A Modest Proposal for a Name Change

President Woodrow Wilson (center) speaks to a crowd from the back of a train, January, 1916. (International News Photos/Library of Congress)
Cancel-culture logic demands that "Democrat" go into the dustbin of history.

American society is in the middle of a destructive hysteria of self-flagellation and denial. The symbols and exemplars of American society are now the objects of an unprecedented iconoclastic purge. What started as another iteration of perennial and often reasonable calls to dismantle statues of Confederate leaders has metastasized into loud denunciations of American icons such as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The Lincoln Memorial has been defaced in Washington, while statues of Columbus are routinely toppled, and even statues of abolitionists and the great Union general Ulysses S. Grant himself were not exempt from the depredations of the vandals. As we write this, we hear calls for the musical Hamilton to be canceled because progressives are no longer happy with some of the positions taken by the historical Hamilton. 

Nor have names been spared from the epidemic of destruction. Throughout the country, protesters are demanding to change the name of any institution associated with historical persons deemed imperfect by current standards. Princeton University has renamed its Woodrow Wilson School, and some are now urging Yale University to shed its onomastic association with slave trader Elihu Yale. What about Columbia University? Perhaps both “Washington” and the “District of Columbia” will need to be expunged from the name of our capital? 

How far will all this go? Shall we also change the names of months? We might start with July, which honors Julius Caesar, who by common standards committed genocide against the Gauls, and August, named after the man who put the last nail in the coffin of the Roman Republic and declared himself emperor — both were also slave owners themselves as well as leaders of vast slave empires. We understand that the names “Messidor” and “Thermidore” are available. And how exemplary a person, according to present sensitivities, was Amerigo Vespucci? Was he really better than Columbus? Perhaps we should also change the name of America?

In all this frenzy of name changes, one culprit is conspicuously missing. Up to the 1960s the Democratic Party was the party of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, poll taxes, and literacy tests for voting. The first Confederate Congress was dominated by former Democrats. While one might argue that these Democrats left their party when they left their country, their party certainly continued to stand by them: In the contested presidential election of 1876, the Democrats allowed the Republican Rutherford Hayes to assume office despite the stronger claims of their own candidate, Samuel Tilden, in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. 

This bargain ended Reconstruction and ushered in almost a century during which the Democratic Party dominated Southern politics, implementing a cruel regime of segregation in state after state of the former Confederacy. Nor were the Democrats in any great hurry to change their racist ways. When Woodrow Wilson became the first Democrat in 16 years to occupy the White House in March 1913, he lost no time resegregating the civil service; in the following year, his administration introduced the requirement that employment applications include a photograph of the job candidate, thereby greatly facilitating employment discrimination. 

During the early months of World War II, the Democratic Party showed its remarkable versatility at racist oppression when Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt — against the recommendation of his FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover — ordered that Americans of Japanese ancestry be rounded up and deported to concentration camps, where they were lent out to farmers as slave labor. Many shops and farms owned by Japanese Americans were auctioned off for next to nothing to their neighbors. When Fred Korematsu, who was arrested in San Francisco and deported to Topaz, Utah, appealed his detention all the way to the Supreme Court, all six justices voting to uphold Roosevelt’s racist order were themselves Roosevelt appointees. Democrat Hugo Black, a notorious anti-Catholic bigot and former member of the Ku Klux Klan, wrote the opinion. The lone Republican appointee on the court, Owen Roberts, strenuously dissented, noting that Korematsu was imprisoned in “a concentration camp, based on his ancestry, and solely because of his ancestry.”

The Democrats’ defense of racial discrimination persisted right into the Space Age: On June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace, a Democrat, stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium to block the entrance of Vivian Malone and James Hood because they were African American. On March 26, 1964, 18 of the 19 senators who voted against the Civil Rights Act were Democrats. In each of these situations, the Democrats were not simply “creatures of their time.” Time and again, they actively strove to impede or reverse progress on civil rights. Yet the party continues to do business under the name its history has made infamous. If we were to apply the standards routinely invoked by the cancel culture to “dename” other institutions, then the Democratic Party’s reluctant policy change after the 1960s should not provide absolution. 

The Democratic Party has been able to redefine itself over the past half-century as the champion of minorities, yet all too often, when Democrats have held power, they have substituted identity politics for sound and effective policies. Their divide-and-conquer approach concerning race, ethnicity, sex, and sexual preferences has advanced their political ambitions to the detriment of our unifying motto E pluribus unum. Paradoxically, Democrats’ obsession over identity politics has brought their party back to where it started, with a vision of American society irredeemably divided by race: In the cities they govern, Democrats’ efforts at expanding educational opportunities and reducing poverty for minority communities have produced disappointing results at best. All too predictably, race-based identity politics have stoked division and resentment while turning on its head Martin Luther King’s call to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

It is particularly galling to see that almost all of the recent police abuses have taken place in cities that Democrats have run for many decades. Nonetheless, incompetent and irresponsible incumbent politicians, helped along by the mainstream media, have deflected blame for their own failures by impugning their political opponents as endemically racist. What makes systemic racism such an appealing theme for social-justice warriors and demagogues is that they are able to define it not in terms of specific discriminatory actions by people and institutions (which can be identified, measured, and cured) but rather as any manifestation of disparate or unequal outcomes. Differences of any kind — whether in income, education, or life expectancy — are all defined as manifestations of systemic racial animus. 

Represented this way, racism takes the place of the old and historically disastrous Communist definition of class: It’s an immutable characteristic that can be cured only by collectivism, including massive “reeducation,” widespread censorship of opposing views, and punishment for dissent. This narrative provides a convenient excuse for elected officials; when they fail to deliver public services, as they so often do, they simply place the blame on a racist system beyond their control. Of course, all of this is entirely at odds with the traditional American values of personal responsibility, freedom of speech, and tolerance. 

We all know how the Communist experiment turned out in Eastern Europe. The Communists thought they could achieve their professed goals of eliminating inequality by means of a vast, indeed unprecedented, array of education and “reeducation” tools that were deployed in schools, universities, workplaces, and just about everywhere in society. Those who resisted were sent to prisons or labor camps or simply killed. But none of this produced the New Man the Communists envisaged. Instead it led to widespread apathy, resentment, dissimulation, cynicism, and hypocrisy. Under pressure to go along, people chose instead to pretend to conform while allowing themselves the freedom to think whatever they pleased, in total opposition to the monolithic viewpoint they publicly professed. Die Gedanken sind frei — thoughts are free. The abject failure of these policies became painfully obvious when, after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the region experienced an ugly spasm of ethnic and racial violence. Let’s spare the next three generations of Americans another such experiment.

We do not, in any way, believe that denaming historical institutions is the way to go. We simply want to shed light on the hypocrisy of cancel-culture advocates who fail to apply their own twisted logic to the institutions and causes they embrace. We hope and pray that people will reflect on the existential dangers of cancel culture — the course advocated by extreme social-justice warriors and their demagogic allies is bringing our nation to the brink of a chasm. But if the frenzy persists, then let the Democratic Party be the next to have its name swept into the dustbin of history.

Sergiu Klainerman is the Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University, a MacArthur fellow, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a foreign member of the French Academy. John Londregan is professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.


The Latest