Use Your Words: Why conservative rhetoric will never build a more progressive South.

I was visiting Cottonmouth, which is a fantastic progressive blog in Mississippi, when I came across this video calling for the expansion of Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA):

The ad seemed real polished, and it seemed like it would connect with many low-income and working-class voters. I say many instead of most or all because of the following passage from the same video:

They’re saying no to 9,000 new jobs and almost $1 billion of economic activity in our state, and they are leaving 200,000 of our neighbors in the cold. Working families, not freeloaders; preventing them from getting decent medical care.

I just cannot understand this.

We are advocating for a program that would help all of Mississippi’s low-income families to get decent health care, and we are pitting one vulnerable group against another? We should be discussing the inherent classism, racism, and general social injustice that is involved with ensuring that all Mississippi families do not have access to quality health care. Instead, we are spending time ensuring that some Mississippians do not feel like we are giving assistance to “the wrong people”.

This is not the first Mississippi campaign that I have seen that had questionable messaging, though:

I cannot even begin to describe all of the things that are wrong with that ad. But it was not just that ad; every anti-Initiative 26 ad that went on the air in Mississippi either mentioned that “the government is going too far” or that “it is okay to be pro-life and against Initiative 26”. What is progressive about an ad campaign that couches itself in the anti-choice, anti-government rhetoric of the most reactionary forces in our society? The ad campaign did what it was supposed to do: Initiative 26 was defeated on November 8, 2011 by a wide margin. The victory, however, was short lived: the Mississippi Department of Health notified the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which runs the only clinic that will perform abortions in the entire state, that their license to run their clinic will be revoked because no local hospital would grant their doctors the ability to admit patients into one of their facilities. While they have appealed, and are going through that process currently, one has to question the decision to go with such a short-sighted messaging campaign.

After all, Mississippians did the following in the same election:

  • Elect Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) as Governor of Mississippi. This being the same Phil Bryant that said that Satan would win if Initiative 26 fails. Oh, and also the guy who said that he would end abortion in Mississippi tomorrow if he legally could.
  • Elect a Republican majority in both houses of the Mississippi State Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. They passed the bill that created the trouble that the Jackson Women’s Health Organization is facing. As Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (a Republican who ran essentially unopposed for Lieutenant Governor) stated: “This is a strong bill that will effectively end abortion in Mississippi.”
  • Voted overwhelmingly for Voter ID restrictions. Restrictions on universal democratic participation, also known as Voter ID, passed with 62 percent of the vote and with 71 of Mississippi’s 82 counties voting Yes.

There will be people who say, “Well….it’s Mississippi! They were gonna elect Republicans anyway, and we have to run campaigns with language that the people can understand. A W is a W, right?” WRONG. We cannot have the notion that progressivism ends at the Mason-Dixon Line, and that we have to sound like Republicans to get progressive policies and initiatives passed and progressive people elected be our takeaway from this experience. Progressive Southerners have to look at our initiatives and issue-based campaigns and be more forceful about what we want. Do we simply want to beat an anti-woman referendum, or do we want to beat an anti-woman idea?

Imagine an Initiative 26 ad campaign that talked about why women should have the power to make their own decisions about their own bodies. Imagine a discussion about the harmful effects that anti-choice legislation has in low-income and working-class communities (of which there are plenty in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South). Imagine people in Mississippi actually going to the polls and defeating more than one initiative, but rather defeating an idea, or an policymaking ideology, of oppression and patriarchal subjugation. Imagine a political discourse where Southern progressives say what they mean and mean what they say, without all of the wordsmithing and linguistic wizardry.

Might we still be in the same place from an electoral standpoint? Perhaps. But it is undeniable that we would be in a better place to activating opposition to further oppressive measures that come out of our city halls, county commissions, state legislatures, and Congress. And we would be in a better place when it comes to turning votes like the Initiative 26 vote in Mississippi into the sort of mobilization needed to accelerate the South’s march towards a more inclusive, progressive place for all of its people.

Winning progressive victories while using conservative rhetoric is like building a house with bricks, mortar, and steel reinforcements on a foundation of graham crackers: it looks impressive, but it does not take much for it to come tumbling down all around us. If we want our progressive victories to remain that way for the long-term, we must fight oppression on our terms.