Return of the MS Conservative Democrat?

“[A]ny species that exempts itself from the rules of competition ends up destroying the community in order to support its own expansion.” 

― Daniel Quinn

Some time ago, I read a story about wolves being reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park. The wolf is native the Yellowstone region and had functioned as a top predator keeping the elk population in the area in check. Wolves in the area had been hunted to the point of effective extinction back in the 1920’s due to their negative image with farmers and even some nature lovers in the area. In the subsequent years, coyotes somewhat took the place of wolves as a top predator, but as their population exploded due to the lack of wolf competition the antelope population became decimated. The antelope were smaller and could be hunted by the coyotes as opposed to the elk whose size left them without a predator. The elk population exploded over the years which led to the overgrazing of open grassland to the detriment of other grass eating animals. Thus, the idea was that taking away the wolves had led to many unintended consequences due to the lack of balance in the ecosystem. By reintroducing small numbers of wolves, they would hopefully thrive due to the readily available food source, grow in population, and the ecosystem could once again have the balance it needed. I use this example to frame something which has been on my mind for most of the day, the demise of the Mississippi Conservative Democrat and the consequences of life without them filling their niche in our political ecosystem.

Many of us voted in August in one of the two party primaries (either Democratic or Republican). On election night many of these races were decided for good as there was no opponent running from the opposing party leaving no need for a November general election in certain offices. In my home county, this was the case for many of our county races with the Democratic candidate running without a Republican challenger. This type of situation is nothing new in my county or in my region of northeastern Mississippi. In fact, during the 1980’s and 1990’s a Republican candidate was virtually unheard of for any local office. If there were a Republican challenger, it was viewed as simply a formality with them only receiving a nominal amount of votes during those years. To those who are young or unfamiliar with political history in Mississippi, this might seem odd. The question might be asked, “Isn’t northeastern Mississippi regarded as being quite conservative?” The answer would, of course, be “Yes, we are very conservative.” But, the very nature of such a question assumes a monopoly on conservative beliefs and principles by the Republican Party in Mississippi and nothing could historically be further from the truth in northeastern Mississippi and for much of the state.

If one were to poll the candidates in my home county and the surrounding candidates who ran for office and won on the Democratic ticket without Republican opposition this August, I would bet as much money as I could lay my hands on that you would find them to be very conservative by most measures. Pro-life: without question. Pro-2nd Amendment: very much so. Against gay marriage: 100%. For prayer in schools: emphatically yes. Against illegal immigration: definitely. Believe in God: You better believe it. The list could go on and on for almost any social cause one might want to mention. Yes, as far as their political and public stance on the issues (and I have no reason to doubt their private views differing from their public positions), these Democratic elected officeholders are God fearing, hunting, fishing, pro-USA, red blooded, conservative Americans! Yet, in my area, we do not think twice or question why they run as Democrats. It is taken for granted here that one can be all of these things and still run as a Democrat. They are in every sense of the word conservative…Democrats!

Only with the election of Kirk Fordice and especially with the election of Haley Barbour some years later, did Mississippi on the state level begin having Republicans run serious races and get elected. Prior to this, Mississippians would very often go to the polls and vote for two Republican senators, a Republican representative, and certainly a Republican candidate for president on national races. Those same voters might then vote for a slate of Democrats for every race from governor on down. The conventional wisdom at the time seemed to be what the “national level” Democratic Party said, did, or represented had absolutely nothing to do with what our “state and local” Democratic Party said, did, or represented. You would often hear it exclaimed with pride, “I vote for the man and not for the party!” Those making such statements proved it by choosing a mixture of candidates from both parties on their ballot whom they believed would represent them well. But, thanks to some key issues (such as the proposed change to the state flag and an association with huge, sometimes frivolous lawsuit payouts) and some extremely shrewd political moves by Haley Barbour and those allied with him, Republicans won the perception game in Mississippi by somewhat linking the state level Democratic Party with the national party in many Mississippians’ minds. Seemingly overnight, the formerly Democratic conservative candidates became Republican conservative candidates (often the very same person) and, by and large, the average voter continued to vote as they saw fit with little notice.

