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The Vox Senate interview: Doug Jones on how Democrats can win in the South
Sen. Doug Jones on Capitol Hill in 2019. | Andrew Harnik/AP Jones speaks on the Senate filibuster, Covid-19 recovery, and the new Democratic South. Despite representing the most Trump-friendly state in America, Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) has stubbornly been his own man in Congress. Jones certainly touts his bipartisan work with Republicans, but he has also voted against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and voted to convict President Trump during the Senate’s February impeachment trial. “He’s going to be the senator he wanted,” said Alabama Democratic strategist Zac McCrary. “He’s not going to twist himself into a pretzel, he’s going to do his own thing.” If Jones wins a very tough race for his reelection, he plans to go his own way even if there’s a Democratic administration headed up by former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend of Jones’s. “I think people know I’m not a rubber stamp for Donald Trump, but I’m not going to be a rubber stamp for my friend Joe Biden,” Jones told Vox in a recent interview. “He knows that; he and I have talked about that.” Democrats have expanded the number of paths they have to flipping the Senate. If they manage to get a trifecta, with Biden in the White House and House Democrats keeping their majority, Jones says the first thing that must be tackled is the economic fallout from Covid-19. Though unemployment numbers are falling, millions of people are still out of work in the United States, and the economic crisis has disproportionately hit workers of color. Alex Wong/Getty Images Jones speaks to a reporter after a vote on May 14. “I still believe our first priority is going to be to get out of this health care, economic, and racial inequality crisis that we find ourself in,” Jones said. “At some point, as we get on the back end, we’ve got to start focusing on the economy. That’s going to involve federal government programs to some extent — putting federal dollars in infrastructure and roads and bridges and schools. Broadband is going to be a key issue.” Vox spoke with Jones about whether he’d be willing to eliminate the filibuster if Republicans are in the minority and hold up bills,his surprise 2017 special election win, how he plans to replicate it even in a state where Trump remains popular, the new wave of Democratic candidates in the South — and why he rejects the term “Southern Democrat.” “We had a solid Democratic South in name only,” Jones told Vox. “It was never solid Democrat, it was a bunch of different factions of something called the Democratic Party. I think Democrats for too long in the South decided they really weren’t going to be Democrats and stand up for working people.” Our interview is below, edited for length and clarity. Ella Nilsen You surprised folks in 2017 with your special election win. But many people in both parties assume Alabama is simply too Trump-friendly and too Republican for you to win again. Is there something you know that they don’t? Sen. Doug Jones Yeah, there’s a lot that I know that they don’t. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve seen the changes that Alabama has gone through, I see the changes that we’re in the midst of now, and I know what’s going on on the ground. Alabamians have always had an independent streak. They vote for a president that they like, but they also vote for a senator that they like. They vote for a senator that’s going to have their back and not necessarily the president of the United States. We’ve seen that throughout in our history in Alabama. What I think we’re seeing now is just a seismic shift in the way people are looking at their senators, their members of Congress. We’ve got demographic shifts, we’ve got age differences, folks that have come up a different way are seeing different things happening in the world. And so what they’re looking at now — and I think we started this in 2017 — is that people are looking at issues and who can best represent them to actually get things done in Washington, DC. And that’s where we have a huge advantage because we have represented farmers, we’ve represented teachers and health care professionals. A member of [the]Armed Services [Committee], I’m strong on military defense. So we’ve been able to truly represent one Alabama, throughout my two and a half years, almost going on three now, as the United States senator. And therein lies the big difference. Ella Nilsen When it comes to your record in the Senate, I’m curious how you’ve decided to pick your battles on certain issues. You certainly have a bipartisan track record working with Republicans, but you’ve also taken some tough votes on impeachment and [confirming Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh. There are times when you’ve been a reliable vote for the Democratic caucus. What part of the Democratic caucus do you see yourself in? Doug Jones I think people tend to see this as a loyalty test for either Democrats or Republicans, and I don’t see it that way at all. I don’t pick and choose battles. I have votes that come to me on the floor of the Senate that Mitch McConnell picks for me, and some of those are tougher votes than others. Not because of the politics, but simply because it requires a great deal of research, a lot of work on our part to do what I think is best. [My] Senate staff knows that they are to look at these issues, the pros and cons, and we will weigh those; we will argue with each other. But at the end of the day, we’re going to do what I believe is in the best interest of the people of Alabama, and do what I believe is consistent with my principles. Sometimes