Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, criticizing the lack of civility in our current politics, spoke during a recent fundraiser about working with two unapologetically segregationist Dixiecrat senators: James Eastland and Herman Talmadge.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said, according the pool report. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’” He also called Talmadge “one of the meanest guys,” before adding: “At least there was some civility. We got things done.”
Biden further stated: “We didn’t agree on much of anything. But today, you look at the other side, and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
The backlash to these comments from the left has already begun, from rival presidential candidates Bill de Blasio and Cory Booker, to almost-presidential candidate Sherrod Brown, to commentators like Jamil Smith and Jamelle Bouie.
It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of “civility” typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to “the pursuit of dead n*ggers." (1/2) pic.twitter.com/yoOOkpaTX2
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) June 19, 2019
I agree with Cory Booker. This is especially true at a time when the Trump administration is trying to divide us up with its racist appeals. https://t.co/VyVcG6srQM
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 19, 2019
WARREN on Biden: “I’m not here to criticize other Democrats but it’s never ok to celebrate segregationists. Never.”
— Alan He (@alanhe) June 19, 2019
.@SenKamalaHarris is asked if she’s concerned about Biden’s segregationist remarks: “Yes it concerns me deeply. If those men had their way, I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate and on this elevator right now.”
— Mariam Khan (@MKhan47) June 19, 2019
Enlisting the white moderate’s help in suppression, whether through direct action or other forms of complicity, is an essential weapon of white supremacy. Eastland was trying to kill us, and Biden talks about him like he was his goddamned buddy. Well, because that is what he was.
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) June 19, 2019
This is a good example of how “civility” (as opposed to decency or good faith) is nothing more than accommodation with the powerful for their own comfort https://t.co/vdzdeOVw7K
— b-boy bouiebaisse (@jbouie) June 19, 2019
This backlash will probably grow in breadth and intensity, but it has as much to do with the state of the Democratic Party—as identified by Biden—as it does with opposition to segregationists. There are at least four additional reasons for the hostile reactions.
The first, most obvious reason to attack Biden’s comments about working with Dixiecrats is opportunism. Biden is not defending Jim Crow. His critics do not think he is a closet segregationist. If anything, Biden is analogizing today’s Republican politicians to yesterday’s segregationists, which is something Democrats do as a matter of routine.
But Biden is the current front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination, largely on the strength of his appeal to black voters. Accordingly, he has been attacked for his past opposition to forced busing as a remedy for school segregation in the 1970s (it was not wildly popular with black families either). It follows that he will be attacked for noting he worked with segregationists to advance his agenda.
Second, the left does not particularly want Biden reminding people that the Democrats were the party of segregation as recently as within his lifetime (and the lifetimes of many voters). As much as the left enjoys throwing the race card indiscriminately, it would prefer to avoid those specifics.
Democrats have worked hard to whitewash their racist history. When this history comes up, the left shifts to a lazy narrative about the GOP becoming filled with racists following the passage of the Civil Rights Acts as part the “Southern Strategy.” The story of the political realignment of the South is much more complex, but the left can succeed with it if they keep the narrative shallow. Biden allowing for fraught complexities on an issue as sensitive as civil rights does not aid the left.
Third, while Biden is implicitly comparing Republicans to segregationists, he is not doing it harshly enough for the left. By suggesting that if he could work with Eastland and Talmadge, he could also work with Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he is implying—correctly—that McConnell is nowhere near as toxic. This suggestion is unacceptable to the left.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, attacking Biden as a segregationist sympathizer allows the left to dodge the substance of what he actually said. In addition to criticizing the “you’re the enemy” attitude of our current politics, Biden added: “I know the new New Left tells me that I’m ― this is old-fashioned. Well guess what? If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president. That’s what it does.”
The new New Left understandably does not like being attacked in this way, particularly while Biden is leading in the polls. The new New Left have abandoned Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s frame that the American experiment is great and black Americans want to fully participate in it. Instead, the left is embracing an identity politics rooted in the idea that America is irredeemably founded in white supremacy and plunder and thus must be torn down in favor of some revolutionary replacement.
Politics is often called the art of compromise, but identarianism politicizes All The Things and renders every disagreement a personal attack. Ironically, Biden is critiquing the reasoning by which President Obama tried to use his “phone and pen” to unconstitutionally make immigration policies Congress rejected.
None of this is a defense of Biden as a politician. After all, Biden is implying today’s GOP is not much different from the Dixiecrats. And he was far more explicit in telling black Americans in 2012 that Republican presidential ticket Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were “going to put y’all back in chains.”
But black Americans may understand Biden’s latest point better than his critics do. This year, black Democrats in Virginia apparently had a more mature (or resigned) attitude when top Democratic officials turned out to have blackface photos in their pasts. They were less likely to call for resignations than political elites and woke pundits. It is a more practical approach than trendy identitarianism.
This more practical perspective may be why House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is defending Biden, stating that his past work with Sen. Strom Thurmond was “similar to Biden working with Talmadge.” Indeed, five more members of the Congressional Black Caucus have jumped to his defense, noting that Biden’s remarks are being taken out of context and this call for decency is needed now more than ever.