Joe and the Segs

Joe Biden speaks at an event at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, June 11, 2019. (Jordan Gale/Reuters)

What Biden’s latest gaffe, and the reaction to it, can tell us.

Joe Biden has stepped in it, good and deep.

Biden, if he has any hope of ever being elected president, will be dependent on residual goodwill among African Americans from his time as Barack Obama’s loyal and deferential vice president — so deferential, in fact, that he stood aside for Herself in 2016 even though this was obviously against his wishes.

This makes his recent sentimental reminiscing about his cordial relations with Democratic segregationists in the Senate particularly ill-advised. He was not really wrong in anything he said — and it is not often you get to write that about Joe Biden — but in our time politics is less about ideas and policy and more about . . . cooties. Senator Biden sometimes went to lunch with Senator Talmadge, a Georgia Democrat and a committed segregationist. For the modern progressive, that is an unforgivable sin — the correct reaction, they believe, is to point at the other guy and shriek like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers.

Democrats do not much care for being reminded of their party’s history of frank and energetic racism. They insist that that was, in fact, another party, and that the Democrats and Republicans “changed places” on the matter of civil rights for African Americans. Professor Kevin Kruse of Princeton, a reliable peddler of this kind of thing, offered the usual dodge:

That is, of course, false. Conservatives largely opposed the New Deal, while segregationist Democrats were critical to making it happen. Most of the segregationist Democrats of the FDR–LBJ era were committed New Dealers and, by most criteria, progressives. They largely supported welfare spending, public-works programs, the creation of the major entitlement programs, and, to a lesser extent, labor reform. They did work to ensure that African Americans were effectively excluded from many of the benefits of these programs, but they provided much of the political horsepower that carried forward the progressive project from the Great Depression on. This should not be terribly surprising: Many of the Democrats who were instrumental in the reforms of the Wilson years, the golden age of American progressivism, were virulent racists, prominent among them Woodrow Wilson himself. Given such figures as Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, one might as easily write that progressives of both parties were racists.

What about conservatives as such? Professor Kruse and others more or less define “conservative” as “segregationist” and proceed as though this were enlightening. But when Ronald Reagan was out denouncing the proposal for Medicare as the camel’s nose of socialism in America, Senator Talmadge was . . . voting for it. Other signers of the Southern Manifesto, though by no means all of them, voted for it, too. Conservatives are at the moment a little bit fuzzy about what it is a conservative believes, but there are still a great many Reagan conservatives, and no Talmadge conservatives of which I am aware. Segregationist Democrats supported the creation of Social Security, while it was opposed by anti-New Deal Republicans such as Warren Austin and Frederick Hale. Senator Hale voted against FDR’s nomination of Hugo Black to the Supreme Court because of Black’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and also declared: “If Mr. Roosevelt is renominated next year it will be unnecessary for the Socialist party to put up a candidate.” If on one side of the vote you have free-spending patrons of entitlement programs and on the other side you have a man denouncing those as socialism, it is clear enough who is the conservative in the sense we use that word.

Which is not to say by any means that conservatives or the Republican party have a perfect record on race. The facts are complicated on both sides of the aisle. Consider my former Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates on the curious case of Theodore Bilbo:

Here is a man who, in one breath, can be hailed as “a liberal fire-eater” and then in another dubbed “a bulldog for protecting traditions of the South.” Bilbo was a Klansman who stumped for Al Smith.

. . . Theodore Bilbo worked to block funding for Howard University, tried to initiate a “Back to Africa” campaign for colonizing black citizens, attempted to segregate the national parks, dismissed multiracial children as “a motley melee of misceginated mongrels,” attempted to ban interracial marriage in Washington, D.C., and raged against antilynching legislation that would compel “Southern girls to use the stools and toilets of damn syphilitic women.” And he did this as a progressive.

It is not enough to claim that “liberalism” has, somehow, changed meanings thus allowing us to disown the Mississippi Senator. On the contrary, the Roosevelt administration congratulated Bilbo on his win in 1940 pronouncing him “a real friend of liberal government.” When Bilbo himself first ran for Senate he promised to “raise the same kind of hell as President Roosevelt.” When he was up for reelection Bilbo promoted himself to be “100 percent for Roosevelt … and the New Deal.”

If the New Deal is ours, so is Theodore Bilbo.

It is not only the Democratic party that has to deal with this history, but the progressive movement as well. The purportedly scientific treatment of African Americans at the hands of progressives should be a cautionary tale for social planners of all sorts. Power is a gun — it does not care where it is pointed.

Biden probably did not mean to get into all this with his remarks. But he might ask those who are now taking him to task: What was the alternative? Are we supposed to forgo working on issues of common concern with those who disagree with us — even when that disagreement is about a profound moral question? Because if that is the case, the pro-life/pro-abortion divide in Congress is going to get very interesting indeed.

Biden here has performed something of a public service: smoking out the few people in the Democratic party who are less serious than he is.

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