There is no doubt that the 2020 presidential election will be historic in many ways, with an incumbent president running after impeachment, a woman of color on the ticket, and mail-in voting trials during this unprecedented pandemic and financial crisis. But, how did we get here?
I have always followed American politics closely (I even majored in Political Science in college), so I wanted to take this opportunity to dig deeper and understand how elections have evolved throughout American history — and not only races for president. Real political change is often the result of local campaigns and elections in towns and cities, even school boards and union organizations. In the words of Stacey Abrams, featured in the film And She Could Be Next, “Democracy only works when we work for it.”
Here are films about five American elections, from historic presidential races to congressional races all the way down to a local mayor’s race, all worth a closer look at if you want to deepen your understanding of American politics.
1876 Presidential Election in Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
Remember the chaos of the 2000 presidential election, when the Supreme Court had to intervene? Or in 2016, when the winner of the popular vote didn’t actually become president? Both of those outcomes shocked Americans, but neither of those results were an election first. During the presidential campaign of 1876, election night resulted in “complete and utter confusion” when Democrat Samuel J. Tilden seemingly won the popular vote, but Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won in the electoral college. Three Southern states with violent oppression of Black voters — Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana — were disputed. The re-counts were drawn out until the Inauguration, when Republicans and Democrats struck a deal, letting Hayes take office with the promise that he would let the South conduct their own affairs, essentially ending the Reconstruction period.
But let’s back up, because the context matters greatly in explaining why this electoral outcome is one of the most controversial in our country’s history. I’ll admit that I did not know anything about what happened in 1876. This election is the focus of one of the episodes of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, in which historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. looks back at a critical yet overlooked period of American history. After the Civil War, Black Americans gained freedom, the right to vote (well, at least, men), and then political power, which ushered in a revitalization of American democracy and hope for those who had been left out of the process. But those gains came at a cost, and racial terror became a tactic for white Southerners. With Reconstruction unraveling, the election of 1876 marked a setback for Black civil rights, setting the stage for the rise of Jim Crow laws and decades more of racial injustice. The Civil War wasn’t the end of racial struggle — it was just the beginning.
1968 Presidential Election in American Experience's RFK
One of the most-watched primary Senate elections in the country took place in Massachusetts in September, when Senator Ed Markey defeated Congressman Joe Kennedy, who just happens to be the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy. The Kennedy family has long held a prominent place in both Massachusetts and national politics, so I think it’s worth taking a closer look at another progressive Kennedy’s historic campaign. American Experience’s RFKtraces Bobby Kennedy’s journey from a grieving brother to progressive political icon.
The documentary really gets interesting in Part 2, when it moves on from his personal life to explore his presidential campaign in the 1960s. At the time, it was a campaign unlike any other in American history. When Kennedy entered the race, he was a longshot. Despite being an inexperienced campaigner, he quickly became a political rockstar, with screaming supporters following him on the trail and filling arenas all over the country. By promoting opposition to the Vietnam war, anti-poverty programs, and civil rights legislation, he united a diverse coalition of farmers, anti-war activists, Black Americans, and Mexican-Americans. Tragically, Kennedy was assassinated on the trail in 1968, before being able to fulfill his promises, but his legacy lived on in every grassroots campaign that came after. This documentary was made in 2004, but as I watched, it was hard not to see echoes of this campaign and Barack Obama’s 2008 ascendency to the Oval Office on a message of hope and change.
2017 New Orleans Mayoral Election in REEL SOUTH's All Skinfolk Ain't Kinfolk
While the topic of women holding national office is more relevant now than ever, I wanted to learn more about women in races that don’t always make the national headlines, like the 2017 race for New Orleans mayor. For the first time, two Black women, Desirée Charbonnet and LaToya Cantrell, were the final candidates in a city where only men had ever been elected mayor. What I found interesting inREEL SOUTH’s short documentary was that although the race was historic, familiar campaign issues emerged: outsider vs. insider, policy wonk vs. charismatic speaker, questions about financial corruption and media bias. The film also takes some detours to leave New Orleans and pay homage to Black women who paved the way for representation in politics, from Fannie Lou Hammer, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm to Condoleeza Rice.
The documentary exclusively features voices of Black women who live in New Orleans to reflect on the meaning of the historic campaigns. That allows them to voice both their excitement (“I’m going to cast my ballot for a Black woman. It’s going to feel so good”) and frustrations (“Because of the ingrained racism and sexism in our political culture, neither candidate could come out and say, ‘I am a Black woman, I am running for this office’ and champion issues and ideas that put Black women at the forefront”). Ultimately, Cantrell won despite a fundraising disadvantage. One voter in the film attributes Cantrell's victory to all of the work that she did behind the scenes, reaching out to voters personally and going door-to-door. There are definitely plenty of lessons here for politicians looking to win against the odds.
2018 Midterm Elections in POV's And She Could Be Next
As I was watched POV’s And She Could Be Next over the summer, I looked down at my phone and had a bunch of notifications telling me that Kamala Harris, a Black and South Asian woman, would become the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket in this year's presidential election. Although it wasn’t a total surprise, it’s a significant moment in American politics. Because, as I watched this documentary, it was clear that although women, and especially women of color, face obstacles when seeking public office, they are making a big impact on American politics every time they run. The 2018 midterm elections saw a record number of women winning elections for all kinds of races, and the POV documentary was on the ground with six of them. Like Bushra Amiwala, a 20-year-old who ran for Cook County Board of Commissioners in Illinois; Rashida Tlaib, who ran for Congress to represent Detroit; and Lucy Mcbath, who was driven to run for Congress on a platform against gun violence after her son was murdered.
Kamala Harris herself makes an appearance in the film, speaking at a rally for Maria Elena Durazo in California. The documentary focuses not just on the candidates but the organizers and campaign managers who do the less glamorous work on campaigns, like stuffing envelopes, knocking on doors, and literally driving people to the polls. As Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia, said this in the film: “It has been difficult to break in [as a Black woman] and be the candidate because you have to have money, you have to have resources, you have to have people who stand behind you. And often we are expected to stand quietly behind others but we are never expected to be the ones in front.”
2018 Alabama Municipal Elections in REEL SOUTH’s Uniontown
With so much focus on national elections, it’s easy to overlook hyper-local elections, where community change really takes place. REEL SOUTH's short documentary Uniontown takes you to Uniontown, Alabama, a peaceful town dealing with pollution from a cheese factory and chemical landfills. Residents are fed up with the polluting company's lack of concern for how it impacts communities of color: “A lot of these areas that these dumps come, they’re Black communities… communities that they think can’t fight back.” In response, citizens there formed the activist group Black Belt Citizens Fighting For Health and Justice. They mobilized residents during a local election in 2018, and elected a county commissioner who wanted to fight back against the polluters. As the film shows, even the smallest elections can have big impacts. “Today could impact the rest of your life,” one voter said in the film.