“Look away, look away …”
These are the grafs that started a weekend of posturing … buried in the middle of a Des Moines Register story (no longer even online as itself, best I can tell, in October 2007; here is AP story from later) about the gun issue.
“Dean has said 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore lost the election because he failed to win Southern states, where disaffected Democrats who favor gun owners’ rights were reluctant to support him.
” ‘I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,’ Dean said Friday in a telephone interview from New Hampshire. ‘We can’t beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats’.”
From the reaction to this quote, you’d think Howard Dean had called for the return of slavery or at least the repeal of the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action program. These are the reaction comments from the other candidates Saturday:
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri: This is a blatant move to win the votes of people “who disagree with us on bedrock Democratic values like civil rights” and “I don’t want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. I will win the Democratic nomination because I will be the candidate for guys with American flags in their pickup trucks.”
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts: Dean’s “pandering” to the National Rifle Association gave him an inroad to “pander to lovers of the Confederate flag” and “I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York: he was “surprised and disturbed” by the remark. “If I said I wanted to be the candidate for people that ride around with helmets and swastikas, I would be asked to leave.”
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards: “Some of the greatest civil rights leaders, white and black, have come from the South. To assume that southerners who drive trucks would embrace this symbol is offensive.”
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas: “Every Democratic candidate for president needs to condemn the divisiveness the Confederate flag represents.”
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s campaign director: “Governor Dean ought to be more careful about what he says. It is irresponsible and reckless to loosely talk about one of the most divisive, hurtful symbols in American history.” Lieberman himself said Sunday while campaigning in South Carolina: “The way he said it was just plain wrong, divisive, hurtful. I’m troubled that he didn’t just admit he made a mistake in his follow-up statement.”
Leaving aside the even-more-incoherent-than-usual Sharpton, the two comments that were absolutely the weakest were those by Clark and Gephardt. Contra the general, Dean said nothing about the Confederate flag’s divisiveness (rather it was, at a bare minimum “I want those people’s votes,” the thing one would think politicians seek). And Gephardt is just being a snob (more anon). The rest is just silly. It’s like these Democrats are hearing the words “Confederate flag” and slobbering on cue like Pavlov’s dogs.
Dean didn’t back off in a statement Saturday, when everybody was piling on, but added context, and the point he was making is exactly what I took him to have been saying all along:
“I want people with Confederate flags on their trucks to put down those flags and vote Democratic – because the need for quality health care, jobs and a good education knows no racial boundaries. We have working white families in the south voting for tax cuts for the richest 1 percent while their children remain with no health care. The dividing of working people by race has been a cornerstone of Republican politics for the last three decades – starting with Richard Nixon. … The only way we’re going to beat George Bush is if southern white working families and African-American working families come together under the Democratic tent, as they did under FDR.”
How is what Dean is saying anything different from the standard Democratic narrative and critique of the Republican “Southern strategy” — meaning the GOP use of race and cultural issues such as prayer, busing and gun rights to wean Southern whites away from their historic allegiance to the Democrats? The liberal, and even radical, pedigree of the idea is impeccable. It’s what Lyndon Johnson meant by saying that by signing the civil rights acts he had handed the South to the GOP for decades. It’s what Marxists mean when they say that racial division is a ruling class tool designed to divert people’s attention away from their class interests. The only apparent difference is that Dean thinks that he can *do something* about that loss of voters — again, one would think most politicians would desire the votes of as many people as possible, rather than write off a priori a large segment of the populace out of moral condescension. And that is what makes the other candidates’ reactions so interesting to me.
It’s one thing to say displaying the Confederate flag is racist or offensive and we (Democrats) oppose that. It’s another thing altogether to say, “we don’t want the votes of people who display it, *even when* based on appeals to and common ground on other issues.” And that’s unmistakably what the other candidates’ knee-jerkings are. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Dean is right that Democrats can win the votes of the Southern white working class on the basis of economic populism (I think he’s wrong). But to say that no such effort should be made, or that such an effort to woo those voters is offensive or racist in itself is crazy. Nuts. Self-destructive. Politics as exclusionary snobbery. Politics as running against a certain segment of the populace constructed as demon Other (which in a certain sense is inevitable, but it’s hard in a stable democracy to win when running against one-third of the country). Dean was making the sensible point that Democrats seeking the White House can’t afford to write off the Southern states … heck, if Al Gore could have won his Southern home state (or his boss Bill Clinton’s for that matter), we’d all have been spared the Long Election of 2000 because Florida’s electoral votes wouldn’t have affected the outcome.
I carry no brief for Confederate nostalgia, which for some people (though not all) is clearly just sublimated racism or an excuse for prettifying or intellectualizing a prejudice. Still, though it probably ranks about 165th in my political priorities, I don’t care for PC attempts to erase honors, memorials and namings of All Things Confederate from the public sphere. And as a Republican, I have to admit that I probably want Dean to win the Democratic nomination because I think Bush-Dean would be a rerun of Nixon-McGovern and Reagan-Mondale (actually in that sense, the Democrat I’d *most* like to win would be Al Sharpton, but I realize that’s not in the cards). All that said though, I’d really hate for the front-runner for one of the two major parties to suffer badly and have his chances for the nomination hurt over this. It’s discouraging that the other candidates (one of whom I guarantee is gonna say during one of the debates before a black audience “Dean praised the Confederate flag”) are so eager to pander, and have constituencies so used to being pandered to, that they can say things so manifestly stupid merely on the basis of a knee-jerk, “stop all rational thought” association with three words “the Confederate flag.”