Opinion | Politics as an Act of Love
AUBURN, Ala. — Since August, I’ve been in charge of Senator Doug Jones’s campaign sign delivery for greater Lee County, which is in the eastern part of Alabama. I receive a list of people who have requested signs from the senator’s headquarters, in Birmingham. I then spend a lot of time on Google spreadsheets and Google maps, dividing the requests into routes and sending the routes to our stable of volunteers. The problem is that we have too many people who want to deliver signs and not enough people who want signs. There’s always a disappointed volunteer, someone who wasn’t fast enough on the draw.
I get it. Delivering signs feels like a gesture against the despair that seems both constant and worsening. I live in Auburn, a deep red town in a deep red state. It’s so red that the Biden/Harris campaign isn’t even distributing signs here. What would be the point? Alabama hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter, in 1976.
The saying is that people in the Bible Belt care about God, guns, and football, in that order; I’ve seen sweet tea added to the end of that list as well. I’m an atheist, I’m pro-gun control, and though I think tailgating is fun, I can’t help thinking of repetitive brain injuries and systemic inequality (proportionally, there are astonishingly more Black football players at Auburn University than there are Black students) when an unpaid player is tackled. I often feel as if I live in two worlds: the world of the university where I teach, where I spend most of my time; and the world of the town, where you’re as likely to see a Trump bumper sticker affixed to someone’s car as a cross dangling from their rearview window. (“Wow,” my husband said, when we first moved here. “There are a lot of churches. Really big churches.")
Doug Jones is an anomaly — Alabama’s first Democratic senator in nearly 30 years. He won because his opponent, Roy Moore, faced credible accusations of sexual assault in the months leading up to election. Mr. Moore himself admitted to dating teenagers when he was in his thirties (though he denied that any of the women were under the age of consent). The night Mr. Jones was elected, I experienced the same conflicted emotions I have felt my whole life, as a Southerner: I love the South and I’m ashamed of it. But, most of all, I don’t like it when people who aren’t from the South criticize it. A friend from a blue state sent a text that she was glad Alabama had done the right thing in electing Doug Jones, and though I agreed, I bristled. She was from Minnesota. It’s kind of like criticizing your children: You can do it, but anyone else does it and it’s fighting words.
Except for 10 years in St. Louis, I’ve never lived any place where a majority agreed with me politically. And though I think I’m right (who doesn’t?), I also understand that people believe different things than I do. I live among people who believe abortion is tantamount to murder; I think safe abortions should be as uncomplicated to get as any other medical procedure. It’s easy to dismiss the anti-abortion folks when you live in a blue town; it’s harder to dismiss them when they are your friends and neighbors. Every Sunday morning, our driveway is the only one with a car in it; my neighbors are at church.
Mainly, I think I’m a better person because of the ways I’m forced to reckon with this difference, day in and day out. When I was a child I was taught to respect that difference, that finding ways to understand points of view that challenge your own can be valuable.
That has become harder, lately. This summer was hot, so hot I couldn’t let my children play outside when the sun was brightest. And though the heat of Southern summers is legendary, this place is going to become hotter and hotter, until humans can no longer live here. I don’t know if this will happen in my lifetime, or my children’s. I want them to be able to live anywhere they want, and it makes me unbearably sad to think that living in the South is going to become increasingly difficult because of a quickly warming planet. Sometimes I’m glad we don’t live near a coast, where we’d be more vulnerable; then I think about a state that’s half-destroyed by flooding, as Alabama will be if the effects of climate change continue unabated, and I remember we’re all in this together.
I’ve delivered signs myself, to trailers and ranch houses and apartment buildings and farms. To all manner of places, to all manner of people. It’s often said by liberals that Democrats care more about people than Republicans, but that’s a hard pill to swallow when you know good people who are Republicans. Yet, when I see signs for Doug Jones’s Republican opponent, Tommy Tuberville, I look at them in wonder. I think, How? How are you supporting a man who will likely work to make the lives of the most vulnerable among us harder? Who will work to deny women access to contraception and abortion? Who will reduce Medicaid? Who will promote the interests of big business at the expense of the environment?
I want Doug Jones to win, of course. But I know he probably won’t. Tommy Tuberville hasn’t been accused of any unthinkable crimes, and I live in a place that, as I said, loves football (Mr. Tuberville is a former coach) and guns (Mr. Tuberville has earned the N.R.A.’s highest possible rating). Sometimes I ask myself why I spend so much time organizing sign deliveries for a candidate who will need a miracle to win. Then I think, Maybe we are that miracle.
I do it as an act of love, as does everyone who comes to my porch, after work on weeknights, or on a lunch break, or first thing on a Saturday morning. Some come with their dogs, who enjoy a ride in the country, or with their children, who hop out of the car and ferry signs to front doors while their parents wait. We do it because we want to take care of democracy in our own small way.
A long time ago, I read that you love what you take care of. I don’t remember where I read it. I suppose it doesn’t matter. But I think of that often, as I bathe my children, as I wrestle their small, surprisingly strong limbs into clothes, as I cut their tiny fingernails. They’ll remember very little, if any, of all the ways their parents loved and tended to them when they were very small. But my husband and I will remember all of it.
A couple of Saturdays ago, on Auburn’s first game day, I drove around delivering signs, my 5-year-old son in the back seat. Though the stadium was filled to one-quarter capacity only, it seemed as if Covid-19 did not exist outside of it. I drove by so many crowded parties, spotted so many people spilling out of houses. I saw so many Tuberville signs. They made me want to cry. And then I went home and organized another delivery.
Anton DiSclafani is a professor of creative writing at Auburn University and the author of the novels “The After Party” and “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.”
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