modern-day fascists emboldened by the election of Trump, the City Council election was exceptionally brutal.

Back in August and in the face of a state apparatus that refused to clamp down on the white supremacists marching by torchlight, a mass mobilization of anti-fascist protesters refused to allow these blackshirts to march unimpeded. This culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer and attempted murder of several other anti-fascist protestors by a member of the fascist group Identity Europa. In the wake of these events and the city’s wholly inadequate and downright pathetic response to them, Nikuyah Walker, a longtime activist and organizer in Charlottesville, decided to run for City Council as an independent. This opened up a windmill of attacks from the Democratic political establishment of the city, which was largely responsible for that wholly inadequate and downright pathetic response.

Walker is a long-time critic of the genteel, white-collar liberalism that had defined the city’s politics, pointing out the disappearing stock of affordable housing in a town best known for being the home of the University of Virginia. Walker also accurately excoriated the city for its lack of support for its Black and brown citizens in schools and in social service provision and took part in several contentious City Council meetings where the mayor, Mike Signer, was singled out for criticism in the wake of the fascist mobilization in August.

In the wake of her candidacy, the floodgate of smears opened against her. On November 3rd, it culminated when the Daily Progress published what can only be described as a hit piece. The Progress, which on the eve of the fascist march on Charlottesville had blamed the only Black City Council member Wes Bellamy for the controversy, caricatured Walker as an angry Black woman with an axe to grind. The backlash against this was swift, and the results clear: Nikuyah Walker successfully secured a seat on the City Council.

This marks out the central tension of these political times. There are those in politics who want a return to the way things were before 2016. They want the norms and the shared political myths of the country returned to the way they thought things operated before Trump. They want the luxury of not having to think about how barbarous the system we have is and how it chews up and spits out good people on the regular every single day. In short, they are looking to put the toothpaste back into the tube, and they’re willing to embrace any soul-dead right-wing shitbag who will help them try to do so. These are the Ralph Northams and Mike Signers of the world, and the path they would have us walk is one to defeat.

And then there are those who know to ask, “if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” Those who saw politics before 2016 not as a perfectly sufficient system now sullied by an undeserving wretch of a President but as a decaying husk that was grinding the most vulnerable of us into dust. Those of us who wanted to fight against injustices and rule by the wealthy at home no matter which President was abetting these injustices or what their party was. These are the Nikuyah Walkers and Danica Roems and Lee Carters of the world, and the path they are marking out is one that will ultimately lead to victory.

Doug Jones, the man responsible for putting away the murderers of four little girls who did nothing wrong besides be Black in a world where that was unacceptable, has the opportunity to become the latest figure in the Readjustment. He has the opportunity to become a kind of folk hero for a New South, running unabashedly as someone who has both been a bulwark against far-right reaction and will continue to do so.

But he will not do that chasing some middle ground that does not actually exist anymore and sure as hell never existed in Alabama within recent political history. The farmer in Barbour County that could be counted on to vote for Democrats no matter what has been voting for Republicans for at least a decade now, and no amount of appeals to the center and ‘common ground’ is going to bring them back. Even the revelation of Moore being a sexual predator will probably not move the needle for voters in Moore’s camp; it is far more likely they will stay home instead of voting for Jones. In this way, cautiously appealing to the middle ground is a wasted opportunity.

Only through confronting the right and not conciliating with it can they be defeated. Danica Roem, a trans woman, didn’t just win a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates, she defeated the architect of Virginia’s attempt at replicating North Carolina’s anti-trans anti-worker HB2. Lee Carter, a socialist, brought down the whip for the Republican caucus in the House of Delegates, Jackson Miller. Two other Republican heavyweights, Tim Hugo and David Yancey, have races too close to call and may yet taste defeat.

The problem with Moore ain’t just Moore, much like the problem with Trump ain’t just Trump. The latter has been something we’ve said on The South Lawn since November of 2015. Trump is the culmination of decades of political work by the right. Any political effort that finds itself limited exclusively to rousting him will never be able to prevent another leader like him from taking power again. Trump is King Maggot on the rotting corpse of American politics. You remove him, and another maggot will take his place sooner or later, and the rise of Roy Moore is proof-positive of this fact.

The center has collapsed, and new possibilities have now opened in our politics. This time, we have to make the Readjustment a prelude to more radical ends.