Bless your heart, Joe Biden

Those who do not understand history will be beaten into a pulp by Mitch McConnell.

CREDIT: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
CREDIT: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Oh, bless your heart, Joe Biden.

There’s something inherently destructive about a politics that preferences “civility” among powerful white senators over the humanity of African Americans, but this is not a column about the morality of Biden’s nostalgia for time when it was acceptable to consort with racists. This is a column about the history of Southern politics, and why it was possible for liberal Democrats to sometimes find common cause with Southern racists in a bygone era. It’s also a column about the present, and why the gentlemanly backslapping Biden steadfastly believes he could put to good use would do nothing to bring modern day Republicans to the bargaining table.


The reason why Southern racists sometimes partnered with more moderate lawmakers to pass progressive legislation is that, while the Southern senators of a bygone era were virtually united in their racism, they were sharply divided on fiscal issues. Four senators who signed the infamous Southern Manifesto, which pledged to resist the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, also voted to create Medicare and Medicaid.

This contingent of racially-reactionary-but-fiscally-moderate Southerners were a major force in the Jim Crow South. They partnered with President Franklin Roosevelt on much of the New Deal, and they partnered with President Lyndon Johnson on some of the Great Society. They made deals with liberal Democrats, in other words, because they agreed with liberal Democrats on many crucial issues and wanted presidents like Roosevelt and Johnson to succeed — at least insofar as those presidents tried to help downtrodden white Americans.

It wasn’t “civility” that brought these herrenvolk Southerners to the bargaining table, it was the fact that they supported many left-leaning causes. And that makes them nothing like the modern Senate Republican caucus, which is determined to destroy any agenda put forward by a Democratic president.

One party, two competing agendas

The American South was, until fairly recently, ruled by a single political party. White bigots, bitter over the humiliation they suffered at the hands of Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans, rallied to the Democratic Party for nearly a century. Yet, while there was little partisan competition in the Jim Crow South, there was still a great deal of ideological competition. Old Southern Democrats split between a fiscally conservative wing and a more populist wing that supported generous government programs for white people.


To be sure, the fiscal conservatives were powerful and well-placed in the South. One of LBJ’s first major actions as president was to cut his budget proposal below $100 billion in order to mollify Senate Finance Chairman Harry F. Byrd, Sr. (D-VA), an especially odious senator who combined virulent racism with the sort of anti-government views now associated with people like former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).

But the South was also riddled with populists who spent lavishly on their white constituents even as they engaged in outright terrorism against African Americans.

“Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who served as governor of South Carolina in the early 1890s and as a United States senator from 1895 to 1918, epitomized this brand of racist populism. Tillman was a monster who led a white supremacist “rifle club” that slaughtered black prisoners. As a senator, he called for “terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.” And this was more than a decade after he pushed a 1895 state constitution that disenfranchised African American voters.

Yet, if you were unaware of Tillman’s murderous views on race, you might mistake him for a liberal reformer. As governor, Tillman built two state colleges and supported maximum hour laws for cotton mill workers. The first federal legislation banning corporate donations to political campaigns is known as the “Tillman Act.”

As Tillman aged, he eventually passed the massive patronage machine he used to maintain power to a protégé, James F. Byrnes. Jimmy Byrnes was arguably the most powerful man in American history who never became president. At various stages in his career, Byrnes served as a congressman, senator, governor, U.S. Secretary of State, and as a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. At the peak of his power, Byrnes held a White House job that was so powerful that the press deemed him Roosevelt’s “assistant president.” When FDR traveled abroad, he would often leave Byrnes with a safe full of blank, signed executive orders that Byrnes could fill in if an emergency arose.

Byrnes was, at once, a virulent racist and a staunch supporter of Roosevelt’s fiscal policies. He opposed anti-lynching legislation, arguing that “rape is responsible directly and indirectly for most of the lynching in America.” And he was the governor of South Carolina who hired one of the best lawyers in the country to defend public school segregation before the Supreme Court.


And yet Byrnes campaigned openly on his support for Roosevelt. “I admit I am a New Dealer,” he proclaimed during his 1936 Senate race, “and if it takes money away from the few who have controlled the country and give it to the average man, I am going back to Washington to help the president work for the people of South Carolina and of the country.”

Alabama Gov. George Wallace (D) "stands in the schoolhouse door" to resist integration of the University of Alabama.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace (D) "stands in the schoolhouse door" to resist integration of the University of Alabama.

This brand of racist populism remained alive well into the Civil Rights Era. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, now infamous for ordering the National Guard to block black students from attending Little Rock’s Central High School, “ran for governor as a populist champion, promising to bring roads, schools and prosperity to the Arkansas countryside,” according to his New York Times obituary. Even Alabama Governor George Wallace began his career as a New Deal Democrat.

Biden entered the Senate in 1973, late enough that the Republican Party was making very real inroads into the South, but early enough that many old style Southern populists were still around. Sen. James Eastland (D-MS), one of the two racist senators Biden said that he used to have a rapport with, was a hardline conservative prone to paranoid anti-communist fantasies. But Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-GA), who Biden said he could work with even though Talmadge was “one of the meanest guys I ever knew,” voted for Medicare and Medicaid.

Indeed, a total of eleven senators from the old Confederacy supported Medicare and Medicaid — including, as noted above, four signatories to the Southern Manifesto. Compare that to the Affordable Care Act, which was supported by exactly zero Republican senators.

No partners

There remains a strong constituency in white America for racist populism. Though President Trump has largely governed as Harry Byrd, Sr., he campaigned as George Wallace — punctuating his explicitly racist statements with (since broken) promises to protect programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Yet candidate Trump’s almost instant conversion to austerity once he became president shows that there is little appetite among Republican elites for the kind of fiscal moderation Trump briefly offered on the campaign trail. Nor is there an appetite for compromise with Democrats.

“The single most important thing we want to achieve,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in 2010, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” McConnell did not achieve that goal, but he did transform the filibuster from a rarely invoked protest maneuver to a routine method of shutting down anything Obama supported. Then McConnell held open a Supreme Court seat for a year until Trump could fill it.

When Biden first entered the Senate, there was still a real contingent of lawmakers who were ideologically cross-pressured. Their abhorrent racial views were in tension with more moderate views on other issues, and that made it possible for liberals to strike a deal with these racist populists so long as they did not simultaneously try to move the ball forward on civil rights.

But this brand of cross-pressured lawmaker no longer exists, and they’ve been replaced by rigid partisans that see every legislative fight as a battle to defeat the other party. They’ve been replaced by people like Mitch McConnell.

Again, the point of this column is not to make moral comparisons. It is not to declare McConnell better or worse than men like Jimmy Byrnes or Herman Talmadge. It is merely to note that the nature of American politics has changed, and that this change has profound implications for how a Democratic president must approach their opposition.

At a Tuesday night fundraiser, Biden waxed nostalgic about his early days as a senator, remarking that “at least there was some civility” and that “we got things done.” Today, by contrast, “you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”

But it takes two people to have a conversation, and it takes two parties to decide that the opposition is not the enemy. The “civility” that Biden pines for it a relic of a different age with different ideological divides and different approaches to partisanship. It’s not coming back, no matter how good Joe Biden is at glad-handing.

And if the next Democratic president does not accept this reality, Mitch McConnell will eat them for breakfast.