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A Very Wide-Ranging Chat With Jamelle Bouie

Today in our 'What Now' newsletter: talking to the NYT columnist about Reconstruction, labor, Joe Biden, and much more.

jamelle bouie
CBS News

It’s Discourse Blog’s big Birthday Week, and to celebrate, we’re giving all of our readers access to some of our subscriber-only content. That includes our What Now newsletter, which usually goes only to our Steward tier subscribers. This week, everyone’s getting it in their inbox AND we’re running it in full on our website and luckily for you, the latest edition is a lot of fun, because I spoke to the brilliant New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie.

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Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for the New York Times and an analyst for CBS News. Apart from being one of our sharpest contemporary minds, he also connects our current political moment to broader trends in American history like few others with such a large platform.

When I spoke to him earlier this month, the American Rescue Plan was on the verge of being passed, and the Senate was taking up a bill to secure voting rights while Republicans were preparing to use the filibuster and every other tool at their disposal to stop that bill in its tracks. This is nothing new: before 2021, there was 1964 and 1957. Before that, it was 1890

Over the past four years, historians have turned to the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras to explain a political moment that, for a lot of us, seemed unprecedented. Bouie has explored this period of history relentlessly. We talked about why the late 19th century era particularly illuminates the situation we’re in now, as well as the fight for a union at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, racial and class politics in America, and the future of the Democratic Party.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Paul Blest: One of the things that you’ve been talking about a lot in your work for the past four years is Reconstruction and the reaction to it. What makes this period of history so interesting to you and relevant to what we’re going through today?

Jamelle Bouie: First of all, I think it’s interesting in its own right. The United States, [in] emancipating 4 million enslaved people and then pretty quickly afterwards giving them something close to full political rights, is embarking on a project that’s never been done before and really has never been done since. Having said that, I do think that it’s specifically relevant, in part because many of the larger issues that are being dealt with in the Reconstruction period, both in the North and the South, are things that we’re still dealing with today. The Reconstruction period opens up questions that are still being answered or being contested. Not just what is the scope of Black American rights, but what is the scope of American citizenship? To what does being a citizen of the United States entitle you? What is the scope of democratic participation? To what extent does democracy mean not just voting in elections, but also democratic control over the economy? What does race hierarchy look like? What does it mean? What would its absence look like? All of these things are up for grabs during the Reconstruction period and whether they’re resolved or unresolved, the consequences continue onto the present. 

Lately I’ve been spending less time with Reconstruction proper, and more with the period of 1880 to 1900, which is this interregnum in the South where there exists a lot of possibilities of different configurations of politics and political contestation that could’ve taken this society any number of ways. And the thing that I’m trying to impress upon readers over time is that you should not think of these things as having been fixed [in place]. The fact that Jim Crow emerges at the turn of the century wasn’t foreordained. Part of my writing here is coming to impress upon people that for as much as there is path dependence, for as much as there are structural constraints, it’s also true that individual and collective action and choice matters, and that the things we do have an impact on where we end up.

Paul Blest: Recently you wrote about the Mississippi constitutional conventions and the attempts to pass voting rights bills in Congress in the late 1800s. Obviously those things are very connected to today, especially the filibuster, particularly as it concerns the For the People Act and voting rights. What do you think has been the impact of the filibuster in putting a hold on progress?

Jamelle Bouie: That’s a good question. One thing I’ll say up top is I don’t think that it’s the case that there’s one weird trick to fixing American history, right? I don’t think it’s the case that if the filibuster had not happened and the Lodge Bill passed, that Jim Crow would have never happened…there are a lot of factors happening in the country [at the time], from the spread of a really virulent racist ideology to the rise of industrial capitalism and its agents in the South. You have modernizers and owners of capital wanting to reunify with the North for the purpose of advancing their conception of industry and progress. And you have all these things happening that kind of push the region towards a certain direction. 

