Commentary

Commentary: The South’s Old Groove

Disappointed, but not surprised. If there were any phrase to accurately sum up how I felt watching midterm results roll in for my home state of Florida, this would be it. “I mean, what did you expect?” one of my friends from home texted me as we watched Ron DeSantis, a controversial figure marred by steep accusations of racism, become governor-elect of our state. “This is yeehaw country.” Over the past couple of years, Southerners have faced numerous challenges that affect the wellbeing of countless people, among them natural disasters, gun violence, and immigration issues. The South is often stereotyped as a no man’s land for progressives, holding tight to a right-wing political culture that embeds itself into everyday life. Nevertheless, I truly believed that things would be different this election season. However, this year, I feel that many Southern voters swept the most urgent problems under the rug in prioritizing less important issues.

FLORIDA

This summer, during Florida’s gubernatorial primaries, I worked at a hectic polling site in my town. At the site, volunteers for various campaigns argued fiercely about issues like gun violence. This year, gun control has been a particularly contentious topic in my state, as several high-profile mass shootings have taken place, like the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February and a shooting this week at a Tallahassee yoga studio. In our gubernatorial race, Republican Ron DeSantis edged out Democrat Andrew Gillum by less than a single percentage point. While Gillum, Mayor of Tallahassee, has been battling the N.R.A. in court and defending shooting bans in public parks, DeSantis has offered no actual response to the gun violence prevalent in Florida, even arguing that one should not need a license to be armed, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The Sun-Sentinel reports that around 1,200 Florida youth have been killed by gun violence in the last decade, which led me to assume that voters would elect pro-gun safety officials. Although progress on this issue has been made thanks to our current Republican governor Rick Scott, whose swift action during the Parkland shooting helped earn him a Senate seat Tuesday night, DeSantis’ governorship could undo this progress easily. Simply addressing gun safety would not have made DeSantis compromise his conservative values either, as pro-Second Amendment politicians like Scott have worked with pro-gun control politicians for solutions in the past. For a more effective response to gun violence, I believe Florida voters should have elected Andrew Gillum. Instead of making issues like gun violence or climate change central ideas of his campaign, DeSantis mainly used a shiny endorsement from President Trump to appeal to voters, catering solely towards the state’s Trump fans while alienating moderates and progressives.

TEXAS

Senator Ted Cruz beat Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke Tuesday night to keep hold of his seat as Texans went to the polls passionate about issues like health care and immigration, according to the Houston Chronicle. O’Rourke, whose charisma and passionate speeches about issues like police brutality earned him national attention, lost by less than three percent. This is impressive, since Texas has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. This year, Texans have been inundated with warnings about a migrant caravan from Central America moving toward the state, with President Trump denouncing the “invasion” using extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric. A recent Trump ad that painted undocumented immigrants as criminals was pulled from major news broadcasting companies like CNN, NBC, and Fox News amid accusations of blatant racism, according to The New York Times. Unfortunately, the media’s denouncement of anti-immigrant propaganda did not translate to the polls, where Cruz, who wants to unconstitutionally end birthright citizenship, was re-elected. O’Rourke’s slim loss shows some progress in making political change in deep-red Texas, where Cruz previously won by sixteen points. But, this was not enough to give Texas a Senator who will focus on issues that I think matter, like the fact that recent federal cuts to Medicaid spending will affect millions of low-income Texans, as reported by Dallas News. O’Rourke, who promised to fight for Medicaid funding in the Senate, would have defended the wellbeing of Texans without perpetuating xenophobia.

GEORGIA

Another candidate who garnered national attention, Democrat Stacey Abrams, lost her gubernatorial campaign to Brian Kemp by less than two points in the traditional Republican stronghold of Georgia. Voter suppression is a major problem in many Southern states like Georgia, and Kemp’s victory comes as his campaign faces steep accusations of voter suppression: according to The Atlantic, Kemp, Georgia’s current Secretary of State, purged 1.5 million voters from registration by enacting laws penalizing voters for petty reasons like name changes. In addition, he suspended 53,000 voter applications, 70 percent of which came from African-Americans. Kemp’s office also closed hundreds of polling places in low-income areas. In contrast, according to The New York Times, Stacey Abrams has shown dedication to fighting voter suppression, as she founded the New Georgia Project, an organization dedicated to “boosting minority participation in the electoral process.” The changes made by Kemp disproportionately affected minority and low-income voters, who make up a vital portion of the state’s demographics. While Georgians were aware of this possible corruption, as it received major media attention, I believe many stayed complacent in this demonstration of racism by voting for Kemp anyways.

In the South, the suppression of minority voters has roots dating back to slavery and racial segregation, which mandated that black Southerners live in different areas, face anti-poor poll taxes, and pass unfair “literacy tests,” making it nearly impossible for them to vote. In 2018, shutting down polling places in majority-black areas and ensuring that minority voters cannot vote still rings with a Jim Crow-esque nature. Georgians are not completely to blame for electing Brian Kemp, given that many voters were denied their rights, but I believe that those unaffected by Kemp’s rules should have elected Abrams instead of turning a blind eye to racist division.

Although some rising political stars in the South didn’t see victories Tuesday night, their razor-thin margins of loss give me hope. In states usually flooded with hyper-partisan political cultures like Texas and Georgia, it’s refreshing for me to see that candidates willing to confront what I believe is their constituents’ real problems, like gun violence, Medicaid cuts, and voter suppression, nearly won; nearly is still better than nothing. This makes me believe that in time, with bipartisan support for candidates who will make change, Southerners can show the world they are capable of standing up to fight our biggest problems.

Megan Vaz is a two-year Lower from Weston, Fla. Contact the author at mvaz21@andover.edu.

C.Nguyen/The Phillipian
C.Nguyen/The Phillipian
C.Nguyen/The Phillipian
Nov 9, 2018