The Electoral College’s Monday vote to formally make Joe Biden the 46th president caps a weeks-long process of the former vice president having his victory affirmed again and again. But a Biden win, even in the primaries, didn’t always seem like a sure thing.
After Biden came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, his hopes rested on South Carolina. And key to his victory there—and to his ultimately successful candidacy—was an endorsement from Jim Clyburn. The 14-term congressman is a veteran of the civil-rights movement and will be a crucial player for the new White House as the House majority whip.
Representative Clyburn spoke with Atlantic staff writer Edward-Isaac Dovere as part of an AtlanticLIVE event on December 17. What does Clyburn want to see from his party—and the president-elect—in 2021? How will Democrats bridge the divide between progressives advocating for change and Biden preaching a “return to normalcy”? And with Clyburn chairing the new president’s inaugural committee, what does he expect from a very unusual transfer of power?
You can listen to their conversation below as an episode of the podcast The Ticket: Politics from The Atlantic.
A selection of their conversation is presented below, edited for clarity:
Edward-Isaac Dovere: President-elect Biden said he would have the most diverse cabinet in American history. Is he fulfilling his promise?
James Clyburn: I think so. It seems that way to me. I’ve looked at the overall diversity of all of his nominees. I think it’s shaping up very, very well. I would always caution, however, that diversity to me goes beyond skin color. It gets into backgrounds and experiences. And I think that’s what’s so important here. It also gets into what our party stands for. If we were to limit this concern to skin color, then I would be satisfied with Clarence Thomas replacing Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. I am far from satisfied with that.
Dovere: There’s a lot of ideological diversity in the Democratic conference at this point. There have been a lot of questions of whether Joe Biden’s cabinet is progressive enough. People like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised questions about that. What would you say to that?
Clyburn: There is nobody in the Democratic Party that is more concerned about police behavior than I am. Nobody. I’ve got a 25-year-old grandson that I worry about every time he gets into his automobile. I’ve had the experience of growing up in the South, where I have lived under that kind of oppression and suppression. Nobody is ever more concerned about affordable housing, and I have a record here in this Congress to prove it. I’m a flaming progressive on all of those issues, but I’m also concerned about allowing my opponents to weaponize my words and phrases. That’s why I have spoken out strongly against us using catchphrases that can undercut the movement.
That’s what happened to us back in the 1960s. I organized the very first sit-in in South Carolina. John Lewis was first physically beaten in South Carolina. And I know what happened to our movement when "Burn, baby, burn" became the clarion call. And they kicked John Lewis out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee because he refused to adopt that sloganeering.
And that’s all those of us who are progressive. It’s kind of interesting to hear what people say about John Lewis today. We have lionized him. And he is deserving of every bit of it, and even more. But within a year after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which he nearly gave his life for, they kicked him out of SNCC. So that’s all I’m talking about here. And so I don’t see why people cannot understand that.
Dovere: One of the lessons from the early Obama years that many people took was: You’ve got to move quickly. If you wait around, then it’s too late. So what do you do? We haven’t had any of the systemic reimagining of education or the economy—all the things that people are talking about at the beginning of this pandemic. What is the first thing, beyond the basics of COVID-19 relief and recovery? Where would you have the Biden administration start?
Clyburn: COVID-19 is first and foremost in everything we ought to be doing. After that, our very first order of business has to be, in my opinion, a broad, very well-funded infrastructure program. Because if we get beyond this pandemic, what we are going to find is that our health-care system [and our educational systems are] in dire need of repair.
You are not going to [have] what’s necessary for health care if you don’t have telehealth and telemedicine, [or] for education, if you don’t have online learning. You’re not going to be able to stay in good health without water and sewage. You’re not going to be able to have safety in our communities without good roads and bridges. So that must be a broad infrastructure program—much like that which came about after the Great Depression and we called the New Deal.
Now, that’s No. 1. The second thing, which I think can be going on simultaneously, is to build back our law-enforcement system. It is broken. I know it’s broken. Everybody knows that it’s broken. [Joe Biden] knows that it’s broken. We’ve got to fix it.