Published on Saturday, November 8, 2003 by the Guardian / UK
Look Away, Dixieland
US Democrats Won't Win in the South While They Keep Quiet on Race
by Sidney Blumenthal

Everything seemed to be going so well for Howard Dean, the frontrunner in America's contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. Then he made a throwaway remark that changed everything: he wanted, he said, "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks". Dean's error was to evoke the divisive Confederate symbol, hated by black Americans as standing for slavery and still upheld by many Southern conservatives as representing their "heritage". Because he was the frontrunner, other Democratic candidates seized on the opportunity to create a controversy, implying that Dean is racist.

The immediate effect was to slow his momentum.

But, as with many so-called gaffes, his comment alluded to a fundamental political truth: the Democratic and Republican parties have traded places after decades of struggle over civil rights. The solid South of the old Confederacy, which once voted uniformly for the Democrats, is now the bastion of the Republicans.

From the beginning of the Democratic party, through the civil war and the New Deal, the South was the foundation stone of the party's national strength. With the coming of the civil-rights revolution, Democratic presidents Kennedy and Johnson deployed the federal government to support social equality. In reaction, Republicans - from Goldwater to Nixon to Reagan - developed a Southern strategy to win over white voters in the region who felt betrayed. That strategy involved using widely understood code going back to the civil war - phrases like "states' rights", used to justify slavery - in an updating of the well-worn strategy of invoking race to keep poor white and black Americans divided on issues of common interest. Thus the party of Lincoln became the party of Reagan.

Dean, the former Vermont governor, raised in New York City, is the most distinctly old-line Yankee to emerge to prominence within the Democratic party in living memory. Despite his New England pedigree, George Bush is a man of the Republican South. If selected, Dean will challenge the first conservative Southern president in modern US history. The possible confrontation reflects the deeper polarisations of race, class and society that are driving the country apart.

In March, Dean described the thinking behind his controversial remark more fully: "I think the Republicans, ever since 1968, with Richard Nixon's Southern strategy, have divided us on race issues. Look, when I go to the South, I talk about race deliberately... If we're going to have elections about race, we might as well talk about it openly. I want white males, particularly in the South, to come back to the Democratic party. And the case that FDR made was, look, when was the last time you all got a raise? When was the last time your kids got decent health insurance? What kind of schools do your kids go to if you can't afford a private academy?"

His problem is that, this time, he left off the filigree of Nixon and Roosevelt. And so, for days after his gaffe, Dean engaged in the etiquette of fulsome apologies. He began by condemning the Confederate flag as "a painful symbol", then asked for forgiveness from "any people in the South who thought they were being stereotyped". A day later he called his language "clumsy", and added: "I deeply regret the pain that I may have caused." An overdue discussion of the Republicans' Southern strategy was replaced by bowing and scraping.

Dean's Confederate flag problem coincided with another, seemingly unrelated, difficulty - over a mini-series, The Reagans, commissioned by the television network CBS. The intersection was less odd than it appears; Reagan and the Confederate flag, after all, have long been for the Southern Republican party the equivalent of apple pie and motherhood.

The Reagans mini-series is the latest in a long line of cheesy TV productions mangling the lives of the presidents, though no one has chosen to politicise these tabloid productions until now. This time, a Republican mole filched a copy of the script, and the Republican party chairman, Ed Gillespie, assumed the pose of historian. The script put words into the mouth of Reagan - like these about Aids sufferers: "They that live in sin shall die in sin" (what he actually said was: "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague", because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments"). Gillespie called on CBS to pull the series or flash a warning on screen every 10 minutes that it was make-believe. CBS promptly crumpled, pulling the show from the network schedule. Leslie Moonves, the CBS president, abased himself with abject apologies.

The Reagans, judging from leaked excerpts of the script, features a distracted Ronnie and harridan Nancy, a melding of 1950s situation comedy and Mommy Dearest. Policy and politics are not its centrepieces. Certain crucial events in the rise of Reagan are noticeably missing. The actual words on race and civil rights, essential to his political success, are absent, though the Republicans haven't complained.

Some true-life scenes: Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (calling it "humiliating to the South"), and ran for governor of California in 1966 promising to wipe the Fair Housing Act off the books. "If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house," he said, "he has a right to do so." After the Republican convention in 1980, Reagan travelled to the county fair in Neshoba, Mississippi, where, in 1964, three Freedom Riders had been slain by the Ku Klux Klan. Before an all-white crowd of tens of thousands, Reagan declared: "I believe in states' rights".

As president, Reagan aligned his justice department on the side of segregation, supporting the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in its case seeking federal funds for institutions that discriminate on the basis of race. In 1983, when the supreme court decided against Bob Jones, Reagan, under fire from his right in the aftermath, gutted the Civil Rights Commission.

Reagan consolidated the Southern strategy that Nixon formulated in response to the civil rights movement. It is this Republican party that has created the radically conservative Southern presidency of Bush. When Bush's candidacy was threatened in the Republican primaries of 2000, he rescued himself by appearing at Bob Jones University and wrapping himself in support of the preservation of the Confederate emblem on the South Carolina state flag.

Dean's remarks were awkward, but his challenge to the Republican party's basic character and the need for a strategy for defeating it will inevitably be revisited by whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, if that nominee cares about winning.

On the day before Dean's last apology, Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the third-biggest lobbyist in Washington, was elected governor of Mississippi. He had campaigned at an event sponsored by the Council of Concerned Conservatives, an overtly racist group and successor organisation to the White Citizens' Council, which led opposition to civil rights in the 1960s. In his lapel, Barbour wore a pin of the Mississippi state flag, a matter of controversy because of its incorporation of the Confederate flag. On election night, even before he was announced as the winner, Barbour received a congratulatory telephone call from Bush. Look away, Dixieland.

As the great novelist William Faulkner, of Mississippi, wrote: "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton and author of 'The Clinton Wars'.