Yes, Mississippians are conservative and most especially socially conservative (against abortion, against gun control, for prayer in schools, etc.) and to a much lesser extent economically conservative (capital gains tax cuts, corporate tax cuts, cuts to government spending, etc.) In my limited experience at least, the people in my area simply saw these newly elected Republican office holders as being from the same conservative mold as the any others they had voted for in the past with the only difference being whether they had a (D) or an (R) by their name. However, the key point to remember is that to your average Mississippian, “conservative” can literally be translated as “social conservative” in practical terms. Mississippians care about the social issues which might sometimes cross over a bit into economic issues such as working for a living and not “drawing a check” (the Bible does say that if you will not work then you should not eat) when you are able bodied. Mississippians on average care much, much less about giving a huge tax cut, cutting government spending, etc. than these important social, often spiritual, issues. Tax cuts do not cause Mississippians to put signs in their yards, but the killing of unborn children will. Cuts to government size or the introduction of vouchers to give tax dollars to private schools is not going to cause a Mississippian to necessarily tell his friends and neighbors about a candidate, but a threat to his or her right to have a gun will cause even the most meek Mississippian to give an impassioned plea for or against a candidate. I believe this emphatically and it is the cornerstone of the point I am moving toward.

This all has moved quite positively for the state Republican Party. It has seen huge growth in the number of elected officials. Our state house, led for years by extremely socially conservative Democratic Speakers of the House, is now Republican as well as the state senate and the governor’s office. With this success, many of those running for open state offices in Mississippi (not county offices) are more than likely going to run as a Republican (all things being equal). By virtue of the fact that many of these candidates and certainly many of those voting for them are stronger social conservatives than economic conservatives, it has been up until this point entirely likely that you could find a Republican candidate for the state house of representatives who might proclaim his support for public schools who would rail against the big internet/phone companies for their shoddy treatment of Mississippi’s largely rural customers, and would proclaim that we had to preserve the state employees’ retirement fund benefits. Teachers and educators would vote for the candidate in droves, because they too saw the social issues of primary importance and the candidate agreed with them on schools as well. Yet, no one blinked twice at the fact he was a Republican since the same candidate had been a lifetime sportsman, was a member of the NRA, was a deacon at his church, and supported a constitutional amendment against abortion. Ask almost anyone in his district and they would tell you that he was 110% conservative and, of course, he was a Republican. Most would think you were foolish for even asking the question. Now once he was in the Mississippi House of Representatives, he might vote for a Speaker of the House, like our current Speaker, who was not nearly as supportive of public schools and might differ on other economic issues, but this mattered little to most people. Neither the Speaker nor the new Representative would accuse the other of not being conservative for these minor differences and certainly would not dream of telling the other that they were not a “real” Republican. They would support each other as fellow conservatives, much less Republicans, naturally would.

However, this recipe for success which has served the state Republican Party so very well for so many years, may be showing signs of weakness. It seems that perhaps the political ecosystem of Mississippi politics on the state level may be slightly “out of balance” much as Yellowstone’s animal ecosystem found itself. Gov. Barbour was certainly smart enough politically (of course I am not doubting his sincerity) to at least appear to support our public schools stating that he expected the Mississippi Adequate Education Plan to be fully funded every year after he signed its full funding in 2007. Our current governor, during his election went by almost the exact same playbook, stating regularly his support of our public schools. But, then there is our current Lt. Governor and current Speaker of the House. Lt. Gov. Reeves and Speaker Gunn seem almost every day to be more vocal in their disdain for public schools in general and in particular their adequate funding. Even our state budget hearings which are led by these leaders and their Republican committee chairmen, have become almost venomous in their open hostility of public schools and public school supporters, especially in regard to ballot Initiative 42 and their willingness to lose almost all pretence of civility in pushing against its passage. These individuals have also made direct threats and attacks to the future of our Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS), the fund people have worked for years and paid into expecting the promised benefits. They have been extremely vocal in support for charter schools and private schools with funds taken directly from public schools. Speaker Gunn, Lt. Gov. Reeves, and many of their committee chairmen have argued for huge tax cuts and with the same breathe, out of the other side of their mouth are saying there is not enough money for education funding without slashing the budget and cutting other agencies. Yes, to these “new breed” of state level Mississippi Republicans led by Gunn and Reeves there is no middle ground and no pretending anymore, public schools are on the outs.

