Civil Rights and the Biden Tough Model

National Center for Civil and Human Rights Opens in Atlanta - The New York  Times
National Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, photo from NY Times

The stereotype of Democrats among GOP operatives and the media is that they don’t have the provocative, norm-breaking, don’t give a shit “toughness” of Republicans like Trump, McConnell, and Newt Gingrich. According to the stereotype, Dems are constantly being rolled by the latest new GOP procedural trick, deceit, or bit of race-baiting demagoguery and can only respond with impotent “outrage” and more futile calls for bipartisanship. Where Republicans and the media identify the GOP as tough, they see the Democrats as “weak” because Dems want government to function, care about things like education, public health, and social security, and are oriented toward making rules and playing by them.

As always, there are racist themes and variations woven into the fabric of these stereotypes. Black Democratic politicians and media figures are branded as “angry” and “extreme” anytime they show or are even rumored to show aggression. For example, Michelle Obama was famously branded as an “angry black woman” for things she was rumored to have said before her husband was nominated by the Democratic Party. When John Lewis hugged it out with Republicans, it was a magnificent gesture but it was also the only kind of behavior the mainstream media finds admirable in Black Democrats. Stereotypes of Black Dems work as a form of racial control because Black Democrats have to assume the damage the stereotypes can cause as they work out their courses of action. The stereotypes also function to control the behavior of white Democrats and keep them in a kind of rhetorical subordination to their GOP peers. The expectation is that GOP bullies will always pull the football away from the weak, gullible Democratic Charlie Browns and there’s a disturbance in the force any time a white Democrat like Chuck Schumer comes out with full throated partisanship.

The flip side of this exercise in GOP/media racism is that white Democrats are viewed as “tough” or “strong” when they put down their own minority constituencies. This notion of Democratic strength was racialized into the idea of a “Sister Souljah” moment after Bill Clinton putting down rapper Sister Souljah for sounding like a black activist version of David Duke at an event sponsored by Jesse Jackson, thus humiliating both Jackson and the rapper. Over the 2020 campaign and beyond, Joe Biden has been urged by Dave Weigel and Never Trumpers like Matt Lewis, George Will, and Bret Stephens to “show strength” by renouncing George Floyd demonstrators, Critical Race Theory, or White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo. Whether the target for the Sister Souljah Moment campaign is black, white, Ilhan Omar, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the idea is for Biden to use the renunciation to solidify a “personal domination” over the Democratic Party by conducting himself on the model of racial domination.

However, President Biden has broken away from “Sister Souljah Moments.” Much has been made of President Biden’s empathy, but he’s also a feisty guy who isn’t interested in taking a lot of crap. Here’s Biden at an auto plant in March 2020.

Joe Biden at Michigan Auto Plant, The Guardian, youtube.com

As the transcript below demonstrates, Biden has no tolerance for the disinformation on what this man is saying and calls him out immediately and personally. Fox News, GOP commentators, and right-wing conspiracy channels devote most of their time to lying, stereotyping, gaslighting, and purveying other forms of disinformation in relation to public issues, the Democratic Party, and Democratic constituencies. All too often, Democrats and liberals respond by being “offended” and “outraged.” But Biden breaks out of that rhetorical box. Instead of being “insulted” or “outraged,” Biden tells his antagonist “You’re full of shit” and reinforces that message at the end of that part of the discussion by also telling him to “stop being a horse’s ass.” An interesting thing about this incident is that white conservatives work hard at provoking “emotional” reactions from Democrats as a way to demonstrate control over political encounters. But in this case, it is Biden who dominates through his angry insults over the right-wing auto worker’s lying and stupidity.

Man: “You are actively trying to end our Second Amendment right and take away our guns.”

Biden: “You’re full of shit. I did not—no, no, shush. Shush. I support the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment — just like right now if you yelled fire, that’s not free speech. And from the very beginning, I have a shotgun, I have a 20-gauge, a 12-gauge. My sons hunt, guess what? You’re not allowed to own any weapon, I’m not taking your gun away at all. You need 100 rounds?”

