Biden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility
Nobody understands getting along with racists and segregationists to achieve results more than African Americans. It’s the primary reason most slaves didn’t die, and black people survived Jim Crow with colleges, churches, families and businesses intact to pass on to future generations. African Americans accommodated Klansmen, White Citizens Councils and conservatives such as Sens. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) and James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) to secure their families’ futures, but few of them liked it.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s comments about “(getting) things done” with Eastland and Talmadge struck such a chord recently — not because he dealt with them, but because he seemed to long for that era of “civility.” He cast it as a better time and not an onerous period endured to achieve a greater good.
Eastland was Mississippi’s senator when Emmett Till was savagely beaten and murdered. Fannie Lou Hamer, known for being “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” name-checked Eastland when she testified at the 1964 Democratic National Convention about the beatings she took in Mississippi just to register to vote. Doing business with Eastland is not something most African Americans remember with any fondness.
It’s not just Biden. There is a cult of civility taking root in the media and Democratic establishment. Some fetishize “get-alongism,” feting those who promise to calm the horses and restore comity in the political debate as leaders America needs. But is calm and civil discourse the ultimate objective? Or do we want to pursue humane treatment for migrant children, safety for African Americans when they encounter police, higher incomes for workers, and fewer mass shootings at schools, churches, synagogues and LGBTQ nightclubs?
In 1787, the U.S. Constitution deemed Africans in America three-fifths of a person. In 2015, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to make the first African American in the Oval Office three-fourths of a president. Three years into Barack Obama’s second term, McConnell denied him the right to a U.S. Supreme Court appointee because the opening occurred a year before a presidential election. When McConnell recently was asked how he would handle a vacancy that occurred in the last year of President Trump’s first term, the majority leader grinned and said, “I would fill it.”
Is civility and a “return to normalcy” the antidote to this kind of thuggishness?
The challenge for modern-day centrism is to reject civility for its own sake and attack the cozy clubbiness of the political and economic elite with policies that will have real positive impact for struggling Americans.
If not the Green New Deal, force a market-based solution to correct the ravages of climate change.
If not “Medicare for All,” fight for a private-sector model to lower health care costs and extend coverage to the uninsured.
If not the shut-it-down, build-the-wall, anti-Latino border policy, impose humane, sensible, comprehensive immigration reform.
Bill Clinton sold the benefits of centrist ideas to improve American lives. Welfare reform was important, because work was an organizing principle in life, and generations of people without work weren’t good for communities and didn’t help the country succeed. So, he invested in education, training and welfare-to-work programs.
Clinton opened markets and promoted exports to help grow jobs; he pushed empowerment zones, home ownership and tax credits as solutions to poverty. During his term, he raised incomes, increased home ownership and reduced poverty. It was the Bush tax cuts and near-financial collapse that undermined that positive impact.
Instead of results-based centrism, today, too many Democrats propose “process centrism.” They want to get people of goodwill together, around a mythical table, to come up with good ideas. They believe they can break the fever, but the fever began before Donald Trump and likely will continue after he is gone from the White House.
Too many conservatives have made their beds with people ready to fight for a return to the cultural order of an earlier era, when black and brown citizens had fewer rights and privileges. They support policies that inhumanely separate Latino babies from their mothers at the border. They resist efforts to hold police accountable for shooting unarmed African Americans.
Is there a deal worth pursuing with people committed to denying life, liberty and full citizenship to all Americans? What’s the compromise? Three-fifths citizenship? Three-fourths of a presidency?
Yes, working relationships with one’s political opponents are important to keep unnecessary fights from overwhelming the system. Those deals can be worked on taxes, infrastructure, defense policy, etc. But civility should not be the goal if better outcomes for more Americans is the cost.
Perhaps calming the horses is precisely the wrong strategy, and democratic patriots should be less interested in getting along with odious politicians and more interested in beating them.
Jamal Simmons is a Democratic strategist who has worked for the Clinton White House, Congress and the Clinton, Gore and Obama presidential campaigns. He is a liberal host for The Hill’s new Hill.TV video division. Follow him on Twitter @JamalSimmons.
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