An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

September 16, 2010

Bible Belt Progressives: Tougher Than Most

Filed under: Government and Policy — Tags: , , — Radical Scientist @ 8:16 pm

As we get ready for the midterm elections, I can’t help but think it’s a shame our only nationally elected office is the presidency (with the +1 going to the VP). The US south produces a steady trickle of smart, personable, intensely capable, and often unflappable genuine progressives. The sort of people who can make liberal, even fairly off-to-the-left (by US standards) policy seem common-sensical, can make nice with their far right opposition without caving, and  win over voters in unlikely ways. These few-and-far between stalwarts of the rural left would make any swing-state democratic recruitment committee cry with joy. But thanks to the regional nature of our political system, their careers are generally doomed, and they usually find their talents are better spent in business, non-profit, or bureaucratic sectors.

Take the term-limited outgoing mayor of my hometown. She’s the executive of the combined city/county government in the smallest county in Ga, with one of the highest poverty rates around. She managed to stay popular and get re-elected despite colleagues who think Rails to Trails is some manner of European communist plot to make Americans simultaneously  gayly svelt and morally weak. She pushed through domestic partner benefits and barred gender identity based discrimination for county employees as soon as  activists pointed out no one had done those things before, and the conservative local paper didn’t even notice. She’s a Jewish woman running a small town in the Bible Belt, yet her opponent’s anti-semitic attacks backfire with unusual intensity. Hell, the greatest backlash of her administration came from angry college students and hipsters over an indoor smoking ban. As a now-former bar employee and asthmatic, I’m pretty pleased with that one. Plus, all the bars in town got nice little patios, so I’m gonna call that one win-win. My city is like the puppet town in Mr Roger’s Neighborhood (ok, but with more meth)–the mayor walks around town, people greet her by name everywhere. It’s burningly cute.

You’d think the popular term-limited mayor of a congressional district’s largest city would be a natural candidate against incumbent Republican/conspiracy theorist Paul Broun. But no, thanks to gerrymandering by the republican controlled state legislature after the 2000 census, Broun is essentially untouchable. I don’t know if our outgoing mayor (or anyone else reasonably qualified) would want the seat if she had a decent shot of winning it. As it stands, though, we’ll be stuck with one of the SPLC’s least-favorite public figures until he dies (or retires to spend all his hours looking for Obama’s birth certificate) since the only person with enough free time to lose that hard is a socially inept law student.

I genuinely believe that in electoral politics and activism, there are some real advantages to coming out of a place where you’re in a stark ideological minority (or make up the majority in a smallish, isolated area). It certainly doesn’t work for everyone, and I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t amazing people working in places where they have wide support. But the US left in general is plagued by some recurring weaknesses: An inablity to work with or win over people who don’t already support your ideas. Trouble knowing when to fight the imperfections in your own coalition vs. when to take on mutual opponents together (generally, I think we need less of the former and more of the latter). Difficulty staying engaged after a major loss. None of those are traits you can afford when you have massive opposition. Since we’re not getting proportional representation anytime soon, maybe it’s time the DNC sent some talent scouts out this way armed with a stack of Greyhound tickets to Ohio and Florida.



  1. I don’t think ‘socially inept’ is either fair or accurate for that ‘law student.’ (Wait, didn’t you notice he already graduated?)

    Rather, he was plucked out of the milling crowd by the State Party to run against Broun so that he could lose by articulating ‘progressive’ (whatever those are, or whatever you imagine them to be) values.

    Fact is, Broun CAN be beaten: so far, he’s run four times, lost twice, tied once, and won outright only once.

    BUT!! To beat Broun you need to run for four years. Not two.

    AND! you need to articulate the hopes (and, yes, the fears) of the people you want to represent, NOT the ideas you believe that others ought to want as much as you do. (This novel notion of governance is known as the ‘democratic republic’ theory…) (Remember 7th grade?)

    If you could get a retiree from Columbia County to run against Broun NOT as an anti-conservative but as an anti-corruption candidate (Broun is VERY corrupt, and has been often before the Ethics Committee), you might-could actually win this thing: yes, a Democrat could take the 10th, but an old-style ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ probably won’t. (Or deserve to.)

    The REAL question here anyway isn’t about liberal vs. conservative. It’s about corrupt vs. decent/honest.

    And, if you had a ‘law student’ (or anyone else) willing to make THAT case, EFFECTIVELY, you’d actually have a potential winner.

    Instead, we have a Democratic candidate who wants us to vote for him for only the reasons he wants us to vote for him — not the reasons we in the 10th really care most about.

    We aren’t talking ‘social ineptness’ here, but the lack of political will to lead. And, to me, it’s simply a political tragedy.

    Comment by Sandy Untermyer — September 18, 2010 @ 5:41 am

  2. Have all the optimism you want, but you really think gerrymandering isn’t effective? Really?

    Comment by J — September 20, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

  3. Well, in my defense, I’ve never met Edwards. My characterization was a nicer paraphrase of one of his now-former classmates.

    And yes, I know the Ga 10th is probably too conservative to elect someone who called themself progressive. Which is why I wrote a long post on how it’s a shame that our political offices are divided up entirely by geography–that one unintended byproduct of that system is to leave talented politicians who are in the ideological minority where they live with little chance for advancement. They could move to some other part of the country, but again, geographical districting gives a distinct home-town advantage.

    Comment by Radical Scientist — September 20, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

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