Where voting rights matter is that until the total suppression of Black voting, there were possibilities for kind of mass organized electoral resistance. I mean, the precipitating events for Jim Crow are not just Southern racism, but roughly a decade or two decades of serious political contestation over control of government. Not by Black-led Reconstruction governments, but by coalitions of Blacks and whites often circumscribed by racism and white commitment to race hierarchy united in opposition to the controlling planter merchant class. 

And so it’s an attempt to kind of consolidate power and break this sort of nascent biracial coalition that ends up bringing you to Jim Crow. And that’s to say that I think if the filibuster doesn’t exist, it’s not that suddenly Congress can pass voting rights bills and there is racial harmony, but that it preserves these avenues for electoral and non-electoral resistance. if there’s actual countervailing power in the South by way of Black voters and poor white voters, then who knows what actually ends up happening? 

The thing I think I want to communicate to readers is that part of both harm reduction and also just making any kind of progress is the protection of voting rights. And the curtailment of voting rights ends up interacting with all these other elements of our system in ways that are kind of hard to dislodge once they happen. Once Jim Crow comes into place, it’s more than half a century before its cracks show up. The protection of voting rights is very important and something like the filibuster should not really stand in the way of them. 

Paul Blest: Living in North Carolina, it seems like people on the left here are always talking about the Fusion movement, something that existed for half a decade in the late 1800s, when it comes to building multi-racial social democracy rooted in the working class. Do you think this is something that the For the People Act or some other expansion of voting rights could bring us back to, this point we were very briefly at more than a hundred years ago?

Jamelle Bouie: The Fusion movement was a coalition of Black Republicans and white Democrats who had joined the Populist Party. And they came to basically an agreement where they would run on the same ticket and then divvy up the spoils should they win the election. And in sort of three consecutive elections, the Fusion ticket ends up winning control of North Carolina state government and a number of localities. First, there’s the big economic depression that kind of makes things a little zero-sum in terms of politics and the economy in North Carolina, but then also white elites weaponize this to shatter the Fusionist Alliance by offering some more political power within the Democratic camp and warning of what they call social equality should Blacks continue to hold power.

I bring that up because I think the thing always to be careful about when thinking of these moments of biracial or interracial cooperation or politics is that there are specific episodes where they’re happening on what we would recognize as an ethos of racial egalitarianism and it’s possible. But as they were formed, there are still poor white farmers who were still invested in what historians call perceived hierarchies, ideas, differences that were just hard to break.

So if we grant that as being the case, then I think that in the present, the opportunity is presented by the protection of voting rights, the opportunities presented by new movements of unionized service workers and these sorts of things. I think precisely because there is more consensus for racial egalitarianism than there’s ever been, among white people specifically. I think that if stuff can get off the ground, it helps insulate it a bit from the kinds of attacks that in the past have damaged them. And what I think it impresses upon readers of history and people looking towards politics is that it is actually really important to do the kinds of political education and growth that kind of breaks or shatters racist ideologies, whether they’re anti-Black or anti-Hispanic or whatever.

Racism is one of the big obstacles to progressive politics—not in the sense that people are innately inherently racist but that we live in a race hierarchy, and even if they can’t articulate it in these terms, people do understand their position in terms of it. And you have to sort of like reveal that to people and say, this is mistaken. And if you don’t do that work, then you end up leaving yourself in a vulnerable place. 

You know as well as anyone else that over the past five years there’s been this somewhat tedious argument about race and class politics. And I find that the most helpful way to think about these things is not to say what matters more, or what has a greater impact, but just to acknowledge that both that these things are tangled up in each other, and that actual living people don’t understand these things in neat terms, and that how someone relates to the world is very much contingent on the kinds of things that are activated around them and the kinds of messages that are sent their way.

Paul Blest: You wrote a column about the effort to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama and the history of radical labor tradition in that state. This is the most public effort to organize an Amazon warehouse that we’ve seen so far, and it seems to have the best potential to actually be a successful vote. Can you give some historical context for what this means, not just for Amazon but that is happening in the South and that it’s being led by mostly Black workers?

