Alabama and Lessons for the South - by Greer Clem
A few hours before Doug Jones’ victory last week, I was on the phone with my dad who was born and raised in Alabama. I asked him if he thought the south had been neglected, if our electoral process meant that past democratic presidents could essentially avoid campaigning there because those states were already considered lost. My dad said to me that he feels the south, as it exists today, feels more backwards to him than when he was growing up in the 60s and 70s. During his childhood, the south was just emerging from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. We were going to put man on the moon, to challenge our country to achieve goals of equality and intellectualism. The south was an exciting hub for this new era, with NASA and Selma and a push towards American exploration. There was a deep belief in science and experts and a greater emphasis on evidence, not just faith and faith alone. However, as the years went on, this evolution was halted. The Reagan years brought the Moral Majority movement that pushed the south back towards the right. The light began to dim; evidence and exploration began to lose meaning. Consequentially, the south became less important to politicians and news organizations and disappeared from national headlines. In essence, the south was stunted when its growth had only just begun, leaving behind an attitude of isolation and abandonment that was not entirely unwarranted.
Democrats, in turn, then treated the south accordingly. Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma: all these states are essentially written off as lost causes during presidential elections. We focus more on the battleground states like Iowa and New Hampshire, even though both Tennessee and Alabama have more electoral votes than either. In doing so, we isolate those people we should seek to represent most, purely because their state is red. This gets tricky, because the political and societal responses are understandable. I don’t blame the south for feeling disenfranchised by the democratic party nor do I blame democrats for playing the odds; that’s politics. But what we are witnessing, what we witnessed last week, is that this strategy that we believe is necessary for presidential victories is keeping our party from reaching its potential. We take our position for granted, assuming that, because of the values associated with our party, we will naturally attract disenfranchised minorities, but we refuse to accept our role in making them feel disenfranchised.
The democratic party shouldn’t be able to bank on the black vote turning out for our representatives just because they won’t vote republican. We have to be a party that is representative of the issues black voters face, not just the party that makes more sense for them ideologically. That was the difference in this most recent Senate race. Doug Jones did not run as a traditional, conservative southern Democrat - he ran as a liberal who had persecuted the KKK and advocated for equality. Doug Jones wasn’t just a symbol of the Democratic party, he was an embodiment of tangible democratic action. Regardless of how disgusting Roy Moore was as a candidate and person, it made more sense that black voters would mobilize for someone who actively cared and wasn’t just a democrat by label.
The response to Doug Jones’ victory is correct: don’t just listen to black voters, support them, elect them, value them. But I want to add one thing: let’s make the party worthy of their endorsement. Let us demonstrate the value of our party’s black constituents by providing them the platform they deserve and by pushing for equal representation. We need more women in politics. We need more black women in politics. And, if we haven’t realized this already, the democratic party is not dead in the south. This is how we spread our message. And this time, in this age of Trumpism, let this message not be hollow. Let’s get out the vote for every election, not because these elections are threats to the democratic party but because they are essential to who we are.
I recognize that there is no way for me to write this piece that does not sound as though I too am invoking the “us vs. them” mentality. By discussing the differences between southern states and the mainstream democratic party, I don’t mean to myself contribute to a delineated separation between the two. I grew up visiting Alabama with my dad and listening to stories from his childhood. I am named for his father, Greer, who was a cattle farmer, a World War II vet, and a NASA employee. My identity is intrinsically tied to the south in this way and to feel a growing separation from that part of myself under the Trump presidency has filled me with sadness. I am also not black, so I cannot speak directly to the experiences lived by black voters. But I can advocate for what I feel is a necessary change in the democratic party’s relationship to the south and to black constituents. We earned their vote in Alabama, and we should hold this standard as the mantel for all elections. Let's broaden our party's reach and make ourselves worthy of this cause, not because disenfranchised voters need us, but because we need them and should be honored to be the party of the many, not just the few.