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Waving the Flag | The Nation

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Waving the Flag

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All right, so maybe Howard Dean could have thought of a better way of reaching out to white Southern men than saying he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." Maybe he could have worked in a less fraught masculine symbol, and a less emblematic vehicle, too--a gun rack on his Nissan? No, we don't want to alienate the Million Moms and the UAW...make that a Budweiser in his Thunderbird. Oh wait, that's illegal. Maybe Dean should just have made a commercial: a good-looking, crinkly-eyed white guy in a T-shirt and jeans, with just a few manly smudges, fishing with his little towheaded son while Grandpa plays a harmonica and Tommy Lee Jones intones: "Send a man to Washington: Send... Howard Dean." No wait, not Washington, they hate the federal government down there. I give up!

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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People say they want politicians to get real, but just let one try to say something not totally blow-dried and focus-grouped, and everyone piles on--especially if, like Dean, he's the front-runner. Thus, white Southern politicians like John Edwards and Zell Miller attacked Dean for stereotyping white Southerners as racists when we all know nobody flies the Confederate flag anymore, or if they do it's merely a symbol of "heritage," while Al Sharpton accused him of failing to understand that people who flaunt the flag are, in fact, racists. "It is simply unconscionable for Howard Dean to embrace the most racially divisive symbol in America," John Kerry mock-thundered. "I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA." Dick Gephardt chimed in that he wanted to be the candidate for guys with American flags on their pickup trucks. Isn't that special? It's a safe bet that none of these men believe Dean is a racist, was making a covert racist appeal or was about to hoist the Confederate flag over downtown Burlington. Obviously, Dean meant that he wanted to win over working-class Southern whites who vote Republican against their own economic interests for misguided racial reasons. William Saletan pointed out in Slate that Dean has been using the Confederate flag image to applause from whites and blacks alike for months. As he put it to the Democratic National Committee in February:

I intend to talk about race during this election in the South. The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us. And I'm going to bring us together. Because you know what? White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us and not them because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too.

What's wrong with that? Diane McWhorter, the Alabama native whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Carry Me Home is the indispensable chronicle of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, thinks Dean may have "a tin ear for the South." (We'll leave for another time the question of why there is no such thing as a tin ear for the North.) My cousin Phoebe Pollitt, who teaches school in Boone, North Carolina, thinks Dean made another cultural slip by apologizing: "Most Southern white men in pickup trucks like plain-talking folks, even if they disagree, but then to back down or pander when there is criticism is a sign of weakness, 'un-real manliness,' so to speak. If he wants to court the Southern redneck vote he shouldn't have apologized but gone further talking about how the Republicans use the race card to keep people distracted from the class issues." Says Phoebe's sister Susy, a legal aid lawyer in Raleigh, "There is certainly a Southern white vote for Dean to get here. Edwards won more than 50 percent of the vote for Senate--but it is probably not the vote of men with Confederate flags on their cars." Joe Trippi, would you please hire my cousins right away?

Tin ear or no, you've got to start somewhere--and isn't it honorable and even brave of Dean to confront race and class head-on in these pussyfooting times? Here is Dean, mocked by the media as a one-note antiwarrior, champion of Vermont boutique cheesemakers and Internet insomniacs, actually trying, maybe a little clumsily, to do what pundits always tell the Dems to do--put down that brie, pick up a hunting rifle and talk to the white working class about jobs, schools, healthcare.

Will it work in the South? That class can, and should, and someday soon will, trump race has always been the dream of the "economic left." I have to say I'm skeptical--Nixon's race-based Southern strategy has been moving Southern whites vote by vote into the Republican corner for more than thirty years. In 2000, Bush got 69 percent of the Southern white male vote (and 62 percent of the Southern white female vote, not that anyone cares)--that's a lot for any candidate to turn around. Forget the South, one colleague advises. To win there Democrats would have to move so far right they'd lose in other states. On the other hand, job losses and casualties in Iraq have hit the South hard. "Ignoring the South is crazy," says Chris Kromm of the Institute for Southern Studies. He points out that North and South Carolina alone have lost 180,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001. "These people--e.g. textile workers--aren't just having tough times. They're losing their homes. They're out on the street." Why cede these votes to Ralph Reed, who will be directing Bush's Southern operations in 2004?

Mostly, I suspect, the Confederate flag flap will serve as a plot point for the media's cartoonish attack on Dean should he win the nomination. As Gore was typed as boring and deceptive, Dean will be portrayed as arrogant and hasty. Bush's verbal atrocities will be downplayed; Dean's "insensitive" remarks will make headlines. The South will be America; New England will be France; New York City will be hell. Nobody will acknowledge this--what, you think there's a conspiracy? You think we all meet together in a room and decide?--until someone does a study of campaign coverage two years after Bush is re-elected and proves it.

Unless, of course, people see through the manufactured controversies and wild exaggerations and fake outrage and vote with their heads.

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