Jamelle Bouie: There’s a rich tradition of radical activism and labor organizing in Alabama. Alabama, and Birmingham in particular, was one of the centers of the steel industry. And so labor organizing [and] labor conflict has always been a major part of the history and has always involved Black workers. I think what the Amazon unionizing effort should impress upon people is that there is a reason why a lot of the strength of the labor movement came from Black workers.

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There’s a reason that the civil rights movement was as much about a fair wage and decent opportunities as it was anything else, that equal citizenship in this country has always meant to Black Americans from the start a right to a decent wage, a decent job, a right to protection from exploitation. And I think that sometimes this gets lost in public conversations around racism. For good reason, we’re very focused on police violence and police violence is one of those things that although wealthier Black Americans are less vulnerable to that kind of terror, as it were, than low-income Black Americans, it’s still something that somewhat cuts across class lines.

And so it becomes something that Black people across the board can talk about, and specifically those that are in positions like mine who have elite platforms. And so the extent to which working class Black Americans are often absent from these sorts of conversations about racism leads to issues of labor to not be as prominent, even though historically they’ve very much been a prominent part of civil rights activism. 

The cliche is that the South is the toughest place in the country to unionize. But I think what that also means is that successfully unionizing in the South offers a model for successful unionization in other parts of the country. One thing that I think people aren’t accustomed to thinking about with regards to the South is to see it not as kind of a backwards part of the country, but as kind of the leading edge of things that shaped the entire country. How else would you describe the precarious low wage, economy spread across the country, especially the Midwest and West, [or] the assault on voting rights that spread throughout the country—how else do you describe those if not as exports of Southern reaction? There’s a very recognizable lineage there. There’s a Southernization of the Republican Party and the business class. There are actual efforts to export this model to other states. 

You can look at the trajectory of American labor over the last 40 years as part of the spread of the Southern model to much of the country. And so that’s a very negative way in which the South has been kind of the leading edge of political and economic developments in this country, but you can also see the positive ways in which that can be true, right? What we’ve seen in Georgia, what we’ve seen in Florida and in Virginia and North Carolina, these are potentially models. 

I think we should look at what’s happening at Amazon in much the same terms, that if this unionization drive is successful, then there’s something there for the rest of the country. And there’s something there just in terms of how we think about civil rights and race and labor. I think it should put great emphasis on the fact that the struggle for civil rights is a struggle for labor rights, and that racial exploitation and labor exploitation are tied together.

Paul Blest: It’s very obvious that the Democratic Party needs labor to win, [but] in a place like Virginia, it seems like the Democrats haven’t gotten to that point where they’re willing to eliminate the right to work law and expand labor rights in that state. Do you see that changing?

Jamelle Bouie: I mean, this gets to why it is important for there to be a strong labor movement, right? The Virginia Democratic Party’s recent dominance owes itself, basically, to the state Republican Party losing its mind and Virginia Democrats putting forth moderate, pro-business candidates that basically soaked up a lot of the center-right Virginia suburbanites that felt abandoned by the rightward turn of the Republican Party. There are certainly ideological liberals in the Virginia Democratic Party, there is some labor organizing, but there’s nothing really to exercise a countervailing force on something like the energy industry.

The challenge is, how do you turn the state’s workers into a kind of organized political bloc that pressures lawmakers? I don’t really have any answer to that. But I think that looking at the Democratic Party nationwide there is, among the many intra-Democratic Party left conversations that have gone on for the last four years, one is, what are the consequences of the Democratic Party becoming a coalition that includes a whole lot of affluent suburbanites, a whole lot of college-educated people?

