Sunday, January 28, 2007

Life of Bryan

[posted by Callimachus]

Bob Moser of The Nation, who often has written perceptively of the new Democrats' problems in the New South, does it again.

The South has long amounted to little more than a swirl of stereotypes in the national mind (see Gone With the Wind; please do not see Forrest Gump). Many non-Southern progressives still see the region as a dank, magnolia-scented Otherworld where the cultural obsessions of race, religion and rifles hold white voters together in an unbreakable sway, making it hopeless terrain for planting any politics to the left of Jefferson Davis or Jerry Falwell.

He homes in on one of the moments when Howard Dean got it exactly right, and the week or so when I thought I wanted him to be the next president:

Stating his intention of competing for the votes of "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks" in November 2003, Dean set off howls of protest among party leaders and his rivals for the presidential nomination, who said he was simultaneously stereotyping white Southerners and offending blacks. But few of the complaints originated in Dixie. As they "stand on their soapboxes to castigate Dr. Dean's remarks," wrote the Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP, "Democratic candidates and party leadership should bear in mind that black voters think for themselves." The previous February at a hamburger stand in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Dean had been applauded by black listeners when he said, "You know all those white guys riding around with Confederate flags in the back of their pickup trucks? Well, their kids don't have health insurance either."

The way Dean's campaign derailed after that may be proof that God is real and he does, in fact, love Republicans. Because Dean had hit on a winning formula before he fell over in the swamp and sank.

Moser even hits on the right historical antecedent, the Southern Farmers' Alliance led by Georgia's Tom Watson in the 1890s, which forged -- for a time -- a common cause between poor whites and blacks.

Though the Populists had their share of two-faced politicians and race-baiters, the movement as a whole made a remarkable call for trans-racial solidarity, based on an equality of want and poverty, a common grievance and a common oppressor. "They are in the ditch just like we are," as a white Texas Populist put it. Watson had the vision of "presenting a platform immensely beneficial to both races and injurious to neither," and "making it in the interest of both races to act together for the success of the platform." The success of the party overall hinged on black cooperation, and Watson promised blacks that, if they succeeded at the ballot box, the Populists would "wipe out the color line and put every man on his citizenship irrespective of color."

In its short life the movement produced scene after scene that is simply not supposed to be possible in the conventional political-liberal narrative of Southern, and American history: In the 1892 campaign, for instance, a black Populist had made 63 speeches for Watson. He was threatened in one town and fled to Watson for protection. Watson called for aid, and some 2,000 white farmers showed up, some of them after riding all night, and remained on armed guard for two nights at his home to prevent violence to this man.

[Always a great introduction to this topic is C. Vann Woodward's "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," first edition 1955, which is still in print. Martin Luther King Jr. called it "The historical Bible of the civil rights movement."]

I'm not surprised, though that many of Moser's intended readers would be made uncomfortable by his argument. They have married themselves to a historical view that Southerners are historically incapable of achieving racial harmony without Northern intervention. And it gives the lie in a big way to the notion that Southerners are historically incapable of achieving racial harmony without Northern intervention, that federal pressure on conservative cultural bigotry is the only agent of positive social change in the nation, and that the dinosaurs of the Civil Rights era must never relax their iron vigilance. The received wisdom is that Southern whites (if not American whites overall) are incapable of lifting their benighted selves out of the crudest collective racism without the Better Angels of the elite Democratic judiciary to guide them.

"For beleaguered Southern liberals ...," Moser writes, "the Democrats' misunderstanding of what appeals to the South and to Middle America falls somewhere between a bad joke and a tragedy--and Kerry's win looked like the perfect example." After 2004, however, he writes, things only got worse. He quotes Thomas Schaller's 2005 book, "Whistling Past Dixie": "[T]he Democrats should be able to run outside the South by running against the conservative South." In essence reduplicating Lincoln's 1860 strategy. But this time the numbers are against them.

And more than numbers. To forge a new Southern Democratic progressive majority, Moser advocates an "emphasis on the "value" of economic fairness (along with other Democratic issues popular with moderate evangelicals, including environmental stewardship)." He goes on to quote William Jennings Bryan, the great champion of Watson-style populism on the national scale.

"Today the Democratic Party stands between two great forces. On one side stand the corporate interests of the nation, its moneyed institutions, its aggregations of wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant, compassionless .... On the other side stands the unnumbered throng which gave a name to the Democratic Party and for which it has presumed to speak. Work-worn and dust-begrimed, they make their mute appeal, and too often find their cry for help beat in vain against the outer walls."

Can't you just feel the power in it? "When they heeded Bryan's populist call," Moser writes, "the party began its transformation into the progressive force behind Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal--both more enthusiastically supported in the South than anywhere else."

Ah, well. Until my co-workers stop citing "Inherit the Wind" as their favorite movie and "the only thing that got [them] through the Reagan years" I don't think Bryan is going to be back up on the pedestal. Even The Nation devotes half its mentions to him to painting him as a George W. Bush-style anti-scientific Christian fundamentalist bully.

But his deep-rooted Christianity was one reason his progressivism worked so well in the nation (if not "The Nation"). Can you have one without the other and still turn in a performance on election day? Perhaps. Can you have one while actively despising and disparaging the other? I doubt it.

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