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Howard Dean: Jesse, Stonewall or Tito? (Jackson, that is)

The brouhaha over Howard Dean's comments about reaching out to "guys in pickup trucks with confederate flags" is one of those manufactured outrages that usually the Republicans are so good at -- like the outrage over the Wellstone funeral. It's impossible to understand just what the accusation is here. Al Sharpton's charge that Dean "sounds more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson" is no more than a transparent dig at Reverend Jackson in anticipation of his endorsement of Dean.

That said, there are two things about the statement that add slightly to my own misgivings about Dean. In trying to unpack John Edwards' very tough response to Dean, I think both of these are basically what Edwards was trying to say.

First, there is the confusion of "poor whites" with "confederate flag," combined with Dean's assumption that he can reach everyone. I talked about this at some length in my long post a few weeks ago on the difference between "saviors" and "counters," in which I made the point that, if you can't understand why some people won't vote for you, it's hard to figure out how to persuade others to vote for you. Some percentage of low-income whites might be drawn back to the Democratic Party, but the confederate flag crowd will not -- and that's fine, they're not the modern South and in the South, we can build majorities without them, mainly through huge black turnout and economically advancing areas, as Edwards did.

Another way to put it is that Democrats can choose to build majorities that do include the confederate flag crowd, and the names of those Democrats over the years are Zell Miller, Richard Shelby, and Trent Lott. In other words, that choice is a path right out of the Democratic Party. Given the specific controversy over the flag in South Carolina and Georgia recently, that's exactly the choice a lot of politicians have had to make, and Dean doesn't seem to understand that, which means he doesn't understand the South.

The funny thing is, though, that Dean is being attacked for saying something that would seem to be the very opposite of everything else in his campaign. He's the anti-Zell Miller.

I just hope that behind all the rhetoric of "reaching out to everyone" and "people-powered Howard" there is actually a very precise effort to figure out how Dean could build majorities in the key electoral states if he were the nominee. Because otherwise, that' failure to make choices is what will kill him, not his liberalism. Fortunately, it's likely to kill his candidacy well before he becomes the nominee.

Second, leaving the flag aside, and listening to what Dean says he meant, there is in his view an attitude that poor whites "ought" to be supporting Democrats, and that our task is to figure out why they're not behaving in their own interests. Sorry, but there's no "ought" in politics. People support who they support, they believe what they believe. Some recent efforts on the left to understand the downsized white Bush supporters reeks of Lenin's theory of "false consciousness." A good example is Arlie Hochschild's recent essay in Mother Jones, which has some good points but in the end falls back on Norman Mailer for the point that the Iraq war "returned to white males a lost sense of mastery" and to George Lakoff's theory of the "strict father" vs. the "nurturing mother." (Isn't this the same stuff that Naomi Wolf was peddling to Al Gore in 2000? And didn't everyone make fun of it at the time?)

Maybe the first thing for Democrats to do is ask whether we've given these voters much to have hope about. All the debate has been about how much of the tax cut to repeal, and who opposed the Iraq war most strongly and when. Have any of the candidates offered much that would give downsized workers a reason to think their jobs will come back? Has Dean? Have we given them reason to think that their parents will be more secure in retirement, that their kids will be able to attend affordable good state colleges, and come out with the skills that they need in the economy? Until we can say that we've got something more to offer, perhaps we should refrain from telling people who they "ought" to be supporting.

Or perhaps the nit-picking over language here is so subtle that Dean was just trying to make exactly these points, albeit awkwardly.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 5, 2003 | Permalink


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Regarding Dean's flag comments, and Decembrist's words on the affair:Dean's statement, however badly worded, pointed to the great unspoken in modern day democratic politics: class inequality, however complicated by regional and/or racial circumstances, not only matters, but presents an opportunity. Call me pie in the sky, but if Dean handles this the right way, he can carve out a message not unlike that of MLK, who, after all, was killed while defending sanitation workers. Read the late speeches of King. They are about economic injustice and class--this is where his thinking was going, away from racial inequalities per se and toward their structural roots. In this guise, surely he was a much more potent and to some, more dangerous kind of political leader.

