When I was in high school in the 1980’s, we were taught that the Lincoln-Douglas debates were a standard for high-minded political debate, and in more recent years I’ve seen them mentioned favorably in comparison to the kind of debates we typically see between candidates in our era. It’s true that the format allowed for a much fuller exploration of issues than we get in our rapid-fire debates today. Each candidate was given an hour to talk and then an additional half hour was provided for the first speaker to give a rebuttal. They alternated who went first throughout the seven debates.
On the other hand, the kind of rhetoric Sen. Stephen Douglas used was as base as anything we saw from Donald Trump. Here’s an example that includes audience participation:
I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship? (“No, no.”) Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, (“never,”) and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, (“no, no,”) in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? (“Never,” “no.”) If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro. (“Never, never.”) For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. (Cheers.) I believe this Government was made on the white basis. (“Good.”) I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races. (“Good for you.” “Douglas forever.”)
Because I was born in 1969, I was lucky to just miss seeing this kind of rhetoric used out in the open. Even today, no one is quite this forthcoming about their white supremacy–not even David Duke or Steve King. But it’s no longer foreign-sounding the way it was for the first 45 years of my life. Douglas’s invading horde didn’t come in a caravan from Central America but from neighboring Missouri. His insistence that blacks not become citizens and voters is at the heart of these comments from Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi.
A video surfaced Thursday of Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi saying it might be a “great idea” to make it harder for some people to vote, and her campaign quickly responded that she was “obviously” joking.
Hyde-Smith, who is in a runoff against Democrat Mike Espy on Nov. 27, made the remark at a campaign stop in Starkville, Mississippi, on Nov. 3. It was posted to Twitter on Thursday by Lamar White Jr., publisher of The Bayou Brief. Smith earlier this week posted video of Hyde-Smith making a comment on Nov. 2 about a “public hanging” that started a controversy.
“And then they remind me that there’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who … maybe we don’t want to vote,” Hyde-Smith is heard saying. “Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that’s a great idea.”
A sitting U.S. Senator said she thought it is “a great idea” to make it more difficult for blacks to vote because Republicans don’t want them to vote.
I don’t see this as high-minded political debate. I don’t consider Sen. Stephen Douglas’s argument against equal rights and the abolition of slavery as high-minded. And I don’t see a whole lot of difference between these two examples.
Douglas does have one thing in his favor that cannot be said about Sen. Hyde-Smith, though, and that is that he quite accurately predicted that the country might enter into a civil war if Lincoln’s position prevailed. If he had stuck to that argument to urge caution and restraint, I’d feel differently about his performances, but he appealed to the basest emotions of his audiences rather than to their intellects.
Hyde-Smith isn’t trying to avoid a national catastrophe and hundreds of thousands of deaths. She just wants to win a full-term to the Senate. And she thinks one good way to assure she wins is if blacks have difficulty voting or having their votes actually count.
I actually think what she is doing is worse than what Douglas was doing. Her support of white supremacy might be implicit where Douglas’s support was explicit, but she can’t even hide behind the possibility that her cynicism is in the service of peace and national unity. Her cynicism is entirely self-serving and based on the unstated premise that blacks neither have nor deserve equal rights.
This isn’t something you can joke about because there is no joke or punch line. It is the policy of Republican Party to suppress the black vote by every means available, and we’re seeing that now play out in states like Georgia and Florida. Sen. Hyde-Smith is facing a black opponent in a runoff election on November 27. Mike Espy served as the Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration.
It would be nice if all the people who want to support him have an easy time casting their vote, but that’s apparently a laughable idea in Republican circles.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Abraham Lincoln was the Republican in those Lincoln-Douglas debates.