My Home State of Georgia, Once Conservative-But-Sane, May Be Coming Back to Earth
When the writer was growing up in the Peach State it was a relatively reasonable red state. Then it went bonkers. But maybe it’s returning to normalcy.
Georgia has become a battleground state in this election with the latest poll showing Clinton tied with Trump in this reliably red state. As the Daily Beast’s Patricia Murphy noted Wednesday, Peach State Democrats are pumped.
I’m a native Georgian. I have a hard time thinking of Georgia as a blue state. Pigs have yet to fly. But the close polling does indicate that the state could more closely resemble the relatively reasonable red state that I grew up in.
I’m a child of the 1980s. I was raised in the suburban Atlanta town of Marietta in Cobb County. Newt Gingrich represented my district in Congress, and so did current Sen. Johnny Isakson. This area, along with Gwinnett County, was and still is the epicenter of conservative thought in the state.
It grew to prominence as a result of white flight from Atlanta, so black families were not the norm. I still remember not being invited to my white friends’ birthday parties as a kid, wondering why I was never asked over to some of my friend’s houses, and experiencing the scorn of interracial dating.
Yet despite all of this, I grew up in arguably the most progressive era of Georgia politics.
I grew up hearing my parents praise Jimmy Carter. They were proud to have a Democrat from Georgia who cared about black people in the White House. This might seem a minor accomplishment, but caring about the lives of African Americans in the South was no small thing then, and it remains arguably the highest form of Southern progressivism. Historically, Southern Democrats were always segregationists and avowed racists.
Prior to Carter winning the governorship in 1971, our previous governor was Democrat Lester Maddox, who still supported segregation, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And Democratic Sen. Herman Talmadge, who served from 1951-1981, was a vocal segregationist.
But the 1980s and ’90s brought about a seismic change in Georgia. I grew up in a Georgia with a new breed of Democratic senators—Sam Nunn served from 1972-1997, and Vietnam war veteran Max Cleland held Nunn’s seat until 2003. These men weren’t liberals by, say, Massachusetts standards. But they did reach out to African-American voters to a degree that was previously unheard of.
My Georgia has always had Democratic governors too, despite voting Republican in presidential elections. Democrat Zell Miller was a hugely popular governor. The HOPE Scholarship program he created, which grants merit-based scholarships to Georgia students with B averages, has allowed countless Georgians to attend college. Because of this program many of my high school classmates went to college for next to nothing.
And I proudly remember his successor Roy Barnes creating a new state flag in order to minimize the Confederate battle emblem.
Also, African-American mayors of Atlanta Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson created change that reverberated throughout the state. Both Young and Jackson worked to bring the Olympics to Atlanta in 1996, and they supported the expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport that made it the biggest airport in the world, turning Atlanta into a major international business hub.
However, this era would not last, and by the late 1990s the tide had clearly begun to turn. Bill Clinton’s supposed immorality had become the focal point of Georgian politics.
As Gingrich spearheaded Clinton’s impeachment on the Hill, his rhetoric permeated throughout the state and completely changed the political landscape. As a result, the evangelicals grew increasingly important in the state, and quickly the line between religion and politics became blurred.
My family had gone to an integrated Christian church for years, but our commitment to this congregation began to wane in the 2000s as our pastor decided to become a political expert and decry the immorality of the Democrats and the necessity of supporting Republicans. Bill Clinton was viewed as nearly demonic, and George W. Bush, an avowed Christian, was the savior that our society needed. Eventually, my family left that church in favor of a predominantly black church.
The evangelicals felt emboldened to claim the moral high ground and entitled to demean Democrats and their supporters, many of whom were African-American. The state became increasingly divisive and the worst in people became more apparent.
In 2003, Sen. Cleland—who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam—lost his re-election bid to Republican Saxby Chambliss, who bombarded the Georgia airwaves with a disgusting ad declaring that Cleland lacked the “courage to lead.” During the same year, Gov. Barnes lost his re-election bid due to the outrage over his changing of the state flag. One of new Gov. Sonny Purdue’s first acts was to redesign the flag, and although he completely removed the Confederate battle emblem, he replaced it with the Confederate national flag.
By 2004, the Republican conservative transition was complete when Miller, by then a senator, spoke at the Republican convention, endorsing President George W. Bush and unleashing an abusive tirade against John Kerry and Democrats generally. “For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak, and more wobbly than any other nation figure,” said Miller at the RNC. “John Kerry wants to re-fight yesterday’s war. George Bush believes we have to fight today’s war and be ready for tomorrow’s challenges.”
Since then Georgia has been a redder and far more corrupt state, thanks to Gov. Nathan Deal.
So if Republicans and corruption dominate Georgia politics, you’d think Trump, who is so operatically both of those things, would have a sizable lead, right? But no. Clearly, his negligible amount of support from Georgia’s African-American and Latino population does not help his cause, but the real damage stems from the moderate Republicans and evangelicals who are reluctant to support him.
Trump’s extreme language and divisive politics have turned off many moderate Republicans in the Atlanta suburbs. A large segment of these moderates identify as evangelicals, too. For months, Trump has retained the support of evangelicals in the state primarily due to the vacant Supreme Court seat, and their desire for a conservative Justice. But as his campaign further spirals out of control, the prospect of an immoral Trump presidency that shows no sign of adhering to a conservative ideology has become unappealing.
Gary Johnson has become the go-to candidate for disillusioned Republicans and evangelicals in Georgia. The pocket of Johnson-supporting Republicans represents the potential for positive change in Georgia. When I was growing up these folks represented Republicans who supported bipartisanship and may have voted for Democrats from time to time. This created a more equitable, empathetic state with less corruption, and people discouraged mixing politics and religion.
Georgia has always been conservative, but I remember a time when the state was moderately reasonable and not dominated by far right radicals. The Georgian displeasure with Trump shows that the return of reason might not be too far way.