Bret Stephens cannot for the life of him understand why people are upset by Joe Biden’s nostalgia for working with segregationists. Sam Rosenfeld, who earns a living by knowing things rather than willfully not knowing them, explains:
White supremacy drove the cross-party arrangements that fostered these customs. As white supremacy came under challenge, these arrangements unraveled. Civil rights became an increasingly central pillar of Northern Democrats’ political agenda, a process accelerated by the direct-action tactics of a mass movement on the ground. President Lyndon Johnson’s zealous advocacy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater’s opposition to it sent a signal about the parties’ emerging positions on racial questions, with long-term effects for presidential voting. Civil rights activists also contributed to a liberal Democratic reform agenda inside Congress that had by the mid-1970s challenged the sanctity of seniority and centralized power in party leaders. This was all intended to bring to heel the old Southern committee barons who had opposed civil rights and other liberal legislation.
Both Jim Crow and the power of its legislative defenders had begun to crumble by the time Biden arrived in the Senate, but it took years for the parties to reorganize themselves and for norms to disintegrate completely. Some Southern Democrats facing new challenges switched parties, others (such as Eastland) chose to retire, and others still moderated their legislative behavior to more closely match that of their co-partisans. During the years of flux, when Biden came of age in Congress, both chambers retained a good deal of the mid-century era’s characteristic bipartisanship and unpredictability. But the great sorting-out of the parties by ideology was underway.
Congress in 2019 is anything but politically fluid. Conservative Republicans enjoy a near-lock on non-majority-minority Southern states and districts. Racial politics, like so many other issues, now reinforce the party divide instead of cutting across it, and the parties have strong incentives to be antagonistic toward each other. All the Biden bull sessions in the world would do little to alter these basic features of politics. And since the era of boozy politesse in Congress was made possible by the basic denial of civil and political rights to African Americans in the South — not to mention the near-total absence of women from those chambers — that’s not entirely to be lamented.
The last point is critical. As Sam makes clear in his superb book, given the structure of American constitutionalism contemporary polarization has been much more of a mixed blessing that the activists and political scientists who favored much sharper partisan divisions expected. But it’s also a moot point; the Democratic embrace of civil rights made it inevitable, and all the nostalgia for drinking bourbon with segregationists in the world can’t bring it back. The fact that Biden thinks that this world can be restored is a good reason he shouldn’t be president.