Man: “You and Beto say you’re going to take our guns –“

Biden: “I did not say that. That’s not true. I did not say that.”Man: “

“It’s a viral video.”

Biden: “It’s a viral video like the other ones you’re putting out that are simply a lie. Wait, wait wait, wait, take your AR, your AR-14, Don’t tell me anything about (inaudible)”

Man: “You’re working for me, man.”

Biden: “I’m not working for — gimme a break man. Don’t be such a horse’s ass.”

That wasn’t all. In his Jan. 11 speech on the “John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021,” President Biden employed black history to pose the need for voting rights reform in a starkly dichotomizing manner. Beginning with the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, Biden opposed the Insurrection to the entire weight of the 1950’s-1960’s Civil rights movement. Biden started with a reference to Atlanta as the “cradle of the Civil Rights Movement and builds further by citing Atlanta’s historical black colleges (Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, and Spelman), the Ebenezer Baptist Church headed Martin Luther King and his father before him and then Birmingham, Selma, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights of 1965. The Civil Rights Movement was both a monumental exercise in anti-racist public morality and a massive struggle for social and political power that overturned the legal structure of white supremacy against the determined efforts of Southern political institutions and opposition from the white public. For this occasion, Biden emphasized the bipartisan, multiracial character of the Civil Rights Movement with references to the willingness of white liberals to participate in the cause and Republican support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, he also portrays the movement as anchored in black institutions like Morehouse College, black leadership in Martin Luther King, jr. and black courage and determination of Black activists. In Biden’s portrayal, it was primarily black activism that made the Civil Rights Movement such an exemplary moral moment, had results in such monumental historical change, and came to represent everything that was good about America as a nation.

During his Jan. 11 speech, President Biden was speaking as President of the United States as a nation, head of the Democratic Party, and long-time politician. That’s one of the reason why the sense of the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement, the anchoring of those accomplishments in the Black population, and the function of Civil Rights as representative of the United States as a nation flowed together so well in Biden’s rhetoric.

Adding to the moral and political aggression of Biden’s speech was his identification of the Jan. 6 Insurrection and Trump with the worst aspects of American history and culture—the 250 years of slavery, the Southern segregation system, Ku Klux Klan, 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, and Strom Thurmond. For Biden, the Jan. 6 Insurrection as had historical depth because of the links between Trumpian politics and the kind of evils that marked the conservative traditions and personalities that opposed the Civil Rights Movement. One of the weak points of U.S. conservatism is that there is NO honorable tradition with which white conservatives can identify. This is implicitly recognized by President Biden when he nails the Jan. 6 Insurrection and Trump to the cross of violent white opposition to Civil Rights. response to the Civil Rights Movement. Much of what made Biden’s opposition between Civil Rights and the whole of white supremacist tradition such a power move was that conservatives have so little in the way of American history with which they can defend themselves.

Having constructed such a strong historical sketch, President Biden moved to the main event which was advocating the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act against Republican opposition. GOP state legislatures had passed a wide variety of voter suppression acts all of which were aimed at reducing voting rates among Black voters in particular and Democratic constituencies in general. The John Lewis Voting Advancement Act was designed to counter-act this wave of vote suppression by making states once again get pre-clearance from the Justice Department for changes to their voting laws. Relying on his previous account of the dichotomy between Civil Rights and white supremacy, President Biden then poses a stark choice for Senate Republicans.

At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be the si- — on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?  Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?  Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?

Given that there was no chance for the voting rights bill to pass over a GOP filibuster, the underlying purpose of President Biden posing the vote in these terms was to bully the Republicans morally by associating them with many of the great evils of American history. And it worked. The Democrats should use President Biden’s Jan. 11 speech as a template for attacking the Republicans on all kinds of civil rights, cultural, and social issues. The Republican Party has been rooted in white supremacy and race-baiting ever Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be stronger in the political trenches if they keep reminding the Republicans what side they’re on.

Biden, Psaki, and Democratic Leadership: Aggressive, Determined, Disciplined

If the Build Back Better Act (BBB) actually did go down with Manchin’s Fox News interview on Sunday, what does that say about the Democrats and the Biden administration?

