Delivering a Difficult but Vital Message to the “NASCAR Dads”

Dean for AmericaIt seems I’m not going to be able to get away from Dean’s Confederate flag comment after all. Not that the campaign is particularly suffering as a result (in fact, it appears to be pulling away from the rest of the pack), but it’s bringing up a lot of talk. I must confess that my initial reaction was in the “Get a life” vein, but alas, the reality of political maneuvering makes such a blanket dismissal untenable. That said, in the spirit of this week’s pledge, I’ll do my best to remain calm. For those of you needing your Recommended Dietary Allowance of bile, try reading Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Sunday Post column “Another American Casualty: Credibility,” William Raspberry’s column, “President Without a Game Plan,” in today’s edition, or president-elect Al Gore’s recent speech (sponsored by MoveOn and the American Constitution Society) on freedom and security issues.

First, my own honest assessment: Did Dean err in his comment? In retrospect, yes. But not necessarily in the way most people are thinking. Is the comment offensive in and of itself? No, I don’t think so. Not to diminish the offense that people may legitimately be taking, but such offense appears to be largely a result of the baggage these people are bringing into the argument. African-Americans find the flag offensive, and take umbrage at the idea that Dean would court those who display it openly. White southerners believe Dean is stereotyping them as gun-toting rednecks. (Of course, neither categorization is absolute, and I don’t claim that these views are held by entire groups of people, but the views are fairly representative.)

No, the mistake wasn’t in the comment itself — it was in the lack of political benefit to be derived by it. The characterization wasn’t particularly flattering to those he’s ostensibly trying to woo over to his side, while at the same time riling those already in the Democratic camp. Not that either group was really the intended audience of Dean’s words; Dean was, in effect, speaking to the Democratic movers and shakers, saying that as a party, alienating any group of potential voters is not a good idea. The problem, of course, is that the words were delivered to the nation at large. This certainly isn’t the first time that Dean has spoken unwisely (though I find it amusing that the GOP readily praises the “speak frankly” quality when it’s Bush doing the speaking). And it’s probably not the most controversial in the long run — a dubious honor held (in my opinion) by his backpedaling from “American labor standards” to “international labor standards” as regards trade agreements. But given the timing, it’s proving to be a surprisingly long-lived topic of conversation.

Ellen Goodman, in The Boston Globe, writes an interesting column on the same idea — wooing traditionally Republican-voting southern white males. The column’s worth reading in its entirety, but what she does particularly well is express the same idea while avoiding overtly controversial labels. By switching the terminology from Confederate flag-bearers to “NASCAR dads,” she evokes the same sentiment as with the “soccer moms” of a decade ago. Sure, both are still broad generalizations — if not outright stereotyping — but neither directly incorporates polarizing symbology. (Then again, my uncle, New Hampshire-based operator of the late lamented American Race Fan, may take issue with the idea that NASCAR fans are largely southern.)

David Broder, in yesterday’s Post Outlook section, writes on the same topic. He’s particularly insightful as to the challenge Democratic contenders — not just Dean, though he’s certainly the current example — face in trying to win over southern voters. He quotes Emory University’s Merle Black as saying Dean’s message “comes across as saying that ‘Southerners are so dumb they’ve been voting against their interests, so I’m going to show them the error of their ways.’” And yes, when you put it that way, it’s certainly not going to win anyone over; nobody’s going to flock to your banner if you call them “stupid.” Of course, Dean didn’t say that, but if Black’s assessment is accurate, then that’s what they’re taking away.

But even so, the sentiment is right. Not to say that southerners are stupid — certainly no more so (in aggregate) than voters in any other segment of the country — but the people in question have been voting against their own interests. The Political Compass exercise did demonstrate two very different left/right scales, and while it is a little simplistic, it does point out the fundamental problem (and yes, I’m going to be generalizing here): Southern male voters are flocking to the Republican party solely on the basis of the social scale, without regard to the economic scale. And I believe that, on the whole, that is strongly counter to their interests. I’m not saying — nor is Howard Dean — that I know their interests better than they do (okay, maybe a little bit); what I’m trying to get across is that in the areas with the largest day-to-day impact on their (largely poor) lives — the economic scale — the Democratic party is more closely aligned with their views. Let’s face it: From a purely party-interest standpoint, the social scale is a smokescreen. The parties are, at the core, more about economic differences than social ones, but, in the case of the Republican party, the powers-that-be were able to figure out that it’s a lot easier to get folks riled up about the social issues. And the Democratic party’s been playing catch-up ever since.

Broder’s certainly right about the difficulty of getting the message across, but I think his presentation creates the impression that there’s something wrong with the message itself. Sure, maybe Howard Dean — as a Vermonter — faces an uphill battle being the person to deliver that message. But I think the worst thing — both for the Democratic party and the nation as a whole — would be to abandon the effort altogether.


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