State legislatures are often overlooked mechanisms in America’s political process, but recently some state legislatures from Southern states have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Georgia’s recent house bill 757 would have given faith-based organizations the ability to deny services to and fire those who are at odds with their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” North Carolina’s state legislature had a special session and passed a law that would prevent local governments from creating ordinances that would prohibit LGBT discrimination. Indiana and Mississippi both have similar laws on the books that were passed relatively recently, and sexuality is not the only subject of this reactionary dynamic. West Virginia has passed legislation permitting “constitutional carry” in classrooms, as well as legislation that mandates English as the official language of the state.
The force behind these regressive laws could be chalked up to good old-fashioned bigotry or the classic “fear of things not understood,” but it is likely symptomatic of greater changes. Those towards the most conservative section of the political spectrum perceive that the country, and the South, is changing in ways that do not align with their values. The Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, a “socialist” presidential candidate, and other very visible liberal currents help feed this perception. The smaller, local levels of government in Southern states have been forcing state legislatures to pass these reactionary measures as the local governments have brought on relatively progressive ordinances. The Charlotte city government passed an ordinance banning discrimination against the LGBT community and consequently the state legislature came together in special session to pass a law that prevents local governments from coming up with non-discriminatory ordinances, mandates that students in state schools use the bathrooms associated with the gender on their birth certificate, and makes sure that local minimum wages cannot be raised higher than the state’s. Alabama’s legislature reacted similarly when Birmingham tried to raise its minimum wage and there are countless other instances from Texas to Tennessee to Arkansas.
This dynamic seems to be a consequence of the demographic changes in the region and country as ideas start to change and old ideas use any means necessary to hold on against the future. The South is changing demographically; cheaper living and an upswing in southern urban areas are bringing people from other parts of the country to the states and changing their makeup quite significantly. For example, Georgia will be a “majority minority” state by 2025, and 30 percent of its current population is from out of state. Mississippi’s white population will be outnumbered by 2050 and most Southern states are facing similar demographic changes. When you combine the demographic changes happening in the South with the perceived liberalization of the country, you get reactionary legislation promoted by reactionary conservatives.
These extreme legislative moves are effective in the short-term as they galvanize more zealous voters, but this should not be mistaken for extreme conservatives gaining strength in the country. Rather, these sort of legislative moves are reactionary responses to America, and the South, moving in a more progressive direction.