The Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans requested that the state issue this custom license plate. (Georgia Department of Revenue/AP)
March 21

Drew Westen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and the author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”.

Republicans have perfected the dark art of exploiting racial divisions in the South. In the late 1960s, Richard Nixon and the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” capitalized onwhite resentment of civil rights legislation and school desegregation, along with anxiety about violence in the streets, to attract white Southern voters. Ronald Reagan railed against “welfare queens” and the erosion of “states’ rights,” which had long been code for freedom to discriminate. In the decades since, Republicans have found new ways to demagogue racial division, successfully appealing to a voting bloc that didn’t consider supporting the party of Lincoln for a century after the Civil War — or the War of the Northern Aggression, as I learned of it growing up in Georgia.

This year, the strategy has taken the form of a debate about custom license plates — in particular, a Georgia license plate sporting a broad, bold display of the Confederate battle flag. Democrats have traditionally struggled to counter such race-baiting. And Republicans are wasting no time in running Southern pride and prejudice up the flagpole against the two most promising Democrats to run for statewide office in Georgia in a decade: Jason Carter, grandson of President Jimmy Carter and a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination; and Michelle Nunn, daughter of the popular Democratic senator Sam Nunn and a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who will try to hold on to his seat against Carter in November, has endorsed the Confederate-flag plate. “Hopefully those who take offense at it will look at the fact that it is a part of a cultural heritage of our state,” he said. Carter has yet to take a stand, and as polls show him moving into the lead over the governor, this may not be the right moment. Nunn hasn’t weighed in, either.

Too often, Democrats have dealt with racial issues by avoiding them. Research shows that’s the wrong strategy, particularly in the South. Speaking directly about race allows our conscious values — which tend to be intolerant of racial intolerance, even in the heart of Dixie — to override our unconscious prejudices, which control our behavior when we’re not looking, or when other people aren’t, as in the voting booth. The best way to handle this kind of dog-whistle politics is to expose it for what it is.

A successful political message that addresses race or any other divisive issue tends to have three components. The first is a value-laden statement that connects with most voters, making clear that the candidate cares about people like them and understands their ambivalence. The second is a statement raising a concern that makes the average person anxious or angry enough to want to do something about the issue. The third is a statement of hope, wedded to a solution, which suggests that the problem is solvable in a way that reflects the values and interests of ordinary voters.

So how to respond to those who argue that Georgians should have the right to buy, at their own expense, a license plate that honors their Southern heritage, featuring the Confederate battle flag?

Carter, who wrote a book about being a Peace Corps volunteer in post-apartheid South Africa, has started to speak publicly about race, and has done so eloquently and with his characteristic charisma. At a recent forum at Emory University and at fundraisers, he has described himself as a son of the South whose family has farmed the land in Georgia for more than 300 years, who is proud of his Southern heritage but who is not proud of one piece of that heritage — the fact that his ancestors owned slaves.

Making clear that you can embrace your Southern roots without embracing the legacy of slavery — drawing attention to the ambivalence underlying the issue — is precisely how Carter can make that initial connection with voters.

His next challenge is to raise a concern without alienating voters who aren’t consciously racist but who don’t see the harm in having a Confederate license plate among the custom options approved by the state’s Motor Vehicle Division. They might not buy the plate themselves, yet they see making it available to others as a matter of freedom.

The natural impulse of Democrats is to talk about how it’s important not to offend a particular group of people. But those statements only reinforce the us/them distinction that gives racially coded messages their power, and they can sound weak, oversensitive or obsequious, especially to the male Southern ear.

Carter should make this debate about Deal and those who are using the issue to divide Georgians against one another. And he needs to offer a values-based alternative that reinforces state and Southern pride — and his image as a business-friendly Democrat. He could offer a message that builds on the narrative he has already begun to elaborate:

“As a son of the South, I value my heritage as both a Georgian and an American. My family has farmed the red clay of Georgia for hundreds of years, and I’m proud of that heritage. But politicians like Governor Deal have no business using the Confederate flag, which they know is both a symbol of Southern pride and a symbol of racial prejudice, to turn Georgians against each other along racial lines. We’re long past that here in Georgia, and that’s something I promise never to do as your governor. Like the business owners I speak to across the state, I believe the way to bring jobs to Georgia is to advertise the Georgia of the 21st century, not the 19th. And today’s Georgia is a place where opportunity knocks on every door, regardless of how humble your upbringing or the color of your skin.”

That statement has all the elements of a successful political message. It makes clear that Carter is the protagonist who supports the progress Georgia has made on race and that his opponent is the antagonist who is trying to take the state backward and reopen old wounds.

Another Georgia Democrat who tried to make such an appeal was Gov. Roy Barnes. In 2001, Barnes engaged in a courageous effort to change the state flag, which for almost 50 years had been dominated by the Confederate Stars and Bars.

In a brilliant speech unveiling an alternative flag, Barnes hit just the right chord. “I am a Southerner,” he declared. “I like collard greens with fried streak-o-lean, catfish, tails and all. . . . My great-grandfather was captured at Vicksburg fighting for the Confederacy, and I still visit his grave in the foothills of Gilmer County. I am proud of him. But I am also proud that we have come so far that my children find it hard to believe that we ever had segregated schools or separate water fountains labeled ‘white’ and ‘colored.’ And I am proud that these changes came about because unity prevailed over division. Today, that same effort and energy of unity must be exercised again.”

Barnes managed to make a progressive change that had eluded Democratic governors in Georgia for 45 years. He also led the pollsfrom start to finish in his reelection race the next year. But he lost in a shocking upset to state Sen. Sonny Perdue, who became the first Republican governor of Georgia since 1872.

That outcome might make Democrats campaigning today reluctant to borrow from Barnes’s script. After all, Barnes himself blames his loss on the flag controversy. But deploying the Barnes strategy in 2014 is likely to be much more successful than it was in 2002.

For one thing, voters who went to the polls in the 2002 election were still reeling from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Studies show that people tend to become far more conservative, particularly culturally conservative, in the face of terrorism. So Barnes was running against not only his challenger but a natural tendency of the human mind.

Moreover, the Georgia electorate is 5 to 10 percent less white in 2014 than it was then, as well as younger and less susceptible to racial politics. The key for Carter and Nunn is to get ahead of the issue, not behind it, because once the wheels of unconscious prejudice start spinning, they are difficult to reverse.

And if the two Democrats want to demonstrate their Southern pride, and throw a little red clay in the faces of their opponents, they might also suggest that, once a month, the state’s public school teachers lead their students in singing “Georgia on my Mind,” following the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.

Ray Charles, whose 1960 recording of the song made it a hit, cancelled a 1961 show in Augusta after being told he’d be playing to a segregated audience. But as a sign of how far Georgia had come, lawmakers in 1979 made “Georgia on My Mind” the official state song and invited Charles to the statehouse to perform his definitive interpretation.

Singing it in schools would send a message like no other of what it should mean to be a Georgian in the 21st century.

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