Friday, September 01, 2006

The wrong kind of 'tradition'

Normally, a devastating profile of a politician's background like Max Blumenthal's incisive piece in The Nation regarding Republican Sen. George Allen and his history of flirtation with extremist neo-Confederates would be a windfall for an opponent in an election year. In the case of Allen, whose latent racism has already risen to the fore in the form of his "macaca" remarks, it's the kind of story that keeps an already damaging issue for Allen in play.

Indeed, left-wing bloggers have been all over it; Kos has a detailed post up, and everyone from Atrios to Steve Gilliard chiming in.

So where, exactly, is the Jim Webb campaign?

There's no mention of either the story or its contents at the Webb campaign home page. So far, it hasn't even rated a mention at the campaign's blog.

It's not as though the information we now have about Allen isn't damning enough. As Blumenthal makes plain, Allen's connections to the Council of Conservative Citizens -- a neo-Confederate white supremacist organization (about whom I've written often, including this relatively germane post) are both long-term and substantive.

And as Blumenthal details, Allen's involvement in the CofCC has also played out in his policy, particularly as a governor:
But George Allen's relationship with the CCC is different; it went beyond poses and portraits. In 1995, he appointed a CCC sympathizer, Virginia lawyer R. Jackson Garnett, to head the Virginia Council on Day Care and serve on the Governor's Advisory Council on Self-Determination and Federalism. According to the CCC's Citizens Informer, Garnett delivered a speech before a CCC gathering saying that the Federalism Commission was "created to study abuses by the Federal government of constitutional powers that rightfully belong to the states."

Later that year, Garnett closed the Virginia Council on Day Care after accusing it, as he wrote in a letter to Governor Allen, of attempting to "form the minds of our young children with a radical ideology before they enter public schools." The Virginia Council had aroused Garnett's ire, according to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, for preparing an "anti-bias" curriculum for day care teachers. Allen approved the shut-down.

Allen's Advisory Council on Self-Determination and Federalism bore an eerie resemblance to the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Government, a state agency that engaged in lobbying and propaganda in support of "massive resistance" to integration. One typical pamphlet published by the Commission declared, "We do not propose to defend racial discrimination. We do defend, with all the power at our command, the citizen's right to discriminate."

A year after the trashing of the Virginia Council on Day Care, Allen expressed his fervent belief in states' rights in a letter to the largest neo-Confederate group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans. On the occasion of the group's centennial, in 1996, Allen wrote, "Your efforts are especially worthy of recognition as across our country, Americans are charting a new direction--away from the failed approach of centralized power in Washington, and back to the founders' design of a true federal system of shared powers and dual sovereignty." Then Allen appropriated Lincoln's language in the Gettysburg Address about "a new birth of freedom": "By doing so," wrote Allen, "our country is helping to foster a rebirth of freedom for all Americans and will allow the states to chart their own course and control their own destinies as intended by the Constitution."

It's probably worth noting that the SCV hasn't always been a neo-Confederate organization, at least not in the sense that it is an extremist group which agitates for modern secession and a new Confederacy. Since 1996, however, that has been changing, as the Southern Poverty Law Center explored in some depth last year. For years the SCV was dominated by sincere non-racists whose chief interests lay in extolling the virtues of their heritage, such as they were. But in the past decade, neo-Confederates and other extremists have taken over most of its reins incrementally, so that today it can decidedly be described as neo-Confederate:
In what may be the clearest sign yet of this extremist drift, an analysis by the Intelligence Report finds that a significant number of SCV officials — including at least 10 men who hold key national leadership positions — are also active or recent members of hate groups, principally two neo-Confederate groups, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) and the League of the South.

It's especially worth noting that, as Blumenthal describes, Allen's involvement in the SCV fell clearly on the extremist side of the aisle; the speech he gave explicitly encouraged, with political rhetoric swapped straight out of their playbook, the neo-Confederate ascension.

The SCV has been a classic good-ole-boys organization for years, but since the Civil Rights era, it has been studiously non-racist. It has been dominated since the '80s by Reagan Democrats and cultural conservatives. The rift within it is reflective of a rift within this culture generally: between racist extremists and the decent, sensible conservatives who want nothing to do with them.

So why isn't the Webb campaign doing anything to point out George Allen's support for, and considerable involvement with, the extremist faction?

One has to suspect that it has something to do with the Webb campaign's oft-noted pursuit of the "traditional Democrat" vote in Virginia. As I've noted before, this kind of strategy is fraught with all kinds of serious pitfalls, not the least of which is that the Democratic Party, historically speaking, was for much of its existence the home of white supremacists and overt racists.

The Webb campaign's disturbing proclivity for playing footsy with this element of the Southern voting public surfaced in the primary season, when it ran a cartoon vilifying Webb's opponent in a particularly disturbing fashion: as a conniving, hook-nosed Jew sneakily conspiring to take away Virginians' jobs. And why, exactly, was Webb depicted as a fist-swingin' guy who just happened to be wearing a brown shirt, black pants and combat boots? The last time I saw this kind of imagery, it was in an Aryan Nations flyer.

Of course, there was nothing explicitly anti-Semitic about the flyer. But you'd have to be immensely thick not to see what kind of appeal was being made here, especially in a cartoon where stereotypes are the rule anyway. Why use these stereotypes if that's not the kind of appeal you're making?