Now I don't know what Dean was really thinking, but his appeal--again, however stumblebummed--to "poor white" voters seems to make perfect sense in terms of regaining ground lost to the GOP since Wallace, Goldwater, Nixon's southern strategy and Reagan. Silly psychological arguments about white male longing aside (and who knows what Lenin would have thought), where else could Dean really have been going with his comments but toward some vision of economic recovery and renewed hope for working people that the Decembrist says is necessary? Sure he should of left out the reference to the flag, but do we really think he was making some base appeal to whiteness and southern heritage? Again, the whole controversy reeks of the strange and unfortunate reticence about class, especially amongst today's liberals and Democrats. Dean's instincts--if that was what was on display--seem right to me precisely because they open this rather uncomfortable ideological seam and force us to think actively about coalition building rather than statically about existing demographics.

Flags--and not just the stars and bars--are indeed potent cultural symbols, often erasing and/or easing deeper discontents and creating common cause in one direction when they just as easily could have been created in another. If anything, Dean was making an analytical point and a tactical suggestion as regards a group of alienated voters that could, given their economic struggles, be brought into the Democratic "tent." Far from kindling notions of "false consciosness," an old nugget now thoroughly trounced even by Marxists, this was refreshing to hear--because it involves changing peoples minds, because it involves convincing such whites that they "ought" to vote along with blacks as democrats rather than as bearers of the "lost cause" of the confederacy. Dean now of course to elaborate, as well as explain what it is he will do to draw them in, as well as working people of color, the middle class, etc.

A final question: if convincing people that they ought to vote one way rather than another isn't politics (as opposed to letting people believe what they believe) beyond poll crunching what's left?

Such might follow if one built from Decembrist's coda comments; alas, it may turn out to be nothing.

Posted by: R Wells | Nov 5, 2003 11:20:37 PM

I think there is an opportunity in the South and it is a cynical ploy that the Republicans would not hesitate to use. The next Democratic nominee should come out for cutting special Federal monies and subsidies for Cuban refugees and immigrants. I know many older Floridians who rant over the special treatment given the Cubans. Most Cubans vote Republican anyway so there is nothing to lose. However, there is much to gain. People vote in secret. I live in California and I am always amazed just how powerful anti-immigrant sentiment is during campaigns. The objective here is winning. The Decembrist is correct: hard choices need to be made. This is dirty poitics but it can be dressed up as budget cutting; Cuban are thriving in Florida and have a strong support network. They don't need handouts anymore. If wellfare is limited in duration, why isn't public assistance for Cuban immigrants? That would be the line. The Democrats have forgotten that in the end, it's about winning and winning takes a backbone and bare knuckle tactics in some instances.

Posted by: mcc | Nov 6, 2003 1:27:28 AM

It is ridiculous. He has been saying this for months, and I am not sure why it has suddenly become such a big controversy.

Posted by: Laura in DC | Nov 7, 2003 11:35:31 PM

You wrote "People support who they support, they believe what they believe."

This seems to me a very silly thing to say. It's either the Panglossian view or the the defeatest view, depending on the current state of public opinion.

Posted by: Don Pedro (Economist for Dean) | Nov 8, 2003 12:41:56 PM

One thing that has been overlooked in the discussion of Dean's comments on white guys in pick-up trucks with Confederate flags is that not all members of that group are southern. The Confederate flag has come to represent an imagined identity embraced by young white men in various parts of the country. That identity is not limited by social class but by one's imagined oppression and or victimization by the current socio-cultural environment. If one feels oppressed by the liberation of women, affirmative action, lesbian and gay rights, etc., one can elect to wave the Confederate flag as a symbol one's pride and independence from progressive politics and, god forbid, liberalism. Thus, I am more than a bit skeptical about Dr. Dean and his wish to reach out to those who would wave the stars and bars. Is he really trying to appeal to those who are poor and white and southern, or is he consciously speaking out to those middle-class and conservative young white men who feel victimized, even though an objective observer might judge them to be privilged? Just a thought.


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