Democracy and Barking at Box Turtles

So, Gavin Newsom has launched a new Campaign for Democracy to invest in change in Red States. Now, I am all for Democratic donors from California and elsewhere giving money to Mississippi organizations and candidates. Mississippi has a Governor’s race in 2023 in which a strong Democratic candidate, Brandon Presley, faces an unpopular Republican Governor, Tate Reeves. All public polls show the race as highly competitive. Mississippi also has a strong network of not-for-profit and grassroots-based organizations working in its local communities. They all need support.

And Mississippi needs donors. There are only 45 thousand millionaire households in Mississippi. It has the lowest percent of millionaire households of any state ( Many made their money by supporting the current oligarchy that runs the state and they donate copiously to preserve it. California, in contrast, has more than 885 thousand millionaire households. Definitely send your money to support progressive democratic change in Mississippi.

But there is nothing democratic about Californians telling Mississippians what to do, and nothing new about wealthy people thinking their wealth gives them that right. Supporting democracy in a progressive way means supporting grassroots and local efforts that lead people from where they are. There is a lot of trust involved in democracy but I do believe in the process.

I am not part of the Presley campaign but I have been watching it closely. Presley supports addressing most of the critical needs of people here in my view. Our Governor could expand Medicaid with the stroke of a pen, as Presley vows to do, and which most voters support. Instead, people in Mississippi die every day because they don’t have access to health care. Mississippi is 47th in the country in per pupil spending on education, and its low state expenditure means it gets fewer dollars per pupil from the federal government than low income states that invest more. Presley – and voters – support greater investment in public schools. Presley is also pro-life on abortion, which can slow down Democratic donors who aren’t from here, where fewer than four in ten people believe abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances (

Living in Mississippi has not weakened my personal support for legal abortion and it has strengthened my support for social justice. But it has also given me a far greater understanding of the culture here, which is not the one I came from. That’s ok, I have much to learn from this one and much hope for how it may evolve over time.

The evangelical Christian tradition that predominates in Mississippi is more pluralistic than the stereotype imposed on it by some outsiders. Some Pentecostal and evangelical traditions have been a democratizing force for over a hundred years with deep elements of social and racial justice. The adherents of those traditions, however, don’t support abortion morally and only sometimes support it legally. Abortion rights language is increasingly insensitive to that difference. “Safe, legal and rare” has been replaced with a moral neutrality in messaging that is very distant from popular attitudes here.

In addition to having different religious traditions, Mississippi is one of the most rural states. It has low population density even in its urban and suburban areas. One result is that I am impressed by the variety of birds in my yard even here in Jackson. And every spring I need to rescue box turtles crossing my yard as my Mississippi-bred dog barks at them furiously. The dog expects a fight or flight response. Instead, the turtles close up and hunker down until I take the dog inside or move the turtles to the other side of the fence.

Mississippi is a state of small towns and small communities where everybody knows each other. Even in the metro area, many people are from rural Mississippi. They are often tolerant of those who act differently – God made us all, as they will explain – but they don’t always celebrate the differences. I wish there were more dialog.

Instead, the oligarchy demagogues the cultural differences. The Governor gets self-righteous about eliminating problems that don’t exist and the legislature won’t allow ballot initiatives because they might create dialog. The oligarchy is thrilled to have the Governor of California take sides. It gave the Governor of Mississippi an opportunity to trumpet his own opposition to “letting boys play girl sports,” something he talks about every chance he gets, believing, I suppose, that the problem is greater than that of hospital closings for lack of Medicaid dollars.

People in Mississippi need outside support to stand up to the oligarchy and make their their own decisions at the ballot box. Outsiders may not always agree with their decisions but having two dogs bark at the box turtles doesn’t help them find their way across the yard.

So I hope people from elsewhere contribute to Mississippi candidates and progressive organizations with roots in the ground here. You may not agree with it all – or understand it all – but the lines that have been drawn here this year are clear and stark. I hope supporting democracy can mean supporting Mississippians as we find our own way to the other side of the fence.