Being Blue in a Red State

By: Madeline Coffey

“Oh, you’re from North Carolina?   Well what brings you Tennessee?  We normally have people going to North Carolina to help out!” Chris Barber, a staff member at the Knoxville Democratic Party (KDP), told me as I explained why I was there to volunteer.  It is no surprise that in my great home state of Tennessee, the local party was at a loss.  Although Knoxville has several democratic officials on a local level, I heard many times during my time at KDP that, “we just aren’t going to win.”  It was familiar; I have always felt this way about my state.  In fact, it is the primary reason I took the opportunity to vote in North Carolina instead.  Despite what I’d love to believe, democratic votes just don’t matter where I live.

This attitude comes in sharp contrast with my experience with the Forsyth County Democratic Party where folks are markedly optimistic.  Here, I have noticed that reminding people that, “WE WILL ELECT DEMOCRATS UP AND DOWN THE BALLOT!” has been used as an effective campaign strategy to encourage people to get out to vote.  Why is this possible?  Because there is hope.  Every democrat I know in my deeply red home state has told me that their vote doesn’t matter, but North Carolina voters will be the first to tell you that their vote does.  It reminded me that although I have been frequently disappointed in North Carolina politics that at least we have the potential for change.

You see, democrats in Tennessee can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.  While I was in Knoxville, the Clinton campaign office, located within the same building as KDP was not open to the public on the days that I was there.  In fact, sometimes KDP wasn’t either.  Although Tennessee is a deeply red state, I was still surprised because the University of Tennessee—Knoxville, where there is a mecca of young liberals, was just down the street.  Perhaps the disappointment of being red in a blue state deters college students from turning out to help.

All over North Carolina, college students are participating.  I’ve never seen a single office not staffed by tons of unpaid interns and volunteers who make time for campaign work in their busy schedules.  This was not the case here.  It makes me wonder what the good folks in Knoxville could do if they did turn out to help.  What would be possible if we ignored the fact that we are the minority and fought for change anyway?

This question brings a couple of experiences from my time at home to mind.  In one instance, I began talking to my mom about the political climate in our hometown.  Although much more conservative than Knoxville (I can’t even recall a democrat running for local office in my lifetime), I still think that my hometown is worth talking about.  After all, rural Tennessee accounts for most of the state.  My mom told me that the other day our neighbor sent her a friend request on Facebook.  She looked through his page for a small amount of time but quit looking and decided not to accept his request.  The reason she quit looking at it, she said, is because she doesn’t want to dislike our neighbor.  She says that she just can’t talk politics with people at home because they will never understand.  But what would happen if we made a concerted effort to do so?

There was an interesting counter experience I had was while talking to a Knoxville woman during a phone bank organized by KDP.  I had called her husband, but he insisted that I talk to his wife because she really wanted to talk to me about her involvement in Knoxville.  The retirement age woman told me that she worked hard to educate her friends and neighbors about the democratic cause, but they just wouldn’t listen.  She said that she’s lost a lot of friends.  One particular story that she told in our unusually long eighteen minute conversation resonated with me.  She told me that she had recently been at her dentist office in town where she has seen the same dentist for many years.  She told me that while she was there, the receptionist tried to talk politics with her.  She told the woman her beliefs, which she says she deeply believes in doing, but the receptionist became irate with her.  The woman said that the receptionist was so aggressive with her, in fact, that she is searching for a new dentist to replace her old one.  She was simply disgusted with the encounter, she told me.

I know this receptionist.  Not personally, of course, but I know a million people like her.  They are the reason my mom doesn’t talk politics in town.  They are the reason that I couldn’t wait to get out of our incredibly red state three years ago.  These people, it seems, have some deeper connection to their beliefs that prohibits them from a friendly, civil dialogue about the differences of ideas.  But, I ask, how can we manage to change things when we can’t have a conversation?  I never found the answer to my question at KDP, but I can’t help but wonder what could be.

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