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.




Mayhem and Message in Mississippi

The opening month of the state legislature has been hard to watch. Our legislature is sending back federal money, taking away basic rights, and blowing dog whistles sent down from Washington and up from Florida. The Governor, in his State of the State address, assures us this is the best year yet here in Mississippi.

It is all making progressives here want to scream, or move, or at least tweet in outrage. I have had moments of all three of these myself. But it is probably time instead to hunker down and fight. The fight starts in the legislature where gerrymandering, corruption, and vindictiveness add to the problems. It will end at the ballot box. Those of us who don’t work in the legislature need to focus on the end game.

Think what you can do to help: Give money. Talk to your friends and neighbors. Organize a canvas. Raise money. Be strategic. Give more money.

Social media from the last few days is full of ranting and raving – and I have done a little of that myself. But the election will rest on the dynamics of turnout and on a relatively small group of persuadable voters who could go either way. They are not political, partisan, or ideological or they wouldn’t be in the middle. They are also mostly women, to whom neither party in Mississippi does a good job communicating. We need to get their attention without turning them off by how we talk about issues. A few examples:

The legislature’s taking away fundamental rights of self-government from those of us who live in Jackson is enraging me, and of course I see it as racially motivated. But it is also a set up so that we call out racism and Republicans benefit from the polarization. That’s what the whole Gov. v. Mayor fight has been about for them – deepening polarization to the Governor’s political benefit in his base. When you want to call them racists, pull out your checkbook and give to Democratic candidates to make yourself feel a little better. Meanwhile, you can note they are paying double for administration by having two police departments. And in other cities, community-based policing has been more effective than double-cost administrative layering. They are playing politics, not solving problems.

Speaking of playing politics, Republicans are making much of the problem of 11-year olds being forced into gender altering surgical procedures. Now, we all know that’s not happening. It’s an easy one to rant about but think about those persuadable voters. If friends and neighbors bring it up, note its not actually happening (never mind the motivation). Suggest that if the legislature really wanted to help kids they could address the lack of air conditioning/science labs/school nurses/full time librarians/AP Calculus – whatever is applicable – at the local high school. Instead, they are just playing politics by making things up. That’s what they do.

Which brings us to Medicaid expansion. Virtually no one wants to leave federal money on the table that would save local hospitals. But remember that a lot of swing voters – who are never policy wonks – do not know much about Medicaid expansion, although expansion and “medi” sound good together. Here’s what it is: money is available to insure more people treated at the local hospital so it can afford to stay open. The legislature won’t even discuss it. Instead, they are spending time and money on things people don’t want, like administrative costs and corruption. They could take care of the problems in our county/town if they wanted to – and without costing us any more money than we are paying now. But they are playing politics instead.

The legislative session is the first quarter of what will be a long game. In the final quarter, if there is a fight between Jackson and the rest of the state, or about whether minor children can choose surgery without consent, or about federal takeovers of anything, well, then it won’t be a very interesting game. If it is an election between a guy who sounds like a Mississippi version of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and a crass politician playing games with our money, then it could be very interesting indeed.

I’ve long thought that persuadable voters choose the candidate who would be a good neighbor – who can be relied on to feed their cat over the weekend when they are out of town. Let November be about that. If not, come January of 2024 this crowd will strangle your cat for sure.

Goals and Means, Progressives, and the Election

I just finished reading a depressing Politico article entitled, “Progressives bare teeth after election debacle.” I hope there is more reflection from both moderates and progressives than the article suggests. Honestly, I don’t think the resolution is all that complicated.

First, most people want to feel safe in their communities, have health care when they need it, and have the opportunity for economic advancement for themselves and their children. Wanting those things is not very divisive along political lines nor by race, class, or gender.

Second, most people do not engage on the details of public policy. As they regularly assert in focus groups, that is what elected officials are for; to figure out how to get there. Voters are more likely to trust someone who articulates the goals and connects the policies to them than someone who argues the details of a particular policy or spending level. While there are differences between Democratic progressives and moderates on policy, most voters really don’t engage with those. There is considerable evidence, for example, that community engagement does more for public safety than face recognition technology, but most people care less about that debate than they do about feeling safe in their neighborhood. That does not mean letting Republicans get away with promising they will do things they have in actuality long opposed, but this election was clearly more about us than about them, a lesson Ciattarelli (I had to Google the spelling) taught us.

Third, then we arrive at the third rail of race. Moderates need to really get it that several hundred years of systematic discrimination on voting rights, housing, employment, education, public safety, and almost everything else is a real, clear, present and day-to-day problem for those who have been and still are subjected to it. It is completely unreasonable to expect continued fealty from people of color, who are indeed the base of the party, unless you really do something – do something does not mean lip service – to address the problems. It seems awfully late in the game to be arguing whether the federal government needs to protect the right to vote. In 1890, the House passed the Lodge bill and then it was filibustered in the Senate. Are we really still there?

Just as the issue of race is central for those who have been discriminated against, most white people do not care about it. Most white people are not active white supremacists; they do not define themselves as such and believe they are for fairness as long as they remain safe in their communities, have health care when they need it, and the opportunity for economic advancement for themselves and their children. Because they are not engaged with issues of race, they also do not understand the problem for those who are.

Many progressives – particularly it seems white progressives – want the white people who do not understand racial discrimination to get it. Now, there is ample evidence already in both the status quo and in American history that discrimination exists. If someone doesn’t get it, it is because they are not paying attention. They believe it doesn’t impact them and they don’t care much (and there are more than a few active white supremacists but they are not our audience). The reasons most white people don’t care and the long term remedies may be important, but you are unlikely to get those who don’t care to do so in the context of an electoral campaign.

Stokely Carmichael said, “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.” Elections are not a teaching moment. They are the occasions on which voters decide which candidate or which party will further their goals for themselves: like safety in their communities, health care when they need it, and opportunities for economic advancement for themselves and their children.

So why was this such a tough election for Democrats? Two reasons in my view: 1. We are in power but do not appear to be getting enough done on matters people care about: crime is up, COVID remains, education is down, and the economy is faltering. 2. We appear distracted by policy dialogue most people don’t care about. We appear to either deny the problems or argue what to many seems peripheral to them.

When things are bad it’s always easier to be a challenger. Some of the bad is beyond our control. But not all of it. Do stuff. Quit bickering. Most people don’t care about a lot of what you are bickering about. The bickering says to them you don’t care about what they want. Restoring democracy matters to me, but your capacity to do that will depend more on what you do than on what you say.