Thursday, March 13, 2003

Of pickups and Dixie flags

Probably my favorite candidate so far among the Democrats is Howard Dean, because he appears to be the only member of the field with both the spine to say what needs saying and the tools for running the country. I've particularly admired both his outspokenness and the content of the things he's said.

Lately, however, he has been saying things that have made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Not because I disagree with his basic thinking, but because he expressed it in a way that makes me think he doesn't know what he's talking about. And the mistake he's making is one with potentially disastrous consequences.

At a series of campaign appearances -- including one before the Democratic National Committee, as well as one in South Carolina -- Dean has talked about the need for Democrats to attract votes from "white guys who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back":
"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 [Republicans]," he said, "because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too!"

His core point is not only worth making, I happen to consider it an absolutely essential ingredient for the long-term success of any Democratic candidate: Namely, that the party needs to return to its agrarian roots, re-establish the needs of American family farmers as a priority, and draw back into the party those working-class rural dwellers whose interests are most naturally served by a progressive agenda.

One of the reason that Democrats have succumbed to Republicans in rural states -- where they enjoyed broad support for much of the better part of the 20th century -- is that the party has become increasingly urban-centric. Much of this is the natural outgrowth of relying heavily on raw numbers for political calculation; there is a much larger voting bloc in the cities than in the country, and it's much more easily reached. Thus the Democrats have in recent years focused much of their agenda on attracting urban and suburban votes. They have done so at the cost of their own soul, I believe.

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.

I e-mailed Dean's campaign shortly after Al Gore's retirement from the 2004 race, asking for details about Dean's positions on agricultural issues. I made it clear I was leaning his direction but wanted to know more on what for me is a defining issue. I never heard back, of course; I assume e-mails are treated by Dean's campaign staff with the same dismissiveness they get from D.C. regulars, and a query from Seattle probably is low on the priority list. Still, I haven't seen anything on his Web site indicating an awareness of agricultural issues, let alone a serious approach to them. It seems that so far Dean is content to stick with snappy sound bites, so I can't say I'm very impressed.

I'm hoping for better. A good place to start would be to recognize that Dean needs to court the white guys with pickups who don't put racist symbols in the windows.

No comments: