Who Are the Republicans in the Audience?
By now you’ve probably watched the much-circulated video clips from last night’s Republican primary debate, where a gay soldier serving in Iraq was booed by members of the audience. Maybe you’ve also seen the clips from two weeks ago, when audience members cheered the prospect of leaving a man without healthcare to die and executing 234 people in Texas, regardless of whether they were innocent or guilty. It’s not just conservative values that are being applauded at these debates, it’s something else. Something deliberately cruel that is opposed to compassion on principle. And maybe you’re asking: who are these people?
Well, I can tell you: they’re Floridians.
Believe it or not, I say this with love. I am, after all, a Floridian myself — as far as anyone in Florida would have me. I am an Indian-American immigrant, born in the Great White North, but I grew up and graduated from high school in Tampa, Fla. — incidentally, the location of the 2012 Republican National Convention, and of the Sept. 12 Tea Party debate.
In the liberal northeast, you get a lot of hate, being from Florida. I get raised eyebrows every time it comes up. And why should I blame them? The Sunshine State is a punchline for any number of jokes about old people, white trash, Disney, foreclosures, the 2000 election, and Miami Ink. Florida is the fourth most populous state in America, but one of the least cohesive. It’s natural landscape has been ravaged by urban sprawl, huge population growth, and unchecked development. Its education system is ranked 48th out of the 50 states, and despite having huge minority populations, it is still heavily segregated. Florida is home to an entire town run by the Walt Disney Company, Katherine Harris, sinkholes, tornadoes, alligators, modern-day slavery at tomato farms, and studios that still offer Jazzercise.
Florida is a messed-up state. It’s a little delusional, a little stuck in the past, a little willfully ignorant about the scope of the issues that are facing us as a nation. In other words, it’s a bit like that older racist relative of yours that means perfectly well but can’t be taken out in public. Unfortunately, the Republican party invited them all out for the GOP primary debates. These televised debates have had all the political gravity of a carnival. It’s depressing, but not surprising, that the audience of Tea Party donors reverted to good-old-fashioned mob-fueled hatred. Shrug and sigh. It’s Florida. You can’t expect much better.
But before you write us off entirely, remember this — Florida is a swing state. For every raving Tea Party conservative going to services at their local megachurch and shopping at Wal-Mart, there is an aging hippie running a pottery studio and producing community theatre. Despite the conservative backlash after President Obama was elected, the state did go blue for him in 2008. And the 2010 governor’s election almost exactly divided the state. Tea Partier Rick Scott won over Democrat Alex Sink by tenths of a percent. The GOP is trying really hard to get Florida back this election, and they might be able to — the state has been hit hard by the economy, and still has the Confederate cross on its state flag.
But keep the faith. The demographics of Florida are changing — the white, Southern base that helped Republicans get elected is slowly being outnumbered as more and more minority immigrants become politically active. That doesn’t necessarily mean victory for liberals, because many Hispanic voters traditionally vote conservatively, but it means that the landscape of this swing state is changing. The battle for America is being fought in Florida’s trenches, and you, coastal urban liberal, you should be paying attention to what’s out there. At the end of the day, both the aging hippies and the aging rednecks love Florida because it’s so spread out, so diffuse, that everybody basically leaves everyone else the hell alone — which is not exactly social policy, but it’s certainly an American spirit.
And the beaches are great.
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