According to Manchin’s own testimony, President Biden and his staff are aggressive, determined, and disciplined. Here’s Manchin on the negotiating style of President Biden, the White House, and his Democratic colleagues in the Senate:

“They figured, surely to God we can move one person. We can badger and beat up one person…Surely we get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough,” Manchin told reporters after the vote. “Well, guess what? I’m from West Virginia…I’m not from where they’re from. And they just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive, period,” he added.

Of course, Manchin’s bragging here about his petty, fragile, snowflake self (Manchin bolted from the negotiations because his name was used in a press release). But Manchin’s statement is what Trump would call “very strong” testimony to the toughness of Democratic negotiators up and down the line. They “badgered and beat [him] up,” made him “uncomfortable,” and just “beat the living crap out of people” with “people” referring exclusively to Manchin. Democratic negotiators were also highly disciplined. They were positive and courteous with Manchin despite his endlessly shifting positions, lapsing into simple-minded lobbyist speak, and refusal to say what kind of bill he would vote for. If Manchin sticks with his rejection of Build Back Better, his affinities were much stronger to his buddies in the West Virginia elite, his other buddies working for the coal and oil industries, and Republican buddies like Mitch McConnell and John Thune. Manchin doesn’t like Bernie Sanders, AOC, and Democratic progressives (protesters) but doesn’t seem to like the full tilt ahead people on Biden’s staff either. All the buddies who make Joe Manchin comfortable are attached to an old political world that’s neither Trumpist or reformist where sleeping dogs like Joe Manchin can collect big campaign donations without being bothered by all the morality stuff that exercises so many people in the Democratic Party.

The combination of aggression and self-discipline came out even more strongly in press secretary Jen Psaki’s response to Manchin’s Sunday interview on Fox News. The White House were very nice and positive with Manchin during negotiations, but Psaki had no problems with absolutely torching Manchin after he betrayed them.

Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word. In the meantime, Senator Manchin will have to explain to those families paying $1,000 a month for insulin why they need to keep paying that, instead of $35 for that vital medicine. He will have to explain to the nearly two million women who would get the affordable day care they need to return to work why he opposes a plan to get them the help they need. Maybe Senator Manchin can explain to the millions of children who have been lifted out of poverty, in part due to the Child Tax Credit, why he wants to end a program that is helping achieve this milestone—we cannot.

Stereotypes of Democrats as “weak-minded,” “wimpy,” and in constant “disarray” are still popular with the mainstream media. But the Biden administration and Senate Democrats have been taking big swings and been aggressive, determined, and disciplined in pursuing their objectives. “Build Back Better” may go up in smoke but I very much like what I’m seeing.

Biden, Normalcy, Competence

Ford F-150: Why is Joe Biden driving a battery-powered Ford F-150? - ​Avid  car enthusiast Joe Biden | The Economic Times
economictimes.indiatimes.com

President Joe Biden is going through tough times and its showing up in public opinion polls. The surge in the Delta variant, withdrawal from Afghanistan, Haitian refugee situation, and problems in passing an infrastructure bill have all had a negative impact on public opinion with Biden approval sinking from 52.4% two months ago to 45.4 in the latest FiveThirtyEight.com poll index.

According to Amy Walter, who has taken over as the head of the Cooke Political Report, Biden’s problems come down to questions of “normality” and “competence.” According to Walter:

When Biden was running for president, his message was pretty straightforward: I’m the guy who will bring normal back to Washington. Where President Trump was unorthodox and chaotic, Biden would be conventional and organized. Trump ran the White House like a reality show, Biden stocked his cabinet and high-level staff with Washington insiders with establishment credentials. He was going to usher in an era of boring, but predictable

Biden was able to create an appearance of normality by rolling out COVID vaccines quickly and effectively. But that was all a mirage. “Normality” went out the window with the Jan. 6 Insurrection, the continued promotion of the Big Lie by the right-wing media, and then vaccine refusal among white conservatives. A majority of Republicans believe Trump is the “true U.S. president while the same survey found that 2/3rds of Republicans believe Biden won the election through fraud. Likewise, a “majority (56 percent) of Republicans support the use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life.” Vaccine rejection has gone down from 32% to 16%, but that 16% is still almost 35 million people and they’ve maintained their hard core stance in the face of the current Covid surge associated with the Delta variant.

