Red and inherently conservative. That’s the assumption many people have about the South.
While there’s an element of truth to this, things are changing. Partisan polarization may still reign in American politics, but the red and blue demarcations are not so clear-cut anymore. While Republican lawmakers have skewed evermore rightward, the voters they represent are far more moderate.
What were considered solidly red states a generation ago—think Texas, where President Joe Biden earned 46.48 percent of the vote in 2020 (the highest percentage for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976) despite Republicans projecting a landslide victory, and Georgia, which President Biden carried in that election—are increasingly purple, with bits of both red and blue.
Beto O’Rourke may have lost to Governor Greg Abbott in the midterms, but the results in South Texas denied Republicans their desired narrative of Hispanic voters abandoning Democrats in droves. Beyond the national political headlines, we’re seeing pockets of safe spaces and cities emerge in otherwise conservative environments. Political views are more nuanced and people are focusing more on what needs to be done as opposed to what politics dictates.
For example, although legislators in Texas have managed to pass a conservative agenda—from the open carrying of guns to abortion restrictions to voting rights—people are fighting for change at the grassroots. Consider how people are advancing the protection of voter rights or how communities are coming together to contest the ban of certain books from schools and libraries.
Red with an increasing number of blue spaces is the new reality of the South.
The American South has traditionally been a haven of anti-abortion sentiment, and it’s home to some laws that eroded Roe v. Wade even before it was overturned. Texas’ SB 8, one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, is a good example of this. In addition, close to half of all U.S. abortion clinic closures since the overturning of Roe v. Wade have been in Texas.
Yet, things are changing in the South—anti-abortion sentiment is not as dominant as it was before.
One survey showed that 60 percent of voters in Texas support abortion being “available in all or most cases.” Only 11 percent favor a complete ban. These results are perhaps unsurprising given that the passage of SB 8 provided an early example of the impact of restrictive abortion laws.
Businesses in Texas cities like Austin have committed to helping their employees travel out of state for reproductive care. Doctors across Texas are helping patients navigate reproductive health options.
Beyond Texas, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham received immediate blowback back in September after introducing a bill that would outlaw abortion nationally after 15 weeks, with very few exceptions.
In Virginia, 67 percent of residents want abortion to be legal in most cases, and in deep-red Kentucky, 52.6 percent of voters rejected a ballot measure aimed at denying any constitutional protections for abortion in the recent midterms.
Critics may decry the backwardness of the South, but in reality, some of the most significant progressive shifts in America’s metropolitan areas have come in traditionally conservative states like Texas and North Carolina.
Texas legislators failed to pass several bills that would provide financial relief to families affected by the 2021 electrical blackout, but polls show that Texans overwhelmingly support measures to create new disaster systems and upgrade facilities. In North Carolina, only 36 percent of residents supported HB2—a failed “bathroom bill” that would have forbidden transgender and gender nonconforming residents from using facilities that reflect their gender. The public was more concerned about how the bill would hurt the state financially.
Southerners are showing what it means to put ideological boundaries aside and focus on what needs to be done in communities.
LGBTQ+ communities in the South continue to face discrimination. In the state capital, half of Austin’s LGBTQ+ bars are facing displacement due to redevelopment. Despite the threat, these local leaders are still not deterred from standing up for their safe spaces.
A friend of mine who identifies as a lesbian runs a bar that, in the daytime, serves as a coffee shop for children who have nowhere else to go. She doesn’t consider herself aligned with either party, and her only concern is creating pockets of safe spaces amid all the chaos.
Many people fail to realize that Southerners have always been able to open their doors and hearts to offer support where it’s needed despite any differences in views, beliefs, or opinions.
People may not agree on specific cultural values and issues—take abortion, for example—but that doesn’t stop them from working together on others. Southern communities still come together to empower vulnerable households so that they get out of poverty and succeed. They are working together to fight against things such as environmental injustice and inequities in the healthcare system that disproportionately affect communities of color.
More than that, Southerners realize that to achieve meaningful, sustainable change, we need to go beyond individuals and organizations and look to change government policy.
For example, the Texas House refuses to accept federal money for Medicaid expansion, which means millions of poor people don’t get healthcare. However, nearly 70 percent of Texans support Medicaid expansion.
All this action has proven just how much the South is not defined by red versus blue or conservative versus liberal.
States, much like cities, are not one thing. They are laboratories that can be experimented in to effect change that benefits everyone. All the efforts being made by Southern communities (from reproductive health to economic) are essentially a window into the persistence of blue cities in red states.
There’s still the issue of politics, however.
The distraction of partisan politics is real, and it often frustrates what can be just basic improvements in the living conditions of people who live two blocks away.
Think about the recent gubernatorial debate between Abbott and Beto O’Rourke. The two accused each other of lying to Texas voters and getting facts wrong. As the New York Times put it, “The Texas governor’s debate was heavy on attacks but light on race-changing moments.”
The debate touched on major issues—from immigration to abortion rights to the reliability of Texas’ power grid to gun policies—but did it really go beyond talking points? What are elected officials in local, state, and federal offices doing to address voters’ concerns?
It’s time we focused on what matters. We must ask ourselves if politics is supposed to be the origin of fundamental issues, or if it should grow out of the issues we face. The latter is what we want.
Our focus should be on ensuring that partisan politics don’t make us lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve—communities where everyone can thrive.
We need to remember that whether we’re looking at issues of voting rights, racial equality, poverty, and climate justice, or at creating safe havens in unlikely environments, the South sets the tone for the rest of the nation.
As the great scholar W. E. B. Du Bois brilliantly put it, “As the South goes, so goes the nation.”
Of course, party platforms will take positions on specific issues, but the issues we face matter more than party platforms. It’s up to us to do what is right.