I thought of entitling this piece "An Open Letter to Howard Dean," but that seemed awkward, because I don't know the man and have little enough reason to want to know him. I mean, he's a northern Democrat. That necessarily means that he believes in whopping great list of absurdities, most of which will involve creative use of state coercion to better our lives, whether we want these favors or not. It would be tedious to have to discuss those, in pretended dialogue with him, now or ever.
So I gave that title the go-by.
Proceeding dialectically, I take up Howard Dean's cartoonish notions about the South. He has famously said — just lately, but also back in February — that he wants to broaden his party's appeal so as to take in even those fellows who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flags on them. All Hades broke loose, of course, and Dean has been trying to weasel out of the whole thing ever since, but without looking especially weak.
Looking stupid, on the other hand, is apparently acceptable, when a man wants to be ruler of the world and live in the Casa Alba in Worldville-on-Potomac. There is a lot at stake. The various media got all knotted up, and sharp fellows struck dramatic postures about how offensive and appalling Dean's comments are supposed to have been.
Less-than-reconstructed Southerners have learned to expect this sort of thing. The sun still rises of a morning. Often enough, we just don't care what our northern brethren think, at least not in the way in which we are supposed to care.
But returning to Dean: Doing his best to seem defiant of his critics while wriggling loose of the truck-and-flag controversy, he managed to say, "I make no apologies for reaching out to poor white people."
Oh, the sheer finesse…
I've known many people of the pickup truck persuasion1— and, yes, some of them had that flag — and I just don't think that very many of them would cotton to being called "poor whites." All these terms are a bit loaded, historically, you see, and not just the ones about which we hear so much these days.
But, no, with predictable tin ear syndrome, Dean tries to appeal to his imagined bloc of potential Southern white male voters by telling them how feckless, hopeless, and in need of federal uplift they are. No wonder most of these guys vote for the Republicans, however shortsightedly; the Republicans don't insult them in quite the same ways.
It's like the joke about the guy in the doctor's waiting room. Receptionist: "Are you comfortable?" Patient, somewhat heatedly: "I make a living."
Maybe the fellow in the joke is suffering from "false consciousness," maybe a team of sociologists armed with statistical indicators would pronounce him objectively "poor."
Yes, and maybe he will vote — poor or not — for people who don't call him names like that. Democrats can't imagine that anyone who is — or thinks he is making a living would vote for a Democrat for President. What does that tell us about the Democratic Party?
But, really, there is no need for northern Democrats to stir up class issues between strata of white Southerners. There are plenty of qualified, locally produced demagogues available for such purposes. It's just an embarrassment when northerners try to compete in this arena.
It's the difference between a genuine Southern or Western populist and a Yankee Progressive trying to sound like a populist. In this respect, Dean reminds one of John Anderson, who was, in the words of historian Clyde Wilson, "supported by well educated upper middle class people who thought American problems were to be solved by turning over power to such clear-minded and honorably motivated persons as themselves."2
I'm not sure Howard Dean can sell his gospel of uplift. I think it was John Randolph of Roanoke, who said that while many people see pity as connected with compassion, he knew it to be affiliated with a rather different emotion: contempt. Into the electoral gap created by Democrats, step the Republicans, who do pretty much nothing for this constituency. White Southerners vote Republican, I suppose, because next-to-nothing slightly beats the less-than-nothing offered them by the Democrats.
There are other factors, but I can't deal with them all here.
But we can't leave it at that: I want to help the Democrats out. I think the Democratic National Committee should categorically reject the votes of white Southerners. If that seems insufficient, they can demand that these unneeded and unwanted voters be stricken from the rolls. (It's been done before.) Since Democrats are fairly secure with their other voting blocs in the South, this will save them all kinds of time and money, because they won't need to campaign in the South at all.
Saves us some time, too and headaches.
So Dean, by sheer ineptitude, let himself in for an orgy of abuse from his colleagues. His defenders have been saying that he meant well, but sang his ballad of social betterment in the wrong key. Ah, yes, he could carry a tune in a bucket, but for the sad circumstance that his bucket's got a hole in it.3
Thus far there seems to be little reason for a white Southerner to vote for Howard Dean.
But now we come to the crunch. Hell has frozen over, and if you haven't noticed it, your thermometer is broken. This reopens the case.
The Bush Gang have run the pickup truck of state into the sandy ditch and are burning out the clutch in their frantic efforts to "stay the course." Worse, they are getting a lot of people killed — Americans, Iraqis, and others — for no very good reason, even by their own utilitarian standards.
At the same time, focused as they are on their maniacal foreign policy adventures, they are running the money tap full out and pursuing domestic policies of galloping corporatism and/or socialism at a rate that would make FDR, the ADA, and Leon Trotsky rather dizzy. This is doubtless the most fiscally irresponsible administration since those of Ronald Reagan and FDR.
There may yet be reason to vote for Howard Dean, if certain conditions can be met. If he, or any other Democrat, could believably promise a substantially saner foreign policy, we would be well on our way. Dreaming a bit, one would like to hear about outright repeal of the Patriot Act, along with its predecessors passed under previous administrations (i.e., no tinkering and "reform" of these laws) and withdrawal from the Middle East.
Of course these conditions are quite ideal. They ought to be met, but it is most unlikely they can or will be met. And, yes, the Democrats could do a certain amount of domestic damage in power. It is, however, hard to see how they could do more than the current administration is doing, at home and abroad, short of adoption by the Democrats of the Bush foreign policy.
- I am not being entirely neutral here; I have owned at least three pickup trucks.
- Clyde Wilson, "Up at the Forks of the Creek: In Search of American Populism," in From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition (Columbia, SC: Foundation for American Education, 2003), p. 87.
- Hank Williams, Sr., "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It."
November 13, 2003