Now, if you do not think this is having an effect, ask yourself how many of your Republican elected officials who once would have felt comfortable speaking out about their support of public schools have suddenly gone silent. It is almost as if you can hear the crickets in whatever room these traditional public school allies have chosen to hide themselves. I mean even if these traditional public school supporting Republicans for example opposed Initiative 42, since perhaps they believe one or more of the outlandish claims about it, they should still be able to publicly say they support our public schools or maybe support adequate funding, right? This would be especially true if you heard these supportive comments often from these individuals in the not too distant past. But, I certainly have not heard many of their voices lately. No, it seems the “orthodox” view of this new state level “Gunn/Reeves Republican Party” does not allow such support and an opinion different from their own. It would seem that there has been a shift. No longer, in the eyes of this leadership, can there be any middle ground on public schools and public school funding. The zeal the leadership exhibits does not reference the social and spiritual issues of the day many of us care so much about (abortion, marriage, our faith coming under attack).  Instead, their real zeal seems to come out in reference to cutting public education and delivering on tax cuts. You either toe the party line (which they have decided is now openly anti-public education) or you are not a Republican. Yes, under the new regime, if one of these state level Republican office holders were to openly voice their support for public school funding or even simply compliment the public schools and those who work in them in any meaningful, substantive way, they would literally run the risk of being “excommunicated” from the party establishment. The risk of no help with campaign funds and potentially no endorsements from state level party leadership would be in the future for any such Republican elected official who would say such words of support. Perhaps, they might even be surprised when a “real” Republican challenger, whose opinions matched the leadership’s, suddenly pops up funded by the establishment just in time for the next election.

The question is what are the thousands of teachers, administration, staff, retirees, parents/grandparents of public schools students, and others who are alienated by this open hostility toward public schools going to do now? Considering the current zeal, hardball politics, pitting of state agencies against the schools, and all of the other venom being spewed toward our public education system in Mississippi, what will these supporters of schools do if the Republican orthodox stance MUST include criticism, cuts, and opposition to our public schools. Will they simply roll over and say “Well, shucks, I may have devoted my whole life to the public education of our young people, but I guess that can just fade away. After all, these guys are in charge.” I personally do not see this happening. No, with the way Speaker Gunn, Lt. Gov. Reeves, and various chairmen have overplayed their hand with such hostility, I cannot see those good men and women who for the most pure motives have always supported our schools suddenly deciding to just “take it” and for all intents and purposes just “shut up.” The only question is whether someone within the Republican establishment will attempt to “rein in” these extremists or is something more radical going to have to take place in regards to a political shift in our state? If such “reining in” of the lieutenant governor and speaker does not take place, there is the possibility that a splinter subgroup of pro-school Mississippi Republicans could emerge. However, there is a serious problem with such a pro-education splinter group of Republican candidates having any possibility of success with the leadership and out of state lobbying groups allied with their interests funding alternative “orthodox” anti-education candidates.

I will close with the final possibility and one which up until this point in our political scene would have seemed impossible:  Could the political environment our state finally be primed for the return of the almost-extinct Mississippi Conservative Democrat? Is the “ecosystem” within our state government so out of balance that the return of a once highly, successful species might once again prove successful? We know, if you are a pro-schools candidate, it does not appear the Mississippi Republican Party, under present leadership, will be very supportive or welcoming to you. However, in contrast, we know that in some areas of the state there are still a few Democrat elected officials who are conservative in their pro life, pro 2nd amendment, pro traditional marriage, and other stances most of us would consider the very definition of conservatism. These Democrats sponsor bills and vote based upon these conservative stances without any apparent backlash or stabbing comments from their leadership. These same Democrats are free to openly support our public schools in seeming contrast to the expression of opinions our state Republican Party leadership would allow in our present environment. It seems these Democrats are able to function in their party, have the support of their leadership, and still vote as they see fit in Mississippi. Have some of this extreme brand of state Republican leadership created a situation where the emergence and proliferation of successful Mississippi Conservative Democratic candidates is a real possibility? Or will something be done to curb the leadership’s anti-public education rhetoric before such a phenomena emerges. Ironically, the reintroduction of Conservative Democrats to the Mississippi landscape would bring something which, as a conservative, I would like to see, competition. Yes, competition with a real alternative for those who are strong in their faith, but still disagree with many of the stances of the Republican leadership whether it be in regards to schools or other economic issues. From a political and historical perspective, it will be quite interesting to see how this plays out. Unfortunately, it is our children, who deserve the opportunities only a quality public education can provide to every Mississippi child, who will suffer until the political environment once again achieves the balance it has lost in regards to the support of public education in our state political ecosystem.

– Clint Stroupe


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