Why American Politics Are Sometimes Seriously Unserious

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” so said Ralph Emerson. Those who are wisely inconsistent remind us of this quote as we marvel at the grandeur of their twists and turns. Of course, these people are not likely to have ever read anything by Emerson or even to offer the title of a book, poem, or essay that he wrote. But the name Emerson itself sounds a bit like the Mount Rushmore of American intellectualism. So why not quote him, sort of? Alas, taking statements out of context is something that resembles both a nagging habit and an exquisite talent on these shores. This, I suppose, is why Twitter exists with its limited characters, so context can be dispensed with from the start.

No one is more critical of inconsistency, as Emerson noted in the longer version of his famous statement, than politicians, (philosophers, Emerson’s calling, are included too), and no one cast a blinder eye to their own inconsistencies—when they are not glowingly calling it “growing” and “evolving”—than these selfsame politicians and the partisans who actually believe what they say or need what they say.

Let us take the recent case in point of Missouri Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush who, during last week’s Republican comedy of errors entitled “choosing a new House Speaker,” called Florida Republican Congressman Bryon Donalds “a prop” when he was nominated for the Speakership and at one point received sixteen votes and even, in the giddiness of the moment, voted for himself. There were so many ballots for House Speaker that Donalds could rather indulge himself a bit before finally returning to reality and voting for Kevin McCarthy again. Both Bush and Donalds are Black, and therein lies the rub of this story.

Bush was responding to Texas Congressman Chip Roy who nominated Donalds. As The Hill reports,  “‘[For] the first time in history there have been two Black Americans placed into the nomination for Speaker of the House,’ Roy said, referring also to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the Democratic nominee for Speaker.” It was said that George Wallace, when he first ran for the governorship of Alabama and lost, remarked that he would never be “outn***ered,” that is, never have his anti-Black creds be doubted again. I suppose the GOP has taken this view in a different direction in our age of diversity and basically saying to the Democrats, “Anything you can do, we can do, if not better, than just as well.”

For Bush, there was no comparing Jeffries, an authentic Black who knows the right policies and is in the right party, with this Black right-wing clown who endorses capitalism, opposes legalized abortion, and is all for gun rights. She tweeted, “Despite being Black, he supports a policy agenda intent on upholding and perpetuating white supremacy.” Now this sort of racial insulting that goes on between Blacks on the left and the right is nothing new. Blacks on the left call right-wing Blacks “Uncle Toms” “House N**gers,” and such names as these and Blacks on the right call leftist Blacks “race hustlers” and “race charlatans.” Blacks on the left consider themselves authentically Black and down with the cause of Blackness and anti-racism while Blacks on the right consider themselves liberated from the thralldom of the Democratic Party, “the plantation,” as they call it. (In this way implying that Black leftists are the real “House n**gers.”) “We think for ourselves,” conservative Blacks like to say. “You can’t think at all,” leftist Blacks respond. The uncharitable view here is that everyone, in this exchange, is nothing more than an opportunist, trading on race to get ahead in some form or fashion with some constituency.

The insulting is standard stuff, this red meat for the partisans is not the point here. Bush also said about Donalds’s nomination, “As if we’re ignorant enough to say, ‘Oh, well, we’re gonna have to support him because he’s another Black man.’ We want to see the first Black person but not just because he’s Black. Jeffries led this caucus. People have seen his leadership. Regardless of who takes the seat, we need it to be someone who will prioritize the needs of all people in this country but in a way where they see the disparities, where they see the racism. That can’t happen when you have bad folks leading.”

She is saying that Donalds is not qualified for the job, did not do what is necessary to earn real consideration for the job, was jumping over people in the GOP’s pecking order who probably deserved the job far more. She is right in making this point. Jeffries has been a Congressman since 2013; Donalds since 2020. But this is precisely the standard criticism that conservatives, both Black and White, make against affirmative action. It is a stigma to be given something solely because of one’s race or, what is almost worse, it is unserious. But is not the position of the leftists that skin color is everything, the crucial, immutable difference, when it comes to appointments or rewards? Race, morally and politically, trumps merit, a racist creation of the White Supremacist social order, n’est-ce pas? When Jeffries was touted as the possible first Black Speaker of the House, no one was saying that it was conditioned on how he thought, what his qualifications were, and which Blacks approved of it. He is Black, pure and simple. It would have been, in his case, the sign of racial progress, not the stigma of racial exploitation or unseriousness. If Donalds had gotten the Speakership, why would it be any less historic than Jeffries getting it if diversity is the thing? Getting it through the machinations of the GOP might, in fact, make it even more impressive as he would have been selected by people not inclined to reward Blacks from a feeling of guilt or to champion them simply to be on what is called the right side of history. So, the conservatives will say slyly, there is for the leftists “bad” Affirmative Action, after all, not all Blacks are worthy of it.

On the other side, the conservatives claim that they never would offer a Black person a position purely on the basis of race because, miraculously, mon dieu, they do not see race. They see only “the content of a person’s character.” Quoting this circumlocution of MLK is like saying, “We see qualifications and merit only.” And this is exactly what Representative Roy did indeed quote when he nominated Donalds. (King must be turning over in his grave from being misrepresented, trivialized, sanitized, and maliciously misinterpreted.) Of course, as people say, “this conservative claim of colorblindness is true except when it isn’t.” Voting for Donalds was something like a sideshow in a show. The Republicans find themselves in the odd position of having to seek out and endorse diversity even when they do not believe in its efficacy and criticize policies that encourage or enforce it. It is the odd position of protecting White disaffection as an important source of political power while needing a variety of non-White voices to underscore its legitimacy. Albert Murray once suggested that Whites are going to need Blacks to save their civilization and their values.

Ah, the cynicism! Ah, the inconsistencies! I love American politics. How about you?

(An observation: Derek Hunter’s column at the rightwing site Townhall in which he calls Bush’s district “east St. Louis” is a bit misleading. True, her district covers the eastern portion of St. Louis city and county but St. Louis’s racial and social grids run along a north/south, not east/west axis and includes mostly White suburban sections of Olivette, Webster Groves, and Clayton, as well as the mostly White and liberal central corridor as well as mostly Black Jennings, Ferguson, and Florissant. It cannot be said that her district has necessarily suffered from liberal Congressional representation or that conservative Black or White leadership would have produced better results. Think of the various impoverished White sections of Missouri that have conservative representation. Describing her district as “east St. Louis” might well put readers in the mind of the all-Black, deeply impoverished city of East St. Louis, which is in Illinois, not Missouri, and not part of Bush’s district. Further, Hunter berates the district for constantly electing Democratic representatives and not holding them accountable for a lack of results but this is not quite true. Clearly, the residents of this district think there is a need for a difference in the Democratic Party’s approach to reform, otherwise Bush would not have been elected in 2020 as the “change” candidate. She defeated incumbent and highly favored Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary, a longtime holder of the seat which he inherited from his father, civil rights activist and union organizer Bill Clay, both of whom were staunch Black liberals. After the deaths of Michael Brown and George Floyd, voters chose Bush as something different, a stronger medicine, if you will, something more than a Democratic Party liberal. Whether she, in fact, turns out to be that—a difference maker for the poor Black sections of her district—or just another firebrand militantly mouthing a cause remains to be seen.)