In the mid-19th century, Abolitionists from New England settled in Kansas in a bid to oppose the extension of slavery into the state. My town, Lawrence, KS was settled by these Free-Staters, and today, residents are surrounded by constant reminders of this past — in the names of schools, local businesses, and in the very symbol of the town itself: a phoenix rising from the ashes (pro-slavery guerillas led by William Quantrill burned Lawrence to the ground 150 years ago this August). The Free-Staters organized and moved across the country, in an effort to influence the political future of the country.
As I watch the news today, where despite overwhelming majority support from the American people, the Senate failed to pass the watered-down bill for background check on gun sales — even though it had 54 votes, a majority in a 100-seat chamber — I realize that our country is almost irreparably broken: perhaps more so than at any time since the prelude to the Civil War.
What we need are 21st century Free-Staters.
Part of this inspiration comes from witnessing the unhinged rhetoric of the Right, especially on the issue of gun control legislation: They are quick to phrase things in apocalyptic, violent wish-fulfilment: There is instantly talk of “taking up arms” to “defend against Tyranny” and such. It reminds me that, for a large percentage of the American Right, “Culture War” is not a metaphor. They firmly believe that Progressives are coming for their guns, to outlaw their religion, to place them under the yoke of tyranny.
Progressives, by and large, are not prepared to fight a war. We dismiss the rhetoric with sarcastic snark, and look down upon what we see as ignorant hayseeds who seem to revel in violence, anti-intellectualism, and blind adherence to political or religious dogma. While we insult and demean, it only reinforces the divide — a divide which is already as intractable as it was 150 years ago. Meanwhile, the other side acts — and through manipulation of a hopelessly out-of-date electoral system that encourages disproportional representation and gerry-mandering, and a legislative system that requires that all sides operate in good faith or it breaks down completely — they hold our entire country hostage to their minority extremism.
Progressives need to stop snarking and start DOING. Unlike the Right, however, we’re not going to advocate armed insurrection to get what we want. So instead, I argue that we should take a page from the tactics of the Free-Staters.
Progressives should move, en mass, to the deepest of Red States, in an effort to change the political demographics on the ground. In short, if you’re tired of people like Lindsay Graham and Rand Paul holding the entire country hostage to their agenda, the only solution is to flood into places like South Carolina and Kentucky until we tip the scales.
It’s not a quick fix — and it certainly isn’t an attractive option for many, since we all prefer to live in cultural surroundings that reflect our own. But if we’re serious about changing the country, about altering the course of our culture in the long run, then we Progressives will have to abandon our propensity for aggregating in a small selection of high-population cultural centers, because the electoral reality is that low-population areas are given disproportional representation.
So we need to game the system.