In a single news cycle last week, the nation got a splendid lesson on why the Democratic Party has ceased to be America’s Party.
For months, Howard Dean, in his own Vermont way, has tried to connect with working-class whites who have deserted his party to make the South a bastion of Republicans like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Dean has told Democratic audiences that Southern folks who paste Confederate flag decals on their pickups should vote for us, because we will improve the health care of their families and the education of their kids. “I want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. We can’t beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats.”
Whatever one thinks of Dean’s message, it was without malice. Dean was practicing the politics of inclusion, trying to reach out to working-class white Southerners by accepting them on their own terms.
And what did he get for it? A savage caning from Al Sharpton. After which, Dean crumbled, apologized and asked for forgiveness.
It began when a young black at the Rock the Vote debate in Boston rose to declare himself “extremely offended” by Dean’s statements on the flag.
That sent Rev. Al into his patented rant. If a Southern candidate had said what you said, he roared in Dean’s face, “they’d have been run out of the race.” The Confederate flag is “America’s swastika.” Dean’s flag remark was “insensitive. … You ought to apologize for it. You are not a bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say, ‘I’m sorry.'”
Sen. John Edwards, fading Southern star of the Democratic Party, piled on, calling Dean’s remark “condescending … the last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do.”
Dean first stood up to the demagoguery. “I’m no bigot,” he roared back at Sharpton, “I make no apology for reaching out to poor whites.” But even as he was standing up, Dean was backing down, conceding that, yes, the Confederate battle flag was a “loathsome symbol.”
After a long dark night of the soul, Dean arose to confess he had been wrong to mention the flag: “Many people in the African-American community have supported what I said in the past few days because they understand what this is about. But some have not, and to those I deeply regret the pain I have caused.”
What does this episode reveal? First, it reveals the depth of rancor of fellow Democrats at Dean’s success. Behind the savagery of the attacks on Dean lies a deep-seated jealousy that Dean has come from nowhere to become the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination.
Second, it show that, for all its blather about multiculturalism, the Democrats of today are as intolerant and exclusionary as the party of the KKK. Only now it is white folks who love the Confederate flag whom it is permissible to hate and segregate — and with whom decent folks do not associate.
Third, it reveals that the new moral arbiters of the party are, if you can believe it, Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. They decide what is permissible to say and not to say, on all issues related to race. When Rev. Al called the Confederate flag “America’s swastika,” not one Democrat rose to protest.
Yet what Sharpton was saying is that anyone who cherishes or who displays the Confederate flag is a Nazi, a bigot, or just too stupid to know he is paying tribute to a banner of hate.
And whom does that include? Certainly, all members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Daughters of the Confederacy, whose ancestors fought in that war and whose memory they cherish. It also includes two-thirds of the people of Mississippi, who voted to keep the battle flag in their state flag and the millions all over the South who still paste those flag decals on cars, trucks and motorcycles.
It includes all the kids who wear replicas of the battle flag on clothes and put them on their school bags, and their parents who wave the rebel flag at NASCAR races, and all those folks who tend the graves of Confederate soldiers and memorials all over the South. And what does Rev. Al think of those re-enactors who dress up as Confederate soldiers to refight battles their great grand-fathers fought in the Lost Cause?
If the national Democrats loathe a heritage many in the South love, if they think millions of white Southerners are Nazis or bigots, if they hate the flags and symbols of the Old Confederacy that so many Southerners cherish, why should a self-respecting Southerner want to belong to a party run by people like that, people who openly despise him?