Published on Tuesday, November 18, 2003 by the Bangor Daily News (Maine)
Candidate Dean and the Matter of Liberal Elitism
by John Buell

Howard Dean is in trouble for uttering a sentiment that most Democrats keep to themselves. Dean remarked that he wanted the votes of the guys with pickup trucks and Confederate flags on the back. He has been accused of pandering to racists. Howard Dean is not my candidate, but he is getting a bum rap. No Dem- ocrat is likely to win without large numbers of white working-class male votes, the so-called Reagan Democrats. The question is how to get these votes in ways that expand our most generous instincts rather than cave in to defensive and self-destructive fears.

Bill Clinton avoided Dean's rhetoric, but he had the same goal when he denounced provocative rappers in the 1992 election. Tragically, Clinton aimed to recapture Reagan Democrats by eagerly inflicting the death penalty and by placing strict limits on welfare. Yet Clinton's victory also depended heavily on economic issues. The administration of the first George Bush succumbed to economic discontent. Bill Clinton promised to "put people first" through job stimulus, universal health care and equitable trade agreements. The Democrats' stunning reversal in 1994 had more to do with Clinton's failure to deliver on these promises than with social issues.

Consequently, some liberal Dem-ocratic strategists argue that Democrats should emphasize universal programs like prescription drugs, broader post-secondary education opportunities, job creation and infrastructure enhancement. And the party should inoculate itself against charges of social elitism by taking a tough stance against drugs and crime and in support of the conventional American family. If divisive social issues are neutralized, Democrats can once again become the majority party.

This approach may make tactical sense, but it will not build an enduring Democratic majority. If one is to be pro-family values, does this mean opposition to basic abortion rights, thus treating 50 percent of the population as second-class citizens? Does it include criminalizing alternative forms of sexuality and funding prisons for the 30 or 40 percent of our teenagers who experiment with marijuana?

A conventional conservative stance on these issues will inevitably alienate many of the voters Democrats need to become a majority party. What these Democrats are forgetting is that human beings are not simply economic machines. Even if they are guaranteed stable incomes, it matters equally to many that they be allowed to lead their personal lives in ways that express their deepest values. Ironically,

Marxists, business-oriented conservatives and some liberals share the conviction that man lives by bread alone.

The centrist Democratic Leadership Council is even worse. They combine social conservatism with an economic agenda that increas- ingly resembles old Republicanism. Through NAFTA, they are complicit in the destruction of many of the best manufacturing jobs and they have failed to deliver even on assistance for worker retraining. In celebrating huge reductions in the federal deficit as an end in itself, they betray those whom they purport to serve.

Nonetheless, even if Democrats had the courage to embrace progressive economics, they still must address social issues in a more forthright manner. Democrats should not pander to racist or sexist sentiments in order to gain white working-class votes. But that does not mean that the white working class does not have legitimate cultural gripes of its own. There is a sense in which liberal Democrats do practice a kind of social elitism. The best way to combat antipathy to social liberalism is not by reverting to an older social conservatism but by seeking to build a more self-critical and more genuinely expansive form of liberalism.

The cross-country skiing set can be overbearingly condescending toward snowmobilers. Worse than condescension, environmental regulation of such activities as Jet Skis and snowmobiles can reflect cultural bias far more than it does actual ecological damage. The million-dollar yachts that routinely discharge their sewage into our harbors are doing far more damage than many Jet Skis. "Family values" offers its own analogies. If affluent professional women deserve the right to an abortion, working-class opponents of abortion still need a party that will flight for free time and cultural space so that all families can sustain their own hobbies and family lives. Child care subsidies need to be as fair to stay-at-home parents as to the fast-tracking parents in search of quality day care. In educational matters, many of us find creationism absurd and repellent, but

I doubt that public education would collapse if parents had more opportunities to introduce such content, perhaps through charter schools.

At the very least, those liberals who believe in choice for sexual and racial minorities need to ask themselves repeatedly what they are doing to expand the range of personal choice for those who do not share their cultural norms. Expansion of such opportunities will create genuine and occasionally irresolvable dilemmas. But without a willingness more forthrightly and honestly to put these topics on the table, Dem- ocrats and the broader left will never carve out a new majority.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail messages to

©2002 Bangor Daily News