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. Since the 1970s, politics has been more about culture than class, and more about the manipulation of race than about racial or economic justice. During this time, we have witnessed the return of a level of economic inequality that most once thought the New Deal had made obsolete. While the Civil Rights Act stands as one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century, Johnson was right that the political price of even modest and delayed remedies for racial discrimination would cost the party dearly. As economic liberalism began to seem more like racial liberalism, the Democrats' southern support continued to dissolve -- only to recrystallize as the core of the Republican Party.
While many politicians are aware of this legacy, it is Howard Dean who has awkwardly but boldly tried to articulate its importance. He is not naive enough to think that he can transform this issue, but, as with his political pirouette on the death penalty, he seeks to defuse it because such topics have too often sandbagged Democrats in the past. He has to know that the age-old historical question of why poor blacks and poor whites -- northern or southern -- have never been able to unite for long in this country is not going to be solved under his leadership. But, if he can reframe our nation's obsession with its race into a shared economic agenda, he stands a chance of making progress. Indeed, lost in the hoopla about Dean's remarks was his argument that those poor southern whites "ought to be voting with us because their kids don't have health insurance, either, and their kids need better schools, too." That's the part not enough people heard -- and that's what we need to hear more about from Dean.
So far, this immense historical problem has appeared in Dean's campaign with all the breadth and depth of a set of bullet points in a political-strategy book. The former Vermont governor's challenge now is to flesh out this issue for himself and the nation. Obviously he won't get far trying to court a constituency by calling its members "rednecks" or exercising his tin ear on race before the electorate. Rather than go on apologizing for the Confederate-flag flap, however, he ought to announce a major speech on the issue and walk the nation through this history. He will never have the credibility Bill Clinton had with poor whites or with blacks. But he would also not be the first rich, white politician to bring the nation together around a shared economic vision. 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.
Jefferson Cowie is a history professor at Cornell University. He is the author of Capital Moves: RCA's 70-Year Quest for Cheap Labor and is currently working on a history of workers in the 1970s.