Democrats are doing a good job of what Democrats are best at: Fighting amongst themselves. Republicans do a good job of fighting amongst themselves, as well, but our focus today is the dispute that has broken out among Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Some of the tensions are generational — younger members chafing for more action than they see their older party leadership willing to take. Some are ideological, because those younger members tend to be further to the left. Put together, these are the sorts of conflicts that have gone on, well, ever since politics was invented. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was Newt Gingrich who was unhappy with the more cautious Republican House leadership under leader Robert Michael. Nothing is really new here.
The specific issue at hand is a flurry of tweets sent out last month by Saikat Chakrabarti, chief-of-staff to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York. She, of course, has come to symbolize the more extreme liberal discontent with the establishment-oriented speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. In his tweets, Chakrabarti criticized Pelosi, endorsed challengers to some sitting Democrats who he feels aren’t liberal enough, and had especially harsh words for those Democrats who didn’t support certain provisions the left wanted in a recent bill dealing with funding for border security agencies.
Now, all that’s fair game — although Chakrabarti seems to forget that his boss gets to be a member of the majority party because of some of those more moderate Democrats who won in marginal districts. Ocasio-Cortez can go as far left as she wants in her safe seat in Queens and the Bronx. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat who barely won a seat in suburban Richmond and the Piedmont, cannot. Ocasio-Cortez seems not to understand that she needs Spanberger and other moderate Democrats who can win swing seats — not the other way around. That’s a common failing, in politics, though. Where Chakrabarti crossed a line is when he tweeted: “Instead of ‘fiscally conservative but socially liberal,’ let’s call those New Democrats and Blue Dog Caucus the ‘New Southern Democrats.’ They certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.” This is where we must call “time out.” It’s unclear whether Chakrabarti meant this as hyperbole or an actual comparison. Either way, though, it is foul and offensive — and simply wrong.
Whether his faction is right or wrong on border security funding is not the point here. The point is to make sure that when people make their arguments one way or another that they stick to the facts. We’re accustomed to having to educate certain conservatives on the history of their own country (particularly on matters of immigration), but today we must apparently educate a certain liberal, as well. So let’s get to it. Chakrabarti said that today’s moderate Democrats (what few there are) are essentially the same as “the old Southern Democrats” of the ’40s. This would be laughably wrong, except that it’s not laughable. It’s a slur, and should be treated as such.
Perhaps from his vantage point working for a representative from New York, all white Southerners look the same. But being here in the South, we have a finer appreciation of our tortured history. We know a few things — first-hand things — about the Southern Democrats of the ’40s (and much later) that he refers to. They were racists and segregationists. Today’s Southern Democrats are not. To draw a connection between the two is defamatory. That connection is also historically inaccurate in a very important way: Today’s moderate Democrats are not the ideological heirs of the segregationist Democrats, they are the ideological heirs of the people who helped defeat those segregationists.
We’re about to condense a lot of history into a small space here, so we invite Chakrabarti — and anyone else interested — to read up on that period of history rather than reduce it to a tweet. In legal terms, segregation was brought down in court by African-American lawyers —led by Thurgood Marshall nationally, and in Virginia by Spotswood Robinson and Oliver Hill (whose name now graces the Roanoke courthouse). Politically, segregation was challenged by two distinct groups: Republicans and anti-establishment Democrats. The Southern Republicans of that era were not like the Southern Republicans of today; neither party today resembles the parties that bore those names in the past. Still, the fact remains, people with an “R” after their name and who campaigned for Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were among those who were on the right side of history. Virginia’s first civil rights governor was a Republican — Linwood Holton, elected in 1969. Those anti-establishment Democrats came in various flavors — some were outright liberals, some were more moderate. They certainly argued tactics, as well, but these moderates and liberals were both involved in bringing down segregation — and the segregationist Byrd Machine of U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. that controlled the state. The first defeat that the Byrd Machine suffered in a statewide race was in the 1966 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, when challenger William Spong upset incumbent Willis Robertson (father of televangelist Pat Robertson). Spong was very much a moderate. In the 1969 Democratic primary, three more challengers defeated organization candidates to help remake the party, and bring an end to an era. They were Bill Battle, Sergeant Reynolds and Andrew Miller, all middle-of-the-road types.
In some ways, one of the intellectual fathers of the moderate Blue Dog Caucus that Chakrabarti objects to was Charles Robb. He helped found the middle-of-the-road Democratic Leadership Council that challenged the party’s liberal orthodoxy on the national level. In 1981, Robb won the Virginia governorship. He was the first Democratic governor in the modern era who didn’t spring from the Byrd Machine. He also appointed more African-Americans to state office than ever before, including the first African-American to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Virginia’s history of that era is that the more liberal Democrats — such as Henry Howell and George Rawlings — lost statewide races, but the more moderate ones won, and they were the ones who, once in office, helped move the state past its segregationist history.
Chakrabarti and his boss, Ocasio-Cortez, need not like the politics of their more moderate party members. But to compare them to segregationists is to either misuse the word or misunderstand history in very dangerous ways.