By Joe Atkins, Labor South
OXFORD, Miss. -- It was late at night, and my relatives were tired after their seven-hour journey from Pensacola, Fla. Within minutes came the inevitable comment.
"It sure is dark in Mississippi," one of them said, repeating an observation I've heard many times. "Between Jackson and Oxford is the wilderness."
Just wait until your next visit up here, I told them. "It’s about to get a lot darker in Mississippi."
Anyone disagree? With the Nov. 8 Republican takeover of the state House and thus its Republican-controlled Legislature, Republican governor, Republicans in every statewide office except attorney general, Mississippi is all prepped to dim the lights even more, not make them brighter.
Better roads and highways? Not on this watch. Better public transportation? Education? Health care? Mental health services? Social services? Are you kidding?
It's going to be Tea Party heaven down here. People finally get to see what it will be like in a Tea Party world. The lion-tamers are in the cage now, and the big, bad, ugly beast known as GOVERNMENT is cowering in his corner.
"They have been tasting this blood for many years," says state Rep. Steven Holland, the Plantersville Democrat, outspoken populist, and perennial thorn-in-the-side to right-wingers before their Nov. 8 ascendancy. "You are going to see 'personhood' through statute. You'll see an immigration bill, Alabama style, come through. English will be the official language. Drug testing for welfare recipients. It is going to be fairly bizarre."
Holland's own party, of course, is in shambles -- divided by race and the fact that many white state Democrats hardly remember what their party even stands for. Like Ole Miss football, the party is about as far down as the saddest blues song to ever come out of the Delta. Much the same can be said for the Democratic Party elsewhere in the Deep South.
"Over 29 years, I have watched the slow destruction of the (Mississippi) Democratic Party. We have been so outfoxed with technology and money and organization. Eight years of (outgoing Republican Governor Haley) Barbour has left me completely bruised."
Old-style populism like Holland's, one that calls for a progressive, people-serving government and casts a distrustful eye at fat-cat Wall Street types who serve their wallets and nothing else, seems ready for that funeral home Holland runs when he's not legislating. "If it gets bad enough, education so assaulted, public transportation so assaulted, this 'big, ole, fat government,' I can imagine the people who have now voted against their own interests in the last two elections will rise up and revolt," Holland says.
Hmmm. Maybe. The "revolt of the rednecks" that barnstormers Bilbo and Vardaman led a century ago indeed expanded education, state health services, and state regulations against child labor and other corporate abuses, but the revolt came on the backs of black people. Modern-day racial demagoguery tends to go after brown rather than black, and state Republicans have largely cornered that market.
It's not that Republicans simply won't spend taxpayer money. The reason has to be right.
As Holland predicts, the new Republican Legislature is poised to take up the
"personhood" initiative that voters rejected Nov. 8 as well as an Alabama-style immigration law, both of which will likely involve costly legal battles in court and ultimately result in rejection and failure.
Haley Barbour was quick to call for cuts in Medicaid and other social programs, yet he always seemed to find the cash for big incentives packages to pay out to private corporations looking at Mississippi.
In fact, while we're at it, what does Barbour, a man held in Reagan-like awe by many conservatives in Mississippi, have to show for his eight years as governor? Mississippi remains the nation’s poorest state. It ranks 51st in teenage births, 51st in percentage of homes struggling with hunger, 49th in child poverty, 47th in high school graduation rates.
What did he do to change any of this?
I'll be asking Mississippi’s new Republican leadership the same question four years from now, even though I already know the answer.
(Photo of Mississippi State Capitol by jimmywayne via Flickr.)
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.