A New Generation of Leadership
Challenging the Red State, Blue State Fallacy
Something remarkable happened close to home this past week that also hit close to home (in a good way) and helped crystallize a thought I have been mulling over for a while.
It has to do with the very idea of “red states” and “blue states,” a generalized catch-all for the American political divide that arose on presidential election nights but has since evolved into a lazily imprecise shorthand for a complicated, conflicted, and very heterogeneous nation.
Now living now full-time in Texas after moving from New York, I am keenly aware that I have crossed some mental Maginot Line in our culture war culture between one of the most stereotypical of “blue states” (probably exceeded only by California in the mindset of Republicans) to perhaps the most villainized of “red states” in the minds of many Democrats. Sure, West Virginia or Alabama may be more “red” in terms of vote percentages. But when it comes to leading a form of “red state agenda,” from restricting voting rights to banning abortion to assaulting public education, everything really is bigger in Texas.
I have written before in this publication about why I consider Texas “a home worth fighting for.” That piece yielded a lot of passionate feedback in the comments section, with many telling stories of how places in this country they once called home — Texas and elsewhere — had become unrecognizable and no longer places they would choose to live. Others talked about fighting for what they believed in and refusing to be pushed out, especially knowing others less privileged had no choice but to stay. These are the kinds of conversations we always hoped this Steady newsletter would inspire.
For the purpose of today’s discourse, I want to turn to one of the passages from that post that I think is particularly relevant:
“For all that is dispiriting about Texas, there is a lot that is inspiring. I see many people fighting at the level of neighborhoods, cities, and the state as a whole for visions of inclusion and progress. I see people who look at steep odds and only increase their motivation. They are saying some form of, ‘We will not let the forces of injustice define Texas. We are Texas, too. And we have just as much of a right to live here and build the home we want as those who would deny us our rightful place in this state and in this nation.’”
And that brings me to the remarkable story of one such fighter who exploded onto the national stage this week — Olivia Julianna. Many of you undoubtedly have now heard of this 19-year-old reproductive rights activist (who publicly uses her first two names to protect her privacy).
It all started when Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz gave one of his odious speeches where he suggested that many abortion activists are too ugly to ever get pregnant.
The response was swift and overwhelming. It’s also the kind of reaction that feeds this loathsome troll, who is under investigation for paying an underage girl for sex. I hadn’t intended to give these disgusting comments more of a platform. But something remarkable happened.
First came Olivia Julianna’s response:
And then Gaetz responded to Olivia Julianna like the bully he is, using a picture of the Texas teenager to unleash his army of like-minded trolls.
Well, Olivia Julianna did not shrink away from the fight. Like a tough Texan, she stood her ground and turned the insults into a fundraiser for abortion access. To date, she has raised more than $2 million! Yes, you read that number correctly.
And the funds are still pouring in, as her story has gained national media attention and shout outs from major political figures like Hillary Clinton.
I wanted to show my own recognition of her accomplishment, and make a broader point.
And I was honored to see Olivia Julianna’s reply:
Texas is lucky to have young activists like Olivia Julianna, and many more like her. If these young dreamers and fighters, who have all their lives before them, aren’t giving up in working tirelessly for equality, empathy, and justice, then no one should.
With the overturning of Roe, we became all too aware once again about the patchwork of our nation. Because of the power of state governments, the future of abortion rights will differ greatly in “red states” and “blue states.” Although that could change if Republicans gain control of all levers of national government and ban abortion outright.
We see our country all too often as a perverse chess board with blocks of different-colored spaces strewn about, although red tends to aggregate with red and blue with blue in large swaths of our national geography.
But I would caution on two important fronts. One, states change their identities over time. I remember when West Virginia was about as solid a Democratic state as you could find and California was the breeding ground for Republican presidents. Secondly, and this is related, activism matters. Change bubbles up from the community level and it can be contagious.
State boundaries also do not denote monolithic divisions. There are places in California that vote like Mississippi and places in Mississippi that vote like California. At the county level, our patchwork of blue and red looks different than at the state level. And it is even more different if you could zoom into households.
We live where we live for many reasons. And that should not, indeed it does not, require that we give up our beliefs or give into cynicism. At the same time, we should not minimize the struggle ahead. Yet leadership like that provided by Olivia Julianna is built upon perseverance, a dogged determination that is fed by hope.
In wrapping up this newsletter, I couldn’t improve on the thoughts this brave agent of change expressed to The Washington Post in one of the early articles on the movement she has inspired:
“Olivia Julianna grew up as a queer Latina in a small conservative rural Texas community. ‘I’ve been mocked, ridiculed and harassed for most of my life. I will not tolerate that kind of behavior anymore,’ she said.”
Courage. And godspeed.