Wokeness Is Everywhere: Tales from Small Town Tennessee
An edited version of this essay originally appeared in The Federalist on January 13, 2021 as “Leftists Are Colonizing Red Towns Like Mine, And Local Republicans Are Clueless” (here). Thanks to Power Line, Real Clear Politics (here), Real Clear Policy, and The New American (here)!
As 2020 wound to a close, pundits noted the growing toll of progressive policies on residents of blue states, prompting a migration from places like 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. Indeed, 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 its stagnating population compared to robust growth in some Sun Belt states. 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 the case of 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 progressive governance in its burgeoning urban areas. Austin is rapidly becoming a clone of San Francisco or 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 “fly-over country” populated by 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 a roiled sea of radical ideology in higher education. When we relocated here from Austin, my wife and I imagined that the school was comparable to Hillsdale College, except nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. My wife and I quickly learned that 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-woke 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%–maintains a curated reading list on the topic of “anti-racism” 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 in cities across America, the local public library also provides office space to a newly-formed organization serving the homeless, with which the library will work “hand in hand” as a partner—even engaging in “street outreach.” The library staffer leading this initiative is—predictably–a graduate of the local “woke” 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) liberal. The editor admits that one of his “life’s greatest disappointments” was being interviewed by The Washington Post and getting turned down. The local paper is a WaPo wannabe, albeit relying heavily on AP reportage. It consistently boosts the progressive agenda, locally and nationally. Due in part to the paper’s favorable coverage, a liberal activist who chaired the local Democratic Party, and who 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 Republican 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, thus establishing a progressive 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 progressive 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 progressives 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.” This organization co-sponsored the George Floyd protest with the NAACP. In a county in which over 93% of the population is white, three members of the task force—far out of the mainstream–are effectively BLM advocates.
The stated goals of the 12-person diversity task force include acknowledging that “racism…exist[s] in our schools and community.” Another goal of the task force is to determine community sentiment regarding changing the longstanding nickname of the local high school from the “Red Rebels” to something else. Even critics acknowledge that the nickname does not refer to the Confederacy; although Tennessee seceded in 1861, east Tennessee remained aligned with the Union. East Tennessee has voted Republican since the end of the Civil War, unlike the rest of the Deep South.
The “Red Rebels” nickname was adopted by the sports-obsessed high school in 1938 based on a dispute between the school and the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. The Confederate battle flag has been banned from school premises for years. Nonetheless, meddlesome liberals contend that the nickname “Red Rebels” is offensive to some students and have made its elimination a priority. In contrast, the nickname remains very popular with the high school’s alumni. As with the removal of statues, the drive to change the school’s nickname is entirely symbolic–merely an opportunity for a vocal minority to exercise power over a docile majority.
Cowardly administrators wishing to avoid responsibility for making unpopular decisions often resort to delegating authority 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,” he reportedly said. This sentiment exemplifies the Left’s disdain for conservative voters. It “wouldn’t be fair” for the public to know what a hand-picked group of insiders is doing, when meeting in secret to assess public opinion regarding the local high school?
Why do voters tolerate such high-handed actions by their public servants? Many voters 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 day care 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 liberal 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 either fight back or they will lose the battle.