One muggy afternoon in 2014, while walking to lunch in Birmingham, Alabama, my partner received a call from a number he didn’t recognize. The number had the same area code as his hometown, Columbus, Ohio, so he picked up.
I could tell the call wasn’t from someone he knew. He answered a handful of questions, some biographical and others about his voting habits, then hung up. The call was over in three minutes.
“Who was that?” I asked.
It was pollster wanting opinions on political issues and candidates in Ohio.
“You mean strangers just call you up and ask you about your political beliefs? Isn’t that invasive?” Traditional Southern culture dictates religion and politics are not to be discussed in “polite company,” and while those antiquated social conventions are falling by the wayside, I was still a little surprised.
“Not at all. It’s an important part of the political process,” he said. “If you don’t answer questions, your voice isn’t counted in polls, so it’s a way to have your voice heard. You don’t have to answer, but if you do and you do so honestly, someone hears you.”
If polls via phone surveys are an important part of the political process, I wondered why, as a registered Democrat who had been voting for several years, I’d never been called.
“It happens all the time in Ohio because it’s a swing state,” my partner said.
That explains it, then.
Why call a Democrat in Alabama, who would have no pull in a solidly conservative state, when you could call an Ohio voter and get something done?
It was then I realized the party I’d voted for every time I went to the polls––the only party I feel is a viable option given my beliefs––doesn’t care about me.
It’s a bitter truth, like so many of the emotions that accompany living in and being from a place where you live counter to the dominant narrative.
Being liberal in the South dredges up conflicting sentiments on a near daily basis: Do I save myself and move somewhere I’d be happier, where there are more people who believe as I do? Or do I stay and try to change this place from within, because it’ll never change if progressives move away?
Having lived the first 25 years of my life in Alabama, there’s one thing I know for sure––Trump’s America is nothing new. As a liberal Southerner, my home is a battleground.
You can love a place for its potential to be different, yet not want to be complicit in the corruption home invites upon itself. Loving Alabama is akin to loving an unrelenting addict, intent on her own demise.
I moved to Ohio two years ago with the hope of living in a blue state for the first time, but I wasn’t so lucky. The political pendulum that is the swing state I now call home elected Trump. “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation,” the old adage says.
I left Alabama, forgetting that Alabama is everywhere. A state isn’t relegated to its borders––Alabama is an attitude and a culture that can arise in any place, at any time.
I have always known that Republicans, particularly the sort who would ally themselves with Trump, are out of touch with the lived experiences of people different from them, but now I know why. It became clear the day my partner received that call from the pollster.
Liberals in majority conservative states are disregarded. Democrats don’t want to spend money in solidly conservative states, yet there’s little room for those states to be anything but solidly conservative if people feel ignored by the other major party.
As was the case with me, the liberal ignored in a near-blanket red state is the same liberal voter later courted to further a political agenda in a swing state. All it took was moving, a decidedly common experience.
How I wish I were an isolated incident; one person who fell through the cracks by complete accident. I want to believe there are Southern liberals being asked to share their opinions and who are having their voices heard. I hope, but don’t believe, I’m the exception and not the rule.
These days, if I were to receive a phone call from a political pollster, I’m not sure how I’d feel. I would probably answer and I’d ask why they only care about me now that I live in a swing state. I’d ask them why they think they’re worthy of my time, attention, and political capital now when they didn’t think twice about ignoring me before.
But this won’t get me anywhere. So I’ll sigh in exasperation when I login to Twitter and punch a pillow when I turn on the news. And I’ll vote, I’ll write, and I’ll call my representatives, and hope that somehow, somewhere, someone will hear and it’ll make a difference.
There was a time when I wrote my representatives with frequency and fervor and kept abreast of the issues. But after years of receiving snarky, demeaning, or evasive replies, if I received a response at all, I more or less gave up. The now-Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was my senator for much of the time I lived in Alabama and most of his peers in the legislature were just as insensitive and small-minded as he is.
My small––but brightly electric––blue dot made little difference in the crimson tide that is Alabama and thus I became complacent. I’m one person and one person can only do so much.
But that is exactly how they want me to feel.
As a middle class white woman, the option to be complacent is a luxury afforded to me by my privilege and choosing to be politically inactive is a display of that privilege. It’s easy to look the other way when your livelihood isn’t being directly and immediately threatened.
Even with a fair amount of privilege, being bisexual, atheist, and liberal made me an ideological minority in the Bible Belt. There was always the underlying knowledge that the place of my birth is incongruent to my values and the reality of my existence, but because the things that made me an ideological minority in the South are easily hidden, it was easy to escape the wrath of the majority. As long as I didn’t speak out too loudly, I could live more or less undeterred. My bisexuality, atheism, and liberalism can be hidden when it suits me, so I can choose not to be bothered with fighting back. That is another display of privilege.
Even with this choice available to me, I shouldn’t have to feel like I’d be better off hiding some of the most essential parts of my identity as a tactic of self-preservation. Still, this pales in comparison to what people of color, people with visible disabilities, people whose religion is outwardly represented by a garment on their person, and others whose identities cannot easily be hidden face each day, especially in the South.
Though I can choose not to be politically inactive, that’s not what I want or what I think is best. But it has been, at times, what I felt was the only viable option when faced with the alternative, which is exerting myself––mentally, physically, and emotionally––only to be ignored. I would rather take a break from being politically active than to let resentment for the Democratic party consume me. For that, I have seen, is one way Republicans are made.
I may not swing an election, but my voice matters. Yours, too.
I wish I could say I knew how to make a quiet voice heard. I don’t have the answers and perhaps no one does, which speaks to the gravity of the problem.
Once again, I’ll hang my face in my hands when I read the news. And I’ll vote, I’ll write, and I’ll call my representatives because silence is violence I refuse to choose the side of the oppressor. The attitudes pervasive in Alabama may be everywhere, but attempts to limit its reach are a worthwhile use of my limited political capital.