LOUISVILLE — I really like Louisville and its people, culture, restaurants, schools. But I think often about whether my family and I will end up moving somewhere else in a few years.
“I’ve talked to so many people lately where the conversation is some version of, ‘Okay, so where are we moving? Where can we go?’” said Teri Carter, a Democratic-leaning writer who lives in nearby Anderson County, referring to her friends who live in red states.
I used to think the Republican legislators in Kentucky just had different policy priorities than people like me. After all, most of them represent smaller, more White and less densely populated areas than Louisville. But as I have watched them more closely, I have come to realize these Republicans revel in attacking Democrats and liberals and probably would prefer if we just left the state.
The just-completed session of the state’s legislature was full of new laws that won’t fix any of Kentucky’s problems but instead seem aimed at annoying Democratic voters. For example, Republican lawmakers eliminated dental, hearing and vision benefits under Medicaid and halted the automatic withdrawal of union dues from teachers’ paychecks, while keeping in place such withdrawals for police and firefighters’ unions. That provision’s only purpose is to weaken the state’s teacher unions, who back Democrats, while bolstering the more conservative law enforcement ones.
Perhaps the worst bill of all was one that the pro-LGBTQ rights Trevor Project called “among the most extreme anti-trans pieces of legislation in the nation.” It would bar people under age 18 from getting gender-affirming health care of any kind, prohibit discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools, and require transgender students to use bathrooms that do not align with their gender identity. Teachers could refuse to refer to students by their preferred name and gender.
This session wasn’t an unusual one. Every year, Kentucky Republicans pass provisions attacking Louisville, as well as Lexington, our other major left-leaning city, and Democratic-leaning constituencies across the state. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, was elected in 2019 in this very red state, largely because then-Republican Gov. Matt Bevin was considered even by conservative voters here to be mean and petty. But the Republicans in the statehouse still have huge majorities in both houses of the legislature, in part because of very aggressive gerrymandering. So they override most of Beshear’s vetoes, including pushing through the anti-transgender, Medicaid and teacher unions laws this week.
Nor is Kentucky’s situation unique. Red states across the country are blocking policies adopted in Democratic-controlled cities and imposing policies on those cities that large majorities of their residents oppose.
In most of these instances, including in Kentucky, the dynamics are both racial and partisan: Republican officials, who are nearly all White and elected by an overwhelmingly White group of voters, are dominating Democratic mayors, as well as city council and school board members, who are generally elected by a coalition of voters of color and White liberals and moderates.
I moved from D.C. to Louisville in 2018. Part of that was because I grew up in the city, had fond memories of childhood, and my siblings and my mother live here.
But another reason was the political climate. Like a lot of left-leaning people, I wondered how Donald Trump got elected and what I should do about it. One consensus was that Trump’s rise was helped by the fact that so many people in prominent jobs, including in the news media, were concentrated in heavily Democratic places, particularly Washington and New York City. So we didn’t really know what was happening in the rest of the country.
I’m from a red state, I thought. I can be part of the solution — or at least understand the problems better.
Mission accomplished on the second part.
Now, I’m struggling with whether I made a mistake. What does it mean to be a Black person who is strongly supportive of LGBTQ rights, feminism, abortion rights, labor unions, anti-racism and democratic socialism in a state dominated by today’s Republican Party?
I get that Republican voters in California and New York also dislike the policies of their states’ governments. And their Democratic-controlled state governments impose policies on Republican-led cities. My concern is not about general principles of home rule or local rights, but with the specific agenda of today’s Republican officials, one that seems more about controlling people with liberal values than helping anyone: abortion bans; sweeping anti-transgender laws; strict regulations on education about race and LGBTQ issues; voting restrictions; hostility toward labor unions; cuts to social services; constant attacks against universities.
Michael Podhorzer, the former political director of the AFL-CIO, wrote in a recent essay that the Republican Party of today echoes some of the worst political movements of America’s past. “MAGA is the modern incarnation of a reactionary, nativist faction that has been with us since the nation’s founding. … The Faction has given itself different names over time — Confederates, Southern Democrats, Dixiecrats, the tea party, and now MAGA Republicans — but it hasn’t changed its basic supremacist commitments,” said Podhorzer.
Similarly, liberal writer Steve Phillips, in his 2022 book, “How We Win the Civil War,” argued, “The ideological, philosophical, and in some cases, actual descendants of the Confederates are waging an unrelenting … war to keep what was once a white nationalist country from becoming a multiracial democracy.”
You might find such language overheated. I think Phillips and Podhorzer are right. That means I’m living in a state that’s on an immoral, anti-Black, intolerant policy course.
But it’s not clear what I should do about it. Should people with progressive values move en masse to blue states, akin to the Great Migration of the 1910s to the 1970s, when more than 6 million Black people left the Jim Crow South? Should I leave?
The personal downsides to moving are obvious. My relatives live here. I have built a life in Louisville over the past 4½ years. Costs, particularly for housing, are so much lower here than in major cities in blue states. I actually do want to be part of building a better Louisville and Kentucky, though I have begun to wonder whether that’s possible.
A second Great Migration would create new problems. People in blue states might not actually be that eager to receive us. The African Americans who moved north generations ago were often treated quite poorly in their new cities. It’s unlikely that there is affordable housing and jobs in the other 26 states for the more than 25 million left-leaning Americans who live in the 24 Republican-dominated states.
And such a migration would actually exacerbate some of the worst trends in national politics. While Kentucky is very red, that’s not true of every state in Red America. Democrats have recently won U.S. Senate seats and the presidential race in Georgia and New Hampshire and U.S. Senate races in Ohio, Montana and West Virginia, even though Republicans have total control at the state level in all five of those states. Democrats regularly win U.S. House seats in red states, including one in Louisville. None of those victories would be possible if a huge mass of Democrats from, say, Atlanta, Columbus or Louisville relocated to a blue state.
That’s why some left-leaning thinkers think the real problem is that there aren’t enough people like me who have moved from a blue place to a red one. In his 2021 book, “The Devil You Know,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow called for a reverse migration of Black people back to the South, in part to flip these states to the Democrats. I respect Blow. He is Black and moved from New York City to Atlanta a few years ago, practicing what he preaches. But I am very uncomfortable suggesting people move to places where the politicians in charge hate them, in hopes of some change in power down the line.
That said, I have no plans to leave, nor do I want my friends and neighbors to depart. But I’m thinking a lot about the terrible things that are possible, even likely, in the future here in Kentucky: transgender children committing suicide; my daughter attending a school where books or teaching about racism or gay rights are limited because those topics might annoy a few conservative parents; women not getting reproductive care because they are wary of running afoul of the state’s very strict abortion regulations.
“This is my home. I’ve connected more here than I have any other place I’ve lived,” Ray Loux, a 16-year-old transgender boy in Lexington told the Kentucky Lantern in a recent interview. “I feel like I finally belonged. And it really, really hurts that Kentucky doesn’t want me here.”
Many people in Louisville, Austin, Boise, Lincoln, Columbus, Birmingham and other blue cities in red states feel the same way. We are hate objects for our state’s Republican politicians. For them, our cries are their victories.