In the United States, “normality” is no longer a settled thing and hasn’t really been settled since Obama’s election as the first black president in 2008. What will sooner or later become the “normal” for a Democratic administration is pursuing a radical reformist combination of a civil rights agenda, infrastructure spending, climate legislation, and lowering the wealth gap while also managing the on-going Republican refusal to engage with policy issues, the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the right-wing refusal to cooperate and violent resistance to the operations of federal and state government. That’s not to mention militia and paramilitary violence.

Being able to deal with both sides of the “new normal” will also be the measure for Biden administration competence. Needless to say, the short and medium term future in the United States is civil and political unrest at best and fascist takeover at worse. If Biden and the Democrats want to be seen as competent, they’ll have to deal with this situation in at least a somewhat satisfactory way.

Manchin as Lone Conduit

Like so many political discussions since Biden’s inauguration in January, this one starts with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Whether it’s Manchin’s testimonials to bipartisanship, protection of the filibuster, insistence on addressing Republican ideas in the Covid Relief Bill, or conference calls with corporate Democratic groups like Third Way and No Labels, Joe Manchin’s name is on the tip of every writer’s typing fingers and the top of every call list from Joe Biden’s and Chuck Schumer’s to the humble but well-heeled lobbyists for coal and chemical companies in West Virginia.

Despite Afghanistan withdrawal, the Covid surge among the unvaccinated, and Hurricane Ida scoring a daily double of flooding both New Orleans and New York, Manchin still drew attention with a Susan Collins-like op-ed expressing what The Hill calls “concerns” about the impact of the Democratic leadership’s $3.5 trillion reconciliation package on inflation and the federal debt. Key passages read like lobbyist boilerplate and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quickly called attention to Manchin’s meeting with energy lobbyists once a week and history of being “one of many senators who gives lobbyists their pen to write so-called ‘bipartisan’ fossil fuel bills.” It’s not just energy lobbyists either. Manchin has been taped doing a call with No Labels, one the main representative of corporate interests in the Democratic Party and was involved with the amateur hour, abortive moderate rebellion against Nancy Pelosi.

Since January, Manchin has become the main conduit for Republican, corporate, and Lieberman-style, GOP leaning, moderation in the Democratic caucus. Manchin’s opposition to removing the filibuster and suspicion of all the Democratic proposals he ends up supporting makes him the best available perfect foil for many of the most important interests opposed to the Biden administration. But Manchin’s importance is a real curiosity. Why does Joe Manchin represent GOP interests as he did with the Covid Relief Bill? Why couldn’t Mitch McConnell or GOP Senate whip John Thune? Why not Ted Cruz? Why is Manchin such a focus of lobbying efforts? Are there any Scoop Jacksons to be the Senator from Boeing? Why isn’t Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal up to his eyeballs in corruption like former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd or his father and yet another Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd? Why doesn’t Chuck Schumer find someone to rid him of the meddlesome Bernie Sanders as Budget Chair? Joe Manchin is an important man but outside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (to whom Manchin doesn’t seem much allied), Manchin is also isolated within the Democratic caucus with his colleagues talking to him more because they have to than anything else.

Ironically, Joe Manchin is at the center of the budget debate because the Senate GOP, corporate lobbying interests, and Democrat moderate groups have so little impact on either Biden administration proposals or Democratic legislation as it moves through Congress. Conservative and corporate interests have surprisingly leverage in relation to the Democratic Party and Joe Manchin is pretty much the only vehicle they have for influence. Manchin and Sinema themselves only have leverage because the Democrats have such a small margin in the Senate. Otherwise, the Democrats are a highly unified political party with skilled leadership and a radical reform agenda.