NASHVILLE — It’s impossible not to notice how many members of Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election were white Southerners — more than half the legislators who professed to believe Donald Trump’s lie that the election was stolen are people who represent the American South. Even after his supporters, egged on by the president himself, staged a violent insurrection inside the United States Capitol, these craven, feckless legislators would not vote to certify the results of an election that has survived the scrutiny of more than 60 baseless challenges in various courts.
Others, including my own state’s two senators, entered the Senate chamber on Jan. 6 fully intending to join them but were moved by the violent attack on the Capitol to reverse course. “These actions at the US Capitol by protestors are truly despicable and unacceptable,” tweeted Marsha Blackburn, a Republican senator from Tennessee. “I condemn them in the strongest possible terms. We are a nation of laws.”
We are also a nation of free and fair elections, but somehow Ms. Blackburn had managed to ignore that necessary part of our democratic compact. She was not alone in her tardy about-face. All across the Southern states, politicians scrambled to reassert their own faith in the rule of law after publicly flouting it for weeks — or years, depending on when you start counting.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, belatedly recognizing the nature of his own constituency, called the insurrectionists “terrorists, not patriots.”
“Violence is abhorrent and I strongly condemn today’s attacks on our Capitol,” tweeted Senator Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia, who had just spent two months running for re-election while simultaneously joining the president in insisting that the election was rigged.
With such elected “leaders” representing this region — and with the insurrectionists parading through our nation’s Capitol carrying Confederate battle flags and other symbols of white supremacy — it’s not surprising that so many people outside the South seem to believe that the voters who support Marsha Blackburn, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Loeffler, not even to mention Donald Trump, are the only people who live here.
All I can say is thank God for Georgia.
In the runoff elections last week, the good people of Georgia sent two Democrats to Washington, D.C.: the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once served as a co-pastor, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish film executive who ran for Senate with the blessing of John Lewis, the civil rights activist and longtime member of Congress who passed away in July. In electing them, Georgia delivered the Senate to Democrats and at the same time offered a clear illustration of something Southerners, liberal and conservative alike, have known for years: The American South in the midst of profound change.
This is not a story of 21st century carpetbaggers moving to the South to take advantage of our cheap cost of living and then blowing up our longstanding election patterns, an argument I’ve heard from more than one conservative Southerner.
Partly, as other writers have noted, what is changing in the South is the demographic makeup. Urban and suburban voters, and the residents of college towns, are more apt to be progressive, and that’s true whether they’re homegrown or new residents. Every red state in the region has them. Think of Memphis and Nashville. Think of Chapel Hill and Birmingham and Louisville and New Orleans and Austin. As small towns dry up and jobs in the countryside disappear, it only stands to reason that these ever-growing cities and their suburbs will eventually loosen the stranglehold that rural voters have always had over elections in the South — at least in statewide elections, where gerrymandered districts don’t matter.
But Republicans still hold the power in almost all Southern state legislatures (Virginia’s is the exception, and only since 2019), and they will continue to do everything possible to make it harder for Democrats to vote. In Georgia, state legislators are already eyeing new ways to avoid a repeat of the elections that turned Georgia blue. Consequently, change in the South may always be of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back variety.
Which brings us to the other major explanation for why the South is changing: Liberals and progressives keep fighting back. Stacey Abrams is the face of this fight, and she is rightly credited with flipping Georgia two years after unapologetic voter-suppression tactics ended her own hopes of serving as governor. But the New Georgia Project, the mighty voter-outreach organization that Ms. Abrams and her colleagues have built to register new voters and persuade long disenfranchised Black and brown voters not to give up on the democratic process, has analogues across the South. These efforts may be less visible than Ms. Abrams’s, and some of them are still embryonic, but they are growing.
That’s why Democrats down here haven’t completely lost heart, despite consistently losing elections to Republicans on one side and despite being chastised by liberals outside the South on the other. (“Everyday Democrats need to see beyond the electoral map to acknowledge the folks pushing for liberal ideas even in the reddest of areas,” the Kentucky novelist Silas House notes in a new essay for The Atlantic. “If they don’t, the cultural divide will grow only wider.”)
In addition to voting demographics and voter outreach, a small but not inconsequential explanation for the changing political landscape of the South is that Donald Trump has finally inspired a change of heart in plenty of white Southerners. You won’t find them waving banners at political rallies or posting diatribes on social media, but they are here.
Many of them sat out the last election, true, but others quietly, bravely cast their votes for Democrats, often for the first time in their lives, because this president has made them see how thin the veneer of democracy really is in today’s Republican Party. It isn’t easy for them to defy their entire family or their entire church to vote for candidates who stand for fairness and inclusion, but they did it in 2020, and already in 2021, and I believe that their numbers will continue to grow.
I hope you’ll remember them, and all the passionate liberal activists here, too, the next time you see a sea of red on an election map. I hope you’ll remember them the next time a Southern statehouse passes another law that constrains the rights of L.G.B.T.Q. citizens or guts public education or makes it harder to choose an abortion but easier to buy a gun. I hope you’ll look beyond the headlines to what is also happening here, often at great risk to those who are making it happen. Because Georgia is the clearest proof yet that this is not our grandfather’s Southland anymore. And it will never be again.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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