New England and the South

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(Host) Commentator David Moats reflects on New England’s political influence and the candidacy of Howard Dean.

(Moats) I was at a conference the other day, and the topic under discussion was: Does New England still matter?

New England is no longer the economic and industrial power it once was. Over 40 years, we have watched political power shift toward the Sun Belt. But the success of Howard Dean in capturing the public imagination has shown that New England can still have an impact.

His candidacy raises a question: If someone is to challenge the present Republican marriage of religious fundamentalism and aggressive capitalism, from where should we expect the challenge to come?

There is a passage in ‘”Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in which Augustine St. Clare, the lazy slaveholder from New Orleans, is talking with his cousin Ophelia, who has come down from Vermont.

“What a poor mean trash this whole business of human virtue is!” Augustine says.

“A mere matter, for the most part, of latitude and longitude, and geographical position.

“The greater part is nothing but an accident.

“Your father, for example, settles in Vermont, in a town where all are, in fact, free and equal, becomes a regular church member and deacon, and in due time joins an Abolition Society.”

Augustine’s father went to New Orleans and became the owner of five or six hundred slaves.

There is a history here. New Englanders have long served as a check and balance on their Southern cousins. And in the eyes of many Americans, the Southern strain of American politics, represented by George W. Bush, is begging to be checked.

What does that strain consist of?

It’s characterized, first of all, by hostility toward government, expressed through tax cuts designed, as it is said, to “starve the beast,” crippling the functions of government and allowing private business to scoop up the pieces.

It is characterized also by extreme deference to wealth and by unconcern for the withering of civic culture.

The public schools are failing? Send your kids to private schools, and here’s some public money to help.

It should come as no surprise that the most insistent voice in opposition to that vision should come from a New Englander with family ties to Wall Street.

Howard Dean has labored in politics to make government work. At the same time, he has always been aware of the need to keep Wall Street happy by making sure government’s house is in fiscal order.

Dean may resemble most of all the Rockefeller Republicans of the East Coast establishment, who would be aghast at the way the Bush administration has depleted the treasury and robbed the government of the power to do good.

Howard Dean’s candidacy is about many things – Iraq, health care, gay rights. But even if there are those who write Dean off as a New Englander, the strong presence of New England in the Democratic field is a reminder that opposition to the style of politics practiced by President Bush has deep historical and cultural roots.

Augustine St. Clare referred to Ophelia as Cousin Vermont. She was an annoyance and a scold. But on many important things, she was also right.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats in the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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