We do not want our current shuddering troubles to end as the 1850s ended—in disunion and civil war. We need a “Never again” mentality about that history. But we need to understand the portents of disunion. In the 1850s, in three consecutive general elections, American voters went to the polls in the largest turnout in our history. As much as 75 or 80 percent of the eligible male voters cast ballots in a still largely rural society. Slavery and its related issues and power drove them to vote, as did a thriving level of hard-nosed partisanship. One lesson of 1850s partisanship—which eventually pitted Republicans and Democrats (who then made up the pro-slavery party) against each other—is that it can be leveraged for power, and used to change the world. Our current distaste for partisanship is understandable, but polarization can be a means to power and for good or for evil. If this be partisanship, make the most of it.
In his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass wrote that as long as “heaven” allowed him to do the work of abolitionism, he would do it with “my voice, my pen, and my vote.” In today’s swirling protests, confusion, and strategizing, people—black, brown, and white—are putting their bodies on the line; they are using their voices and, some of them, their pens to make the case against racism and inequality. Some have tipped over into property destruction and violence against authority as they see it. But we cannot forget about the vote; if we do, we may be heading toward disaster.
With that in mind, I make the following modest suggestion. For the week of August 10–16, 2020, just before both parties hold their conventions, the enormous rage and energy now exploding in our streets in response to the killing of George Floyd should be harnessed in a massive mobilization effort, in cities and towns across America, to declare that in the November election the United States must shift the course of its history. These immense demonstrations will not only be a powerful statement that Trump and Trumpism must be defeated, but they will provide an opportunity for Americans to demonstrate their coalitions against structural racism, police brutality, unequal health care, and many other issues. And they would build toward a March on Washington on August 28 (the anniversary the 1963 March on Washington). Call it “Save Our Democracy” week.
How would this actually work? Those who have organized other recent mass gatherings—Black Lives Matter activists, the leaders of the Women’s March of 2017, the students who started the March for Our Lives against gun violence in 2018—could draw on that experience to build a new movement. Protest and activism can be combined to forge the beginning of a national renewal.