Jefferson Cowie: Howard Dean Was Right to Try to Get Back the Southern White Vote

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jefferson Cowie, a history professor at Cornell University, writing in the American Prospect (Nov. 7, 2003):

When a white, patrician guy from a very white state starts talking about Confederate flags, he really ought to be careful. Howard Dean's clumsy recent statement that he wants to court "white folks in the South who drive trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back" is a good example of why. But though he fumbled the rhetoric, burned himself politically and failed to develop his idea in any sophisticated way, the sentiment behind Dean's statement is exactly what the Democratic Party needs.

At some point during his political education, Dean -- or, more likely, someone on his campaign staff -- learned some very valuable, if oversimplified, history. "The Republicans have been talking about [race] since 1968 in order to divide us, and I'm going to bring us together," Dean has said. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he was well aware that he was pushing white southerners out of the Democratic Party for at least a generation. Then, in 1968, Republican strategist Kevin Phillips conceived his party's southern strategy -- combining its traditional base with segregationist Democrats to form a national majority -- and inaugurated 35 years of GOP dominance that continues to this day. By littering their politics with thinly veiled racial rhetoric ("silent majority," "law and order," "welfare queens," "Willie Horton" and the rest) Republicans have done an outstanding job of driving -- and keeping -- much of the white working-class out of the Democratic Party.

Before the Civil Rights Act, however, the white, southern working class was primarily Democratic, not simply because of segregation but also because of the party's progressive economic policies. Poor, southern whites, as Thomas and Mary Edsall wrote in their 1992 book, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, were "among the nation's most liberal constituencies on non-racial economic issues, supportive of government intervention on behalf of full employment, improved education, and low-cost medical care." White, working southerners were, in fact, outflanked on the left by only the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party -- Jews and blacks.

Those days, of course, are long gone....

... [But a] frank confrontation with the recent political history of race and class might just deliver Dean's mythic truck driver, along with the whole of American politics, to a more sincere discussion about equality.

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