By Paige Swanson
For my spring break, after spending a wonderful few days in New York with a friend, I hopped on a plane to visit my mom and grandparents in Defuniak Springs, Florida. Getting to Defuniak is by no means easy. The closest major airport is a full six hours away in Atlanta, Georgia. A layover there is inevitable and some choose to make the six hour drive rather than catch a connecting flight. From Atlanta, you have a choice between various small, local airports—all of which being rather expensive. From there, you have at a minimum an hour and a half drive home. Due to Defuniak’s near isolation from any major city, many people rarely leave. Defuniak Springs is in no way unique. There are thousands of other towns like it in the rural South and scattered across our country.
Defuniak Springs is representative of other towns throughout the South and the United States in its customs, traditions, and political demographics. 76% of Walton County Florida voted for Donald Trump in the past election—typical of northern Florida. You can’t deny the conservative southern heritage. If you walk through the Walmart parking lot—one of the few stores in the town—it’s not unusual to see bumper stickers pledging allegiance not to the United States of America, but to the Confederate States of America.
These are the people that won Donald Trump the election. However, we can’t blame them. They live in the towns that the Democratic Party left behind. I, like many others, sat in a state of shock on the night of November 8th, watching the fight for Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s electoral votes. It’s one thing to see county after county in northern Florida turn red, but it’s another to go visit one of those counties. Seeing building after building boarded up, business after business leave the area, it’s not difficult to see how Donald Trump’s message appealed to these people. Even the Po Boy’s Gun Shop, a central business in town has closed. The surrounding area is scattered with the deserted buildings of auto repair shops, diners, and local businesses that have left town—all largely replaced by Walmart. The residents there are angry. Their towns are quite literally falling apart and they don’t see that their voices are being heard. Donald Trump spoke to these people and made them feel that they would be represented under his administration.
As we move forward as a party in the next few years, we have to make our message more accessible to these people. Of course we feel that we have these people’s best interests at heart, but if they don’t feel the same way, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that it will be easy, rather the opposite. The ideology here has been deeply ingrained in the culture for essentially all our nation’s history and it won’t change overnight. However, people here are still angry. Donald Trump isn’t living up to their expectations. The election results were clearly not what we had hoped for but they made one thing very clear: we are at a point of huge political change. If the Democratic Party wants to regain lost ground and appeal to the voters it’s lost, the time for change is now.
We can’t expect to align many of the Democratic positions on social or cultural issues with southern voters—large scale cultural change of that nature won’t happen overnight. It’s not that these issues should be discarded—respectful discourse is essential to the progress of this nation. These issues, however, are not where we can make significant ground. Therefore, we need to focus on our other political end-goals that do align. The residents of towns like Defuniak Springs are interested in having local economies strengthened instead of the continued reign of big businesses. These people don’t want to lose the limited health coverage that they already have. If we can adapt our political rhetoric to appeal to these voters, we can lead these voters to see that we’re on their side. However, if we continue to leave out these marginalized voters, we will continue to suffer losses like the one that we did in November.