Opinion: Biden’s Thurmond eulogy shows how our politics has regressed

The casket of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., leaves the South Carolina Statehouse, Tuesday, July 1, 2003, for funeral services at the First Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C. (Photo: Bruce Flashnick / Associated Press 2003)

The casket of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., leaves the South Carolina Statehouse, Tuesday, July 1, 2003, for funeral services at the First Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C. (Photo: Bruce Flashnick / Associated Press 2003)

Long before Joe Biden became vice president, the then-lesser known U.S. senator eulogized one of his colleagues, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Biden, a northeast liberal Democrat, was asked by Thurmond’s family to speak up for the reformed segregationist.

He shared intimate and surprising details of a three-decade friendship.

Biden touched on everything he thought to be good and virtuous about Thurmond without shying away from why Thurmond was a political celebrity: his Dixiecrat bid for president, his infamous and shameful filibuster of the Civil Rights Act and his fingerprints on toxic Southern Strategy politics. The two men couldn’t have been more different. But what mattered in their friendship are the things they shared, namely a love of country and a heart for service.

And there stood Biden, giving a stemwinder about what it was like to be Strom Thurmond’s friend. It was a lesson in how our common humanity binds “we the people,” even when we don’t share the same background, age or political ideology.

That was 2003.

Today, politics doesn’t seem to work that way.

Democrats and Republicans are far more likely to see themselves as sworn enemies, instead of fellow citizens who see the world differently. Conservatives and liberals have stopped talking in Washington, D.C.

Everybody is angry. And confrontational.

What price do we pay when America bends toward tribalism, bitterly divided?

A recent poll provides a sobering glimpse at how the intractable political division that has infected our nation is eroding trust in our democracy.

Half of Americans think our nation is in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country,” according to the Democracy Project’s findings. The ad hoc group includes the George W. Bush Institute, the University of Pennsylvania’s Biden Center and Freedom House, which measures the health of democracies across the globe. The bipartisan effort affirms what many of us sense. The assaultive nature of today’s politics comes with a toll.

The pollsters found that the “degradation of our civil discourse” is a major factor that undercuts responders’ confidence in our political systems.

Consider some recent headlines.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service in a Virginia restaurant by an owner and restaurant staff who disagrees with the president. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Democratic leader of the “resist” movement, doubled down on the decision, encouraging opponents of Trump’s policies to continue to confront members of his administration, to “tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Always spoiling for a fight, President Trump continues to use his Twitter account to troll opponents and inflame his base.

The state of political discourse is striking compared to that moment in 2003, when Biden, a Northeast Catholic liberal stood in a Columbia, South Carolinia, church on a hot July day and said this about the former segregationist.

“I went to the Senate emboldened, angered, and outraged at age 29 about the treatment of African-Americans in this country, (outraged about) everything that for a period in his life Strom had represented. But then I met the man. Our differences were profound, but I came to understand that as Archibald MacLeish wrote, ‘It is not in the world of ideas that life is lived: Life is lived for better or worse in life.’ Strom and I shared a life in the Senate for over 30 years. We shared a good life there, and it made a difference. I grew to know him. I looked into his heart and I saw a man, a whole man. I tried to understand him. I learned from him. And I watched him change oh so suddenly.”

The Biden-Thurmond relationship got personal. The respect that grew from it created avenues for dialogue and debate and moments where the two worked together on common ground, finding solutions to real problems. Understanding and empathy followed. Government worked.

Today, Biden sees mutual respect and giving way to growing division in our country and within our democratic institutions. People are disillusioned, he said.

“This is a moment where democratic values are under siege around the globe,” Biden said, explaining how the poll’s findings are part of even larger concerns.

“Governments are making it harder for civil societies to function. Populist attacks are undermining confidence in democratic institutions. Leaders are bolstering their personal power by rolling back democratic principles. And the United States is not immune from these trends. We’ve seen the power of nationalism and populism to appeal to people’s fears and sow division.”

Election season is a time where politicians profit from sowing fear. We could be awash in it this November, in this pivotal political year for Georgia and our nation. Our state will elect a new governor. The balance of power in Congress will be on the line in these mid-term elections.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is committed to providing forums for civil discourse in our news pages and on our opinion pages.

I’d like to hear your thoughts about how you expect candidates to conduct themselves this election season. E-mail me. I’d like to talk.

Email Deputy Managing Editor Leroy Chapman Jr. at Leroy.Chapman@ajc.com