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.