It’s a telling contrast – this rise of Jeff Sessions to Judiciary ranking member. On the one hand, the Democratic Party nominated the first African-American president. At the same time, Senate Republicans have intentionally elevated an Alabama Senator rejected from the federal bench for being a racist.
It may seem like I’ve randomly selected two random people, but there’s a larger lesson here. Specifically, the respective rise of Obama and Sessions reflect the historical choices of the two major parties. Over decades, the parties adopted policies and priorities that have led quite directly to what we’re seeing today. In short, both Obama and Sessions are vindications of historical choices.
In the 1960s, both parties were in flux. The Democrats had traditionally been the racist party, while the Republicans had been far supportive of civil rights. But then both parties made a fateful choice. The Democratic Party – and its base – decided to support and fight for civil rights. It also made a lasting, long-term commitment to equality, and has actively embraced and promoted diversity for the past 40 years.
The Republican Party – institutionally, that is – went a different way. They adopted the Southern Strategy. They demagogued welfare queens. More generally, the party was institutionally hostile to laws and regulations and practices intended to correct centuries of state-sanctioned discrimination. To people like John Roberts, the world apparently began anew in 1964.
For years, the Republicans benefited from this choice. Nixon won. Reagan won. The South shifted to the GOP, giving it nearly 12 years of Congressonal control. Times were good.
But the checks are now coming due. The Democrats are beginning to see the benefits of the choices they made in the 1960s – the choices they remained firmly committed to over the years. Demographically, the country is getting less white. Individually, the most promising young African-American candidates and officials (people like Obama, Artur Davis, and Deval Patrick) are all firmly within the Democratic Party. Indeed, an entire generation of African-Americans have come of political age knowing nothing but hostility from Republicans and loyalty from Democrats.
Admittedly, Obama is an once-in-a-generation political talent. And I’m not taking anything away from him. But his rise must be seen in the larger context of the institutional commitment that the United States (and the Democratic Party specifically) made to diversity.
Sessions must also be seen in this same historical context. His rise reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in all of American literature – the end of Faulker’s Absolom! Absolom! when the young man discovers, decades after the Civil War, that an old Confederate veteran has been living in the attic of an old abandoned mansion. No matter how much the young character wanted to forget about the war, it was still there – living and breathing – haunting him.
And that’s Jeff Sessions. As a politician in post-Jim Crow Alabama, he had to act like a racist to succeed. And I’m sure he’s better now. Heck, maybe he was never privately racist. And the political environment doesn’t require it anymore. But he did what he did – in that sense, he’s a legacy of a past that refuses to be forgotten. The old soldier in the attic.
And the Republican Party made a choice beginning in the 1960s to welcome these types of people into their tent. The party may regret it now – but that’s the choice it made. And it’s no surprise that people like Sessions are senior enough to take ranking positions within that party.
Frankly, I hope Session becomes an enormous public embarrassment – because the party deserves it. The GOP made this bed over the course of decades – so they can lie in it.
One last point – the rise of Sessions and Obama also shows the limits of short-term “rebranding” efforts – as if changing the public’s mind depended on Twitter feeds and “the Facebook.” The Republican “brand” problem is decades-old, and the ship can’t be turned on a dime.
To change a brand requires focusing on long-term priorities (univeral health care, diversity, etc.) and then sticking with them. Political success is usually the result of years, if not decades, of preparation. The same is true, I suppose, for political failure.
I don’t really remember the Reagan administration – and wasn’t conceived during Nixon. But I suppose it was very frustrating to see Democrats punished for making the morally correct decision on race.
At long last, though, the devil is taking his due.