that means I am not voting with a majority of the Democrats; sometimes it means I am. It just really is going to depend on the issues. Having said that, we like to get out front on some things. We’ve been very vocal about health care and protecting rural health care, and trying to expand Medicaid in Alabama. I’ve got 21 bills I co-sponsored with Republicans as a lead [sponsor]. Those are the things we got out front for, but those are the easy things for me — I see a need in the state, I believe that there’s people on the other side of the aisle, senators and colleagues, that would agree with me. We find that common ground, and we made those 21 bills happen. Ella Nilsen If you are reelected in November, and Democrats are able to flip the Senate and Joe Biden is able to win the White House, what do you think the first priority should be? Doug Jones I still believe our first priority is going to be to get out of this health care, economic, and racial inequality crisis that we find ourself in. I think that is going to have to be the priority of the next administration regardless. I know it will be a priority of a Biden-Harris administration. I know it will be a priority of a Democratic Senate should there be one. Hopefully, by that time, we will have a vaccine either right there on the horizon that we can see, or we would have started to ramp up the distribution of a vaccine. That is going to be incredibly important, to make sure that we get out of this appropriately, to get out of that safely and healthy. As part of that, we’ve got to deal with the economic fallout. Today, unemployment numbers were announced. They’re down more, but the decrease in unemployment is slowing somewhat, as predicted by most of the economists and the Federal Reserve. We’re going to continue to see relatively high unemployment. As we’re seeing the back end of the health crisis, hopefully we will also be able to then do stimulus work. That’s going to involve federal government programs to some extent — putting federal dollars in infrastructure and roads and bridges and schools. Broadband is going to be a key issue. But we’ll never overlook the racial inequalities that we’re seeing playing out across this country. It is a historic moment. We can’t let it pass. Voting rights is going to be a very important part of a Biden-Harris administration, and trying to remove the barriers that still exist of discrimination in this country, whether it is in jobs, education, or health care. I think removing those barriers or discrimination will also be a high priority. Ella Nilsen What do you think about this national conversation about race and policing? How do you think Congress should address this issue? The US House recently passed the Justice in Policing Act — is there anywhere it falls short or could be improved? Doug Jones I’m a co-sponsor of that bill, and I believe in the bill and what it’s trying to achieve. Having said that, I think we’re all open. Sen. Harris, Sen. [Cory] Booker — everybody is open to input from law enforcement and others in the community about how it can be better. Because the one thing that we want to do is protect our police department. That’s not a “defund the police” bill. You know, Joe Biden, or me, or Kamala Harris, we don’t want to defund the police. What we do want to do is make sure that we can get more training, get rid of that swath of systemic racism that we know exists. We see it play out in front of us every day on our computers and our TVs, but we also know, as Joe Biden has said many times, that the overwhelming number of law enforcement out there are absolutely dedicated to service to their communities. They’re dedicated to doing the right thing. We need to get their help in trying to make the changes necessary. That means more transparency, and how excessive use of force cases are investigated and possibly prosecuted. It means more resources to law enforcement, to make sure that we have that transparency, that we have some independent bodies, and that we have more training for deescalation of events, more training about racism, and even the implicit bias that folks might not even know that they have. I think those are the things that we can do. “I still believe our first priority is going to be to get out of this health care, economic, and racial inequality crisis” And that bill is a really good step in the right direction. It could get amended some, but I think folks are open to trying to get something accomplished. I think that would be a really important first step; it would send a great message to the American people that Congress and the Senate is very serious about this. We take it very seriously. And then we go from there, because I do believe there’s so many things we can do with the Fair Housing Act, with health care. We need to expand Medicaid in states like Alabama that haven’t done it. It would give so many more folks the access to health care: Black and white and brown, as a matter of fact. What we need to do is then start systematically looking at what’s still creating barriers, whether the law itself is creating barriers, or whether it’s the application of the law. Start removing those barriers. I think that’s going to be a real priority going forward. Ella Nilsen Given your history as a civil rights attorney, how far do you think Alabama and the nation as a whole have come on race? And how far do we still have to go? Doug Jones It’s hard to measure that now. Clearly we’ve come a long way. I grew up in a segregated South, and we are so far removed from the South of the 1950s and early ’60s. But clearly, we have a long way to go. What I think was happening, to some extent, is that we kind of just got soft on it a little bit. We assumed — especially with the election of Barack Obama — that things were just better and things were going to continue to get better. And actually things started getting worse. We saw more hate groups rising up, we saw more hate on the internet, and things started rolling back. All of a sudden, this Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision started the demise of the Voting Rights Act. And states started enacting laws I believe have the effect of discriminating. It’s not because people don’t like Black folks in this country, they just don’t like the way they vote. It’s a political power issue as much as anything else, and that has created some backlash that we’ve got to overcome. It’s hard to measure how far we’ve come, especially since we’ve slid back a good bit, but we clearly have a long ways to go. Ella Nilsen There’s this new group of really interesting Democratic candidates in the South: Adrian Perkins in Louisiana, Mike Espy in Mississippi, Jamie Harrison in South Carolina, Rev. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, M.J. Hegar in Texas, and Amy McGrath in Kentucky. Are Democratic politics in the South seeing a revival? Doug Jones I do think it’s a trend. It’s a trend because of changing demographics. But it’s also a trend because I think Democrats for too long in the South decided they really weren’t going to be Democrats and stand up for working people. They were going to let Republicans define them on a lot of social issues. They claimed the power. We had a solid Democratic South in name only. It was never solid Democrat, it was a bunch of different factions of something called the Democratic Party. I think what you’re seeing now is a revival in the sense that people are saying, we really need to be who we are. We need to be the party that looks out for the little guy, the party that is not anti-business by any stretch, because the little guy depends on those businesses in order to have jobs and to have the economy that we need. But we need to make sure that everybody has access to good health care. We need to make sure that everybody does, and we need to make sure people know that it’s the Democrats who often have their back, and we’re going to work with you on all the issues that you care about. Those kitchen table issues that I ran on in 2017? Those are so much more important now. It wasn’t Doug Jones, but it was kind of the Doug Jones movement we had in Alabama: to be who we are, to care for people, and look out for our neighbors. And to know that we have more in common than we have to divide us, to try to find that common ground and exploit the common ground and not the divisions. Republicans in the South have been great about exploiting the divisions and Democrats have let them do it. No more. We’re going to exploit the common ground that we have among everyone in the South and across the country, by the way. Ella Nilsen The segregationist Southern Democrats of the 1950s and ’60s — do you think that lives on in the minds of some Black voters in the South, and has caused any hesitancy to stick with the Democratic Party? Doug Jones No, it’s completely changing. I quite frankly reject the term “Southern Democrats” to some extent because of the connotation. We’re Democrats in the South, and the connotation earlier I think has gone away. They only have to look at somebody like my history of doing the church bombing cases, standing up and working in the Black Belt, and trying to get down in the weeds to make sure all people and all boats are lifted. I don’t just go down and talk to Black churches in the Black Belt and say one thing and then go up to the Chamber of Commerce in Huntsville, Alabama, and say something different — those messages are the same. Now, everybody’s got their local issues, but the messages are still the same about what it’s going to take to move Alabama forward. The South has been the place of so many divisions in this country. It started right here in the South, so many of our divisions. The South should be the epicenter for where the healing begins. I absolutely believe that we can do that — and I believe we are doing it, slowly but surely. Ella Nilsen What do you think people who are kind of on the outside looking in don’t understand about campaigning in the South and politics there? Doug Jones Well, it is complicated. It’s gotten more complicated, because I think Democrats didn’t compete in the South for so, so long — trying to be Republican-lite or whatever you call it. They just didn’t compete. There is a conditioning almost where people have been voting Republican so long, it’s surprising to them and there’s a hesitancy to cross over, but it’s happening more and more. If you look at demographically how the South is changing, we’ve got more businesses coming into the South, people from all over the country are moving [here]. That’s young folks, it’s college-educated folks. We’re trying to keep our folks in our rural areas where they are as well and not lose our rural areas. The last thing I want to do is see our rural areas go by the wayside, but the South demographics are changing. You’ve also got a younger generation that is now coming of age, not just voting age. They’re getting engaged more in their careers and their businesses, some are owning their businesses. They grew up at a time that’s different than the time I grew up. They grew up at a time where they went to school with people of a different race, they went to school and had friends who were gay. And so a lot of those social norms, they don’t see it the same way. Ella Nilsen The conventional wisdom is that President Trump is still quite popular in Alabama. Do you think his standing in the state has diminished at all? Doug Jones I don’t think there’s any question his standing has diminished. I don’t think anybody should