The confederate flag is generally not something you expect to see in New England. But I remember during my senior year of high school, at a small public school in rural Rhode Island, a band of ten or so students started pulling into the parking lot each morning with the stars and bars flying from their pickup trucks—they’d welded flagpoles to the side of their cabins. Shocked, the principal told them to cease and desist. They refused. In response, the school administration sent them to detention, then suspended them twice, if I remember correctly. But, no doubt energized by the rush of being “silenced,” they plowed right on through, and eventually began wearing shirts and other confederate memorabilia into the school.
I remember standing outside after track one day, mulling over the events with my teammates, crickets chirping in the background. “It’s a matter of free expression, free speech,” some said. Others, and I’ll be so self-righteous as to include myself in this category, were less conciliatory. “No, it’s a hate symbol,” we said. (Take my right-mindedness at the time not as any great moral indicator on my part, so much as an indication that the ugliness of the thing was so obvious that even a seventeen year old could notice it.) And, of course, there was a third group, who were more equivocal. “I don’t know, man. Some say it’s hatred, others call it heritage; I’m really not sure,” one of them said. That last phrase, perhaps because of its annoyingly useful alliteration, sticks in my head: “hatred or heritage.”
Should we take this anecdote as proof that, outside the college towns and urban centers, New England is stuffed with fascists, white supremacists, etc.? I don’t think so, but to just say, “Well, I know that sounds bad, but that was just the work of a few ignorant individuals. New England is just how you think it is; New England is a thoroughly progressive place” doesn’t seem right either.
It’s true that Democrats, often liberal Democrats, tend to win state-wide elections in New England, and that the Democratic Party holds most of our state governments in a vice grip. After all, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, two of the most “progressive” senators in the country, both represent New England states (Sanders, Vermont; Warren, Massachusetts). And the learner of trivia is often excited to find out that even Republicans in this part of the country are said not to breathe fire, that there is this rare beast, the New England Republican, who, if solidly “right” by European standards (the British conservative party supports nationalized medicine), passes in the United States for something more moderate: a “libertarian.”
And it’s true that when we say “libertarian” in New England, the word has perhaps a slightly purer meaning than in other parts of the country. It doesn’t mean a fringe right-winger in search of a party. It means someone who doesn’t want to be told what to do or think; someone who doesn’t want to be constrained by ‘social obligation’; an individualist. Phil Scott, the GOP governor of Vermont, supports same sex marriage and abortion, for example. “Big whoop,” some might say, but we have to acknowledge that the rightward limit, at least in terms of people who can win state-wide office, is considerably more limited here than in, for instance, West Virginia, where I have family who would tell you that to have Chris Sununu (Republican governor of New Hampshire) as their governor would be a godsend.
But at the same time, the closer you look at New England politics and New Englanders in general, the less “woke” we seem. If you’ll permit more anecdotal evidence and a bit of complaining: in my hometown, Hillary Clinton won 38 percent of the vote. In Exeter, a town twenty miles south of where I grew up, she earned 31 percent. Rhode Island, in this respect, is indicative of New England at large. Big cities, like Providence, Boston, Hartford, and Portland, whose residents compose a large share of the population in these geographically small states, routinely vote for progressive candidates (at least progressive in the mainstream sense). Clinton won Providence by a split of 90 percent-10 percent. The affluent suburbs, with all their WASPy wealth to protect, are slightly more moderate, but also help throw vote totals in favor of democrats. Fairfield County, Connecticut is prototypical in this respect. But travel thirty minutes outside the cities, and Clinton fails to break forty percent.
I’m sticking to data from the 2016 presidential election because it helps prove that when I talk about “people voting Republican,” I’m not talking about moderates.
I state these facts not to complain or to claim points (“I come from a more backwards place than you! Pity me!”), but to educate. Wesleyan does a terrible job recruiting students from outside major metropolitan areas. According to a 2016 article in The Argus, 21.5 percent of the student body hails from New York state, another 15 percent from California. No data is available as to what percentage of students come from the urban areas within those states, but little searching is required to determine that the short answer is “most.” As a result, few students understand what life is like outside cities or suburbia. When I told my confederate flag anecdote to a friend who lives in the liberal hamlet of South Kingstown, just thirty miles down the road from me, he was surprised.
“I wouldn’t have expected that,” he said.
It’s time we stop talking about New England, and this country’s other regions, in homogenous terms. Progressive activists need to expand their reach beyond the liberal strongholds (cities and college towns) where a Democrat of some description is already assured a victory. The hundreds of Trumpian state representatives and congresspeople advancing a reactionary agenda just beyond the city limits are just as big an issue as a moderate instead of a progressive becoming mayor of Boston or New York.
In the end, my principal managed to put a stop to the small band of kids at my school. I’m not quite sure how, but I know that those involved came out of it with their political views tempered. Where they are now, I don’t know. I don’t know if they regret their actions. All I know is that, when graduation day came around, one of the ring leaders showed me how he’d decorated his graduation cap. He took it off and handed it to me. Hot glue-gunned onto it were ten wax letters, the kind you’d usually see on a birthday cake: “TRUMP 2016.”