Howard Dean almost blew it.  With a slight edge in the polls and a strong following among both blacks and young, college-trained white professionals, the ex-governor of Vermont was beginning to look like the next nominee of the Democratic Party.  Then he said something nice about white “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks” and emitted the platitudinous insight that “We can’t beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats.”

In what passes for the “democracy” that President Bush wants to export to the rest of the world, that was enough to bring Mr. Dean close to the brink of ruin.  His rivals for the nomination pounced at once, with everybody’s favorite foe of bigotry, the Rev. Al Sharpton, yelling that the Confederate Flag is “America’s swastika” and North Carolina rival John Edwards sniffing that Dean’s words were “condescending.”  (Not known is what the North Carolinian had to say about Sharpton’s smear of the flag as a Nazi symbol.)  Dick Gephardt protested, “I don’t want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” while John Kerry mooed that “I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA.”  There is no evidence that either gentleman will be the candidate of any of the above.

The Dean episode contains multitudes—it is a veritable microcosm of what’s wrong with this country, its politics, its opinionmaking elites, its delusions about its past, and its reaction to anyone who utters any unconventional thought.  Let us count the ways.

First, the Confederate Flag is not a swastika or even analogous to it, but today it is not only permissible but virtually obligatory to say that it is, precisely because of the inability of either Democrats or Republicans to resist the racial demagoguery of buffoons and ignoramuses like Sharpton.  Second, Dean’s point was not to endorse the flag, the Confederacy, white people, the uses of the flag today, or the culture and traditions of the “guys” who carry the flag “in” their pickup trucks.  His point was simply to try to enlarge his own political base beyond the urban blacks and liberal yuppies who now give him his small lead, and, like most politicians of his background and orientation, he thinks the way to do that is to promise more healthcare and better schools, which is what he actually mentioned.  Third, Dean’s critics—in the party and the media—are mainly people who want his votes and who do not like him for various reasons, chief among them that a Dean candidacy might well ensure the reelection of George W. Bush.  Finally, what does it matter?  What would be wrong if he had said, “Even though I have the misfortune to be from Vermont, I just love the Confederate Flag and what it stands for.  It stands for resistance to aggression and tyranny and loyalty to the Constitution and for the bravery and dedication of those who fought and died for it; and those are the ideals I want to defend and run my campaign on and promote as president if I am elected”?

What’s wrong with that is that it would be political suicide for Mr. Dean or anyone else to say it, and it was almost suicide to unbosom the bromides he did.  John Ashcroft several years ago said something sort of like that and nearly lost his confirmation battle for the position of attorney general as a result (his policies since taking office show there is small danger he seriously supports the decentralized political legacy of the Confederacy), and he won it only because he faced confirmation by a tame Republican Senate.  Praising the Confederate Flag is political suicide because it suggests (or is taken to prove) deviation from egalitarianism and sympathy for social or racial hierarchy, and what is called “democracy” in the United States today is in fact an incipient totalitarianism, in which deviation from the National Creed of Equality is ruinous and may, in the not-very-distant future, be actually illegal (as it already largely is in Europe).  This is also why gentlemen such as Al Sharpton are able to flourish at all.

And it is yet one more reason why President Bush’s sermons about exporting “democracy” and “liberty” are so grimly laughable—with democracy and liberty (as we generally understand these loaded and misleading words in this country) dying, what is it we are really going to export, if it can be exported at all?

In the end, Mr. Dean was not ruined by what he said, despite a week of ranting and raving by the media and the most vicious denunciations from his political adversaries.  He was not ruined because eventually he was shrewd enough to retract his words and to apologize for having deviant thoughts and for saying something that sounded sort of nice about “America’s swastika.”  The next week, he got the endorsement of two major labor unions and went up in the polls.  Isn’t democracy wonderful?