discount the fact that Trump won so many states in the South by as much as he did, because there was a dislike for Secretary Clinton. Just that simple. We’ve seen it time and time again, we saw it play out in 2016. I’ve seen it in the polling and numbers throughout the South and in Alabama, since I started polling in my race in 2017. “I quite frankly reject the term ‘Southern Democrats’ to some extent because of the connotation. We’re Democrats in the South.” But I also think there are a lot of people in Alabama that traditionally voted Republican who voted for Donald Trump. They didn’t particularly like what they were seeing and hearing but always assumed that once he became president, he would be very presidential and they haven’t seen that. There’s a lot of Trump fatigue; they’re tired of the tweets, they wish he would govern instead of just tweeting. They wish he would follow the science and listen to health care professionals, instead of insisting that he knows everything about everything. There’s a lot of that out there. He will carry Alabama for sure for a lot of factors, but I do not believe that he will carry Alabama anywhere close to the way he carried it in 2016. Ella Nilsen What do you think of Joe Biden’s idea to enroll people who are in the Medicaid expansion gap into his public option proposal, given that Alabama is a state that hasn’t expanded Medicaid? Doug Jones Look, if that’s the way to get my people insured, then I am all for it. I’m not for Medicare-for-all, and neither is Joe Biden. I’ve said that very clearly. Too many people like their health insurance plans through their employers; too many unions have fought for those health insurance plans. But we do have that gap in Alabama — we didn’t expand Medicaid. Before this pandemic, we would have had 326,000 Alabamians who would have been eligible for Medicaid that did not get it. They make too much money to be eligible for Medicaid as it exists in Alabama now, yet they didn’t make enough money to get good health insurance. We need to help those folks as best we can and giving a public option — or if not going that far — just giving the states the incentives to expand Medicaid. I think if we could pass my bill, the SAME Act (States Achieving Medicaid Expansion) to give states that three-year window of 100 percent reimbursement [from the federal government], I believe Alabama would do it. They see their sister states like Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri doing it. They see the billions of dollars we’ve lost. I think Joe’s proposal is a good one. I still would love to see the Affordable Care Act tweaked instead of dismantled and do it some way through the Affordable Care Act. Ella Nilsen I wanted to get your thoughts on filibuster reform. Do you think that’s an option Democrats should pursue if you are in the majority in the Senate but you’re dealing with an obstinate Republican minority? Doug Jones I know there’s a lot of talk about that. And also know, if Joe Biden is president of the United States, Biden has a 40-year history of working with Republicans. And no matter what happens during the election season, they all like him; I’ve heard that time and time again. Joe is the kind of guy that’s a Senate institutionalist. I really believe he will want to work with Republicans to try to get things done. This ability to just go from one Senate majority to the other with or without the president, it’s not good for the country. I think the filibuster rule is a way that you have to reach out. That’s what I do every day when I’m in the Senate, and sometimes I have to reach out within my own party to try to pull people together. I think Joe’s gonna give this a chance, and I’m very hopeful that Senate Republicans will take the opportunity to move together. Let’s get the Senate back to some regular order where we can debate the issues of the day, have amendments on the issues of the day, vote on them up or down, let the president do what he’s going to do. But give the president an opportunity to find that common ground. It is by finding common ground that we move forward, not by just doing it by simple whim of who happens to be in the majority, because then you’re gonna see, just like we’re seeing with executive orders playing out — a new president comes in, gets rid of all his predecessor’s executive orders, those new ones that we don’t need to see that’s happening with legislation. We need to see some consistency. I think filibuster rule, the 60-vote margin, is a way to do that. Ella Nilsen Alabama is one of the states that is now seeing a spike in coronavirus cases with colleges and universities going back. From talking to your constituents, how is the virus impacting their daily lives? Doug Jones Well, that’s a pretty complicated question you just asked, Ella. Alabama’s numbers are actually improving. Yes, we have seen some spikes on a couple of college campuses. But overall, we are seeing a decline in the number of new cases, the number of hospitalizations, a decline in the deaths. We are cautiously optimistic about where we’re headed. Vasha Hunt/AP University of Alabama students move onto campus in Tuscaloosa on August 15. Vasha Hunt/AP High school football has returned to Alabama, in another test of whether crowds may worsen the coronavirus pandemic. Wearing masks got so politicized back in the summer, and people just ... refused to recognize that it would help. It forced our governor [Kay Ivey] — and I was very proud of her for doing it — the only Republican governor in the Deep South to issue a statewide mask order. People started getting it, they started wearing their masks more. And lo and behold, it’s starting to work — our numbers are going down. I’m hoping people will see that it still works, because the virus is still out there. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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How the Senate’s most endangered Democrat thinks he can win, again
Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) speaks with the press following a vote in the Senate impeachment trial that acquitted President Donald Trump of all charges on February 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. | Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images Doug Jones wants Democrats to rethink their approach to campaigning in the South. Sen. Doug Jones is redefining what it means to be a Southern Democrat. Whether he can continue to do so after November is an open question. Jones is easily the most endangered Senate Democrat on the ballot this year, just for the fact that he represents Alabama — a state where President Donald Trump still enjoys his highest net approval rating in the country. Jones surprised the political world by winning a 2017 special election, but many political observers think it’s a foregone conclusion thathe will lose his reelection. Still, Jones says don’t count him out just yet. “There’s a lot that I know that they don’t,” he told Vox in a recent interview. Jones and his campaign admit he’s the underdog in the race against Republican and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, but they think the competition is closer than public polls suggest. Whereas an August Morning Consult poll showed Jones 17 points behind Tuberville, the Jones campaign’s internal polling suggests the Democrat is just a few points behind. “Does it bother us that the same punditry is saying Alabama, no way?” Jones campaign adviser Joe Trippi told Vox. “Yeah, we’ve heard that before.” Alex Wong/Getty Images Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) reads a copy of The Hill newspaper prior to a news conference, February 15, 2018, in Washington, DC. To have a shot at winning, Jones needs more than the unprecedented African American turnout that boosted him in 2017; he’ll also need about one-third of white voters. With more registered Republicans than Democrats in Alabama, he’ll also need to pull in crossover voters who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and will probably vote for the president again in 2020 — including suburban women. Jones’s surprise win three years ago“gave Democrats in the Deep South some hope,” Cook Political Report Senate editor Jessica Taylor told Vox. Both Republican and Democratic strategists in Alabama told Vox that Jones is running a highly organized campaign this time, while Tuberville has little presence in the state — largely running an ad-based campaign emphasizing his closeness to Trump (Tuberville’s campaign didn’t respond to Vox’s request for comment). While Republicans in the state expect Tuberville to prevail, some think Jones could keep the margins close. “I think it’s going to be a close election and Republicans need to take it seriously,” Alabama Republican strategist Chris Brown told Vox. The fact we’re even talking about a Democratic incumbenthaving an electoral pathin Alabama, of all places, tells you this is an unusual election year. Look no further than the raft of newly competitive Senate races in the South: North Carolina is hotly contested, both Georgia races are up for grabs, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is facing an increasingly stiff challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison. And even though few expect the Senate races in Alabama’s neighboring states Louisiana and Mississippi to flip blue, there are dynamic Democratic candidates in both races. “I think Democrats for too long ... let Republicans define them on a lot of social issues,” Jones told Vox. “Republicans in the South have been great about exploiting the divisions and Democrats have let them do it. No more.” What Jones needs to build on from 2017 to win in 2020 Everything went right for Doug Jones in the 2017 special election. As the campaign of former Alabama judge Roy Moore imploded after four women accused him of preying on them when they were teenagers, Jones was quietly running a campaign focused on jobs and Medicaid expansion. Jones eschewed the national spotlight, but the anti-Moore sentiment in the state and the potential of electing a Democrat were enough to help him build a grassroots army powered by Black women. During the special election, 98 percent of Black women — compared to 93 percent of Black men, 34 percent of white women, and 26 percent of white men — backed Jones over Moore. That overwhelming support, combined with depressed Republican turnout, helped Jones secure a narrow and shocking victory for Democrats, who hadn’t won a Senate seat in Alabama for 25 years. “We know what we did to turn out those voters in 2017,” Trippi said. “There was no party ‘get out the vote’ apparatus; it was built by the Jones campaign.” Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Then-senatorial candidate Doug Jones takes a picture with voters outside of a polling station in Bessemer, Alabama, on December 12, 2017. Even with those numbers, Jones notched just a 1.7-point win over Moore. He needs those same numbers in a high-turnout presidential election year. No one doubts Trump will win Alabama again in 2020, but Democrats in the state say they think the 2017 election showed Trump isn’t quite as popular as he used to be. Trump’s approval rating in the state hovering in the high to mid-50s, according to recent polls — a slight dip from 62 percent approval in 2016. Jones hopes some voters who pull the lever for Trump in 2020 stick with him, too. “Obviously Biden’s not going to win the race, but we’re pretty sure this is going to be mid-teens, not a blowout like Hillