It is a Sunday, and I am with my wife at her office as she works a few extra hours in a mostly empty building to get a project completed by the end of its truncated timeline. I’m sitting at her officemate’s desk, where normally I would have a view of a quaint little rooftop herb garden, and maybe a stray robin or two checking out the sprigs of thyme.
As things stand, as readers are no doubt tired of hearing at this point, I’m looking at little more than the accumulated precipitation of two separate polar vortexes, the cyclical thawing and re-freezing of which has left the snow and ice looking something like a cross between packing peanuts and tapioca. Going by current climate trends, this should all be melted away in time for next winter. I can see a bank of solar panels from this same vantage point, and the levels of irony I’d have to dig through in order to sufficiently sew up those two elements is thicker than cassoulet.
Because I’m sick of this, my thoughts — personal, political, etc. — have turned lately back to the Southeast. You guys have an interesting political climate developing right now, all at once still fairly entrenched in grimace-inducing post-Reconstruction rhetoric and tendencies, but with social and financial proclivities that are starting to swing ever so slightly, but noticeably, left.
How left, exactly? Virginia, folks, is now a battleground state, and has becoming increasingly so over the last two election cycles. True, Mississippi’s Democratic Party barely has the budget for gas money — and even if they did, they’d probably just use it to drive to someplace less insane, like Alabama or the Ukraine — but baby steps are still steps, people.
In a cover story — inasmuch as a website can have a “cover” story — called “Painting Dixie Blue” for Politico on Friday, Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux details both the switch-up of party domination that has characterized the South for the last century, as well as what he feels are trends indicating a gradually encroaching liberal bent to the region. The situation has, obviously, a lot of moving parts, though in the end it seems, as it so often does, to boil down to race:
“Make no mistake. Politics in the South over the last century and a half has been dominated and driven by one thing: race. From the time federal troops left Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina in 1877 — 12 years after the end of the war — until today, race, to varying degrees, has been a political constant. From the establishment of Jim Crow laws through Plessy v. Ferguson, Strom Thurmond’s explicitly segregationist run for president, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Montgomery, Selma, desegregation and George Wallace, the thread is long and clear.”
It’s a thread that remains; left to our own devices, we’re still likely to self-segregate. Exceptions abound — varsity and collegiate sports seems to be something of an equalizer, at least as long as the athletes are confined to the field; civilian life is another matter entirely — but not enough that we can’t still call this a tendency. Interestingly enough, Arceneaux implies that economic hardship might be a uniting factor:
“The crux of the problem for Southern Democrats comes down to this: While voters are moving beyond race, they still do not trust us with their money. For close to 30 years, we haven’t consistently told Southern voters why they should. Voters in the South trust Democrats on education, racial equality, health care and the environment, but we frankly can’t get swing voters to listen to us until they first trust us with their tax dollars. Republicans have run a relentless campaign to connect Southern Democrats with all things taboo to fiscally conservative white swing voters: higher taxes, welfare, government handouts and bigger government overall. All buttressed by racial overtones, mostly covertly, sometimes overtly.”
The problem Republicans are now facing, according to Arceneaux, is that the fabricated bogeyman of “Big Government” is aimed at scaring the Botox out of rich white Southerners. For awhile, it’s worked, because white Southerners — no matter how wide the economic disparity between themselves and the upper class — seemed determined to identify more with those of their own race than those of their own economic situation. As Arceneaux points out, though, that is changing.
There is a twofold process, I think, to coping with economic hardship: first comes the tendency to lash out at the most convenient target, typically anthropomorphized in whatever form is most convenient to the subject; after one or two generations of that, however, the subject is forced — whether by desperation, evolution or a combination of both — to dig deeper. As such, people are starting to recognize that government, depending on how it’s handled, can be either a problem or a solution, and it is becoming increasingly obvious which side is espousing which these days. As Arceneaux puts it, modern right-wing “robber barons” are not long for this environment.
To put it another way: I received two books for my birthday this past weekend by the poet Shane McRae, who writes about race not only in unrelentingly brutal language, but in a rather challenging, obtuse, and fractured syntax. There are line breaks per usual, but also breaks indicated by a back-slash, or by a glaring spacial whiteness on the page. The poems and their subject matter are harrowing, but perhaps what is most harrowing is that they force one to relearn how to read in order to access their full impact. In doing so, one relearns himself, and the world. How terrifying — how cold that realization.