One thought was that this would turn the Democratic Party to the right on economic policy, and I don’t think that’s been the case. The nationalization of politics means that people kind of just pick up their ideology almost regardless of where they stand, but it does push labor further from the view of Democratic Party leaders. It does push issues of labor down the line of priority. It doesn’t make them as immediately salient because all these suburbanites don’t really think about it. And part of the importance of doing everything you can to strengthen the labor movement is to make sure there’s a large enough labor movement that can act as a countervailing force and impress upon politicians nationally that you can’t really ignore this. This is why there are folks who kind of look askance at media unions as sort of silly, like, what does some journalist at a computer need with a union? But I actually think the low key important thing about them is that they spread the value of unions through the college-educated professional class. I think that’s important.

Paul Blest: For so long it seemed like the mainstream narrative about unions was always about teacher’s unions and public transit unions, and that seems like a counterweight to all this negative coverage that we’ve been hearing for decades about unions from the mainstream media.

Jamelle Bouie: Right. And the problem with the Democratic Party and unions is that national Democrats, for a long time, have thought of unions as being something nice to have, but not really an integral part of a well-ordered society. You know, they had their place in the industrial age but they no longer have their place. I think this was the attitude of Bill Clinton, certainly this was the attitude of Barack Obama. And I think what’s changing is a greater appreciation for how unions basically undergird any attempt to build out a welfare state, in terms of acting as a counterbalance to corporate power. And I think that realization is growing among people interested in politics, and that may end up influencing, as you said, how unionization drives are covered and how public sector unions are covered, and can have some beneficial effects. 

[And you] can’t talk about this without mentioning that President Biden pretty much encouraged workers in the country to unionize and gave a good word to the effort at Amazon, which I think is important in the same way.

Paul Blest: Biden’s endorsement of the Amazon effort drew some criticism from the left and I could sort of see, you know, where that was coming from in terms of the fact that it wasn’t an explicit full-throated endorsement of the unions, which I think is what a lot of people wanted him to say. Do you think the statement’s reception says more about Biden in terms of his labor roots and listening to progressives and the left, or is the bar just on the floor for us to find a legitimate step forward?

Jamelle Bouie: I say it’s a little bit of both. The bar is all the way on the floor, no question. But even if that weren’t the case, it would still be unusual for a president. The part that I’m focused on is less sort of Biden’s words for unions, but his admonition to employers not to interfere. I mean, that is something you’ve never really heard before from a president and it’s really significant. I wrote a column on this and I spoke to a number of labor historians who all said that they expect those words to be used in organizing campaigns and to be used against employers. I don’t think that Biden is some sort of like secret progressive or anything.

I think he is a centrist Democrat with moderate and centrist instincts. But what is a little bit unique is that he’s old and his touchstones for Democratic politics aren’t the neoliberal turn of the eighties. Even though he didn’t resist it, he also comes out of a different tradition of Democratic politics—just an older one. It is what the New Deal coalition was—not necessarily ideological but very much brokerage, interest group-based.

And so when you take that. plus the kind of changing currents within the world of progressive and liberal policy, plus the lessons of the Obama years, I think you ended up in a place not where Biden is some kind of progressive necessarily, but where his calculations are a little different. I also wouldn’t dismiss the extent to which Trump shaped and changed calculations as well. 

I mean, right now, you know, as we’re talking, the Senate is voting on amendments to the COVID relief bill. And for as much as I think some of those amendments are very bad, it’s also just worth saying that it looks like the Democrats and Biden are about to move out of Congress a bill more than twice the size of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. And I’m not sure that happens without last year’s CARES Act, and I’m not sure that happens without the previous president’s outright disregard, at least rhetorically, for austerity rhetoric. I think that opened up space that the Biden White House wants to claim for itself. I think what the Biden White House is trying to do right now is recognize that Trump’s would-be imitators are unwilling to really take that seriously, right? Josh Hawley doesn’t support a $15 [minimum] wage or any kind of meaningful expansion of the welfare state, but you can take advantage of the rhetorical space to actually do some stuff. 

And I think that that’s what the relief bill is. It’s an attempt to claim that space for Biden. And that to me doesn’t reflect any kind of secret progressiveness, but does reflect a transactional brokerage politician doing what they know how to do. And there’s something to be said for that.