As 2020 wound to a close, pundits noted the growing toll of leftist policies on residents of blue states, prompting migration from California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois to Republican-run states such as Texas and Florida, which offer lower taxes and a better business climate. In addition to losing Oracle, Charles Schwab, Hewlett Packard, and Elon Musk, for the first time in its history California is expected to lose a congressional seat in the upcoming decennial census allocation, due to stagnating population. Texas is expected to gain three seats, and Florida is expected to pick up two.
Blue states tend to be dominated by urban voters, large numbers of unionized government employees, and—in California—a technology-based economy that relies on large numbers of young, college-educated (and in many cases foreign-born) employees. Even historically red states such as Texas exhibit symptoms of dysfunctional leftist governance in their burgeoning urban areas. Austin is rapidly becoming a clone of San Francisco and Portland.
We have come to expect blue states to be “woke,” displaying fealty to the latest academic fads, such as critical race theory and other forms of identity politics. Rural America, the “flyover country” populated by Donald Trump-voting deplorables, is supposed to be immune from this trend.
As a resident of a small town in east Tennessee, I regret to report that wokeness is everywhere, even in the brightest-red areas of Republican-majority states. My town is home to a small, 200-year-old, Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts college that appears to be an island of sanity in higher education. But it’s not, and neither is the rest of the town.
When we relocated here from Austin, my wife and I imagined the school was comparable to Hillsdale College, except nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. My wife and I quickly learned the reality is otherwise when a supposedly faith-based lecture we attended on campus was devoted to the teachings of Karl Marx rather than Jesus Christ. The lecturer, who teaches “religious studies” at Skidmore College, is the daughter of the host school’s equally-leftist campus minister.
We were also chagrined to learn that the local public library—in a county that voted for President Trump in 2020 by a margin of 71-27 percent—maintains a curated “antiracism” reading list that includes controversial fare such as Ibram Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.”
Ignoring the blight homeless people inflict on library users across America, the local library also provides office space to a newly formed organization serving the homeless, with which the library works as a partner, even engaging in “street outreach.” The library staffer leading this initiative is—predictably—a graduate of the local leftist college. Indoctrination works.
Even though the area is overwhelmingly Republican, the local paper (owned by a national chain headquartered out of state) is unfailingly and obnoxiously left. The editor admits that one of his “life’s greatest disappointments” was being interviewed by The Washington Post and getting turned down for the job. The local paper is a WaPo wannabe, albeit relying heavily on Associated Press reportage. It consistently boosts leftist ideas, locally and nationally.
Due in part to the paper’s favorable coverage, a leftist activist who chaired the local Democratic Party and founded the radical organization Indivisible East Tennessee was recently elected to the ostensibly nonpartisan city council. The local Republican Party belatedly—and reluctantly—supported the center-right candidates in a four-person race for two seats. Supported by Soros-funded organizations from outside the state, the Democrat eked out a second-place finish by a few hundred votes, establishing a leftist toe-hold in an otherwise solidly conservative county.
Complacency is a problem for east Tennesseans. They are so used to Republicans winning elections that they falsely assume victory is automatic. It is not.
The first step in electing sound candidates to local office is to make sure that someone representing your values is running. “Nonpartisan” offices such as the local school board are hugely important, but often conservative parents and taxpayers lose by default.
In 2020, a leftist educator and “diversity consultant” who formerly served as dean of students at the local “woke” college was elected to the county board of education without any opposition. Public education desperately needs responsible oversight, but frequently is captured by leftists aligned with teachers’ unions.
In my local school district, for example, the unelected school superintendent (or “director,” as the position is called here) appointed a “diversity task force” that included an activist college student who told a group of protesters organized by the local NAACP chapter in the wake of the George Floyd incident that “We need radical change, and we need it now”; the district’s paid “diversity trainer,” who instructs on the topics of “systemic racism,” “racial equity,” “inclusive leadership,” and “unconscious biases,” among other dubious topics; and an officer of a community organization that describes its mission as “working for racial justice.” The stated goals of the 12-person diversity task force include acknowledging that “racism…exist[s] in our schools and community.”
Cowardly administrators wishing to avoid responsibility for making unpopular decisions often resort to commissions, committees, and task forces. Ironically, the diversity task force, supposedly formed to collect community input, has been meeting behind closed doors, claiming to be exempt from the state’s open meetings law.
“It’s not our intent for the work of the diversity task force to be aired in the public,” the director told a reporter. “It wouldn’t be fair to them to have those conversations in public.”
Why do voters tolerate such high-handed actions by their public servants? Many are uninformed; few people read the local newspaper. Most ordinary people in small towns are busy working, taking care of their families, and living their lives. They do not spend their time on social media or the internet, putting them at a disadvantage compared to better-organized, tech-savvy activists on the left.
Most residents of small towns are trusting, good-natured people who naively believe that civic leaders will “do the right thing.” East Tennesseans are nice, and they assume that their niceness will be reciprocated. Sadly, all too often local elected officials betray this trust, in order to dole out political favors or do the bidding of business cronies.
For example, our Republican county mayor, the most powerful local elected official, supported the opening of a methadone clinic located near a daycare center. Astonishingly, the owner of the methadone clinic is one of the biggest supporters of the Democratic activist who was recently elected to the city council.
In short, weak leadership, public inattention, lack of organization, and general complacency make small towns vulnerable to aggression by liberal activists. Wokeness can be resisted successfully when the majority of voters actively oppose it. But in the absence of political resistance, the left’s agenda will take over, as inexorably as the rising tide.
Unless rural voters in states like Tennessee wake up, they may find that their communities have become knock-offs of Portland, Minneapolis, Austin, or Nashville. Like it or not, small towns are embroiled in the national culture war. They must fight back or they will lose.