This aspect of the Webb campaign is largely the continuing influence of a consultant named David "Mudcat" Saunders who has become a Beltway darling with his open embrace of the NASCAR element as a voting bloc. Saunders defends the Miller cartoon in this interview by charging that it was Miller who "injected the race card" into the campaign. Sounds like a classic Republican tactic: Indulge in racist policies and behavior, then accuse those who call them on it of "playing the race card."

Thomas Schaller in American Prospect took a hard look at Saunders earlier this year, and made some important points:
What’s neither amusing nor ironic, but rather sad, is the state of political advice when it comes to the Democrats’ problems in the South. Saunders’ consultancy career, after all, depends on solving the following riddle: How is it that working-class whites -- especially those in the rural parts of the South who sit side by side with similarly situated working-class southern blacks at high school sporting events on Friday nights, shop at the same businesses on Saturday afternoon, attend similar (if different denominational) Christian churches on Sunday morning, and send their kids to the same public schools the following Monday -- troop to the ballot box on the first Tuesday every other November vote and pull the lever for the Republicans while their black neighbors are voting overwhelmingly Democratic? The answer is complex but, of course, is rooted in race.

When I asked Saunders if he could think of any other two sets of Americans who are otherwise so similarly situated yet vote so differently, he had no answer. Probed for a solution to this stultifying racial bifurcation, he mumbled something about how every white southern guy has at least "one black friend." The soporific Trippi -- himself freshly demoted by former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, whose U.S. Senate campaign in Maryland had been listing badly in 2005 before Trippi was replaced by a new team -- had little to add. Apparently, this is what now passes for serious analysis about southern politics from high-priced political consultants, which is why I flew home feeling a strange sympathy for the man who heckled me, even if he was screaming at the wrong panelist.

I'm not as pessimistic as Schaller about the prospects of making headway in the South, but he hits on an important point: Democrats cannot hope to make gains with racist voters without irrevocably compromising their core principles, particularly their dedication to civil rights and racial justice. As I explained back when Howard Dean stubbed his toe on this problem:
The death of rural America -- a brutal, slow, painful death by suffocation, as corporate agribusiness displaces the family farm -- should be a major issue for Democrats. The Jeffersonian ideal, recall, was an America built as a nation of "citizen farmers." It may be something of a myth, but it is one that is deeply imbedded in our national psyche, and it is not one we can just hastily dispose of like some overripe cantaloupe.

Republicans have made great headway in these states by pretending to be on their side -- mostly by wrapping themselves in red-white-and-blue rhetoric, and especially by waving the bloody shirt of hating the gummint, who by the GOP's lights has been solely responsible for the entirety of rural dwellers' miseries (this was how they managed to fleece them with the misbegotten Freedom To Farm Act of 1996, which should have been more accurately named the Giant Hogtrough For Corporate Agribusiness). Indeed, it's clear this is one of the chief purposes of the proliferation of anti-government tropes by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his conservative cohorts: to separate working-class people from the very political presence most capable of actually protecting their long-term interests from the Enronesque predators of unfettered corporatism -- namely, the gummint.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have treated these issues as empty afterthoughts at best (Al Gore actually had a reasonably intelligent agriculture program, but you'd never have known about it from either the "invented the Internet" Washington press corps or from Al Gore himself). They have essentially ceded the field to the GOP, and are now paying the price.

Dean at least is trying to confront the problem. Health care and education are natural starting points, though there are many more areas of common ground that in the long term may be even more important. Still, it's a smart gesture.

But Dean makes an error in staking out this argument, an unsurprising one, I suppose, for the son of a stockbroker: He presumes that rural America is monolithic. But in truth, like most American subcultures, it has its own internal divisions. And if you had to explain it in a simple sound bite like Dean's, that division nowadays is between the folks who have Confederate flag stickers in their back windows and those who don't.

The latter -- the decent, civility-minded, neighborly people of common sense and good will who make up the vast majority of rural America -- are the Democratic party's natural rural base, the people who have most felt abandoned by the party's urban focus in the past 20 years. They are the people that Dean, or whoever carries the party's banner, needs to bring back into the fold.

The former -- the neo-Confederates and Patriots, the right-wing extremists and the unregenerate racists and segregationists, all of whom are the people most likely to put a Dixie sticker in the back window -- are the people who once upon a time made the Democratic Party the acknowledged home of the nation's unreconstructed racists. They are the people who fled the party in the 1960s for the welcoming arms of the Nixonite Republican Party.

Dean should not be courting this faction of rural America. Even if he provides them with a brilliant plan to ensure health care for all of them, they will reject it and him in the end anyway, because their hatred of "gummint" ultimately knows no bounds.

As I noted later, Dean in fact did back away from this kind of mistake, and his subsequent "50 state strategy" has, in my estimation, made some real inroads in rural America (certainly it has made a huge difference in revitalizing the Democratic Party in those reaches).

I simply don't believe that progressives will win rural districts by selling out their core values. I believe a lot of it has to do with framing those values in a way that rural people can identify with.

Saunders' strategy, it seems to me, moves us toward a lot of winking and nudging and fudging those core values, a sort of Southern Strategy in reverse. All it's likely to do is make the Democratic Party into the GOP Lite.

I hope Jim Webb can unseat George Allen. But I hope that his success doesn't cost the Democratic Party its soul.

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