Conservatives Believe in Local Control, Unless the Locals Are Progressive

About 75 people attended a rally at City Hall Jan. 20 to fight a Republican plan to redraw Athens-Clarke County Commission districts. Credit: Blake Aued

In 1868, Clarke County voters sent two Black men, just freed from slavery, to the state legislature in Atlanta. This meant that the entirety of the county’s delegation to the state House of Representatives was Black. Conservatives raged. Within weeks, the forces of white conservatism in the Georgia legislature overturned the will of the people and expelled the two men, Alfred Richardson and Madison Davis, along with the 31 other Black legislators simply on the basis of their race. From then until now, the forces of white conservatism have overridden local control in communities like Athens whenever it has suited their aims or grudges, despite whatever has spilled out of the other sides of their mouths about “small government” and “local control.” 

In just the last year, Black Democratic members of local election boards across the state have been ousted by conservatives after the state legislature and the governor greenlit such partisan takeovers. Much of the Republican caucus in the state legislature has taken on the fascistic belligerence of their party leader, former president Donald Trump, who nudges the country toward conflict and democratic demise. It is all of a piece—the removal of local control of election boards and the Jan. 6 violent siege of the U.S. Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power are part of the same vast spasm of denial at having lost. 

It’s what it’s always been: In 1868, it was the panic of conservative whites realizing quite suddenly that having enslaved so many humans meant that those people, when freed, would outnumber them. In 2020, it was a new panic, that an increasingly diverse country rejected the white conservatism of a Trumpist Republican Party, and a violent mob stormed the Capitol to overturn the popular will of the American people.  

If you can’t win, cheat. This is the age-old conservative tactic that their party leader has rekindled in them. It turns out that those notions of “personal responsibility” and “self-reliance” that conservatives insist apply to others are too heavy of a burden for themselves. They lose like spiteful children. 

Now that spite has been trained on Athens. Unable to win over Athens voters with their ideas, Republicans in the state legislature and their handmaidens on the county commission have maliciously redrawn the county commission district map to wreak havoc on our local government and usurp the will of Athens voters. Three popular and long-dedicated progressive commissioners are rendered ineligible for re-election in May—that is, expelled— by the Republican-drawn map. A feat of that sort cannot be accomplished without intention. Furthermore, Republicans massively contorted a district to place two of the commission’s most progressive members together in a radically misshapen district. Again, this can only have been by design. 

It is, in many ways, the same story it’s been since the days of white rage at slavery’s end. Conservative power has always felt free to resort to un-American means, be it autocracy or violence, when their sense of entitled control is thwarted at the ballot box. But what is different in this most recent theft is that the opportunity was crafted by those in our midst and handed to the forces of conservatism by members of our own government. What is shocking and novel in this otherwise typical display of conservative aggression is that our own elected officials invited them in. What we never suspected is that, during this age of increasingly fascistic aggression in the Trumpist Republican Party, there would be auxiliaries to that effort in our own county commission. 

These auxiliaries should be named. Commissioners Allison Wright and Mike Hamby all but tied a bow on the gift they knowingly handed to right-wing forces. The conditions did not exist for the takeover of local control until Wright and Hamby created them. Commissioner Ovita Thornton, for her part, played the role of conferring legitimacy and cover to the more overt acts of aggression by Wright and Hamby. Their maneuver was, in a way, quite impressive. If I were a crypto-conservative working inside a progressive county government, I would be proud of my civic sleeper cell for having inflicted such a wound. 

As right-wing forces in our country continue their march toward a politics of coup-making and the subversion of democracy, we have to hope that there aren’t more of their secret confederates awaiting opportunities to assist. As Hannah Arendt explained, there is a banality of evil—the core of political evil needs its concentric rings of chumps willing to pitch in in their little ways. Everyone plays their part. It is an apparatus, not a single man, that ultimately dooms democracies. On the furthest periphery of that apparatus are the most banal abettors, who have no home either inside the apparatus or out, no friends in either camp. They inexplicably cling to the fascistic enterprise like barnacles that exist only to be scraped off. 

Don’t get it twisted: Those who hand their own cities to the anti-democratic Trumpist Republican Party are in league with those forces. Those who vote, like little Trumpists, to deny the will of thousands of Athenians should be judged according to the foul bedfellows they’ve found. Those who vote to expel their own colleagues deserve only obloquy. But while these commissioners may have found the political gutter, ours is still the high road, and there are entirely democratic means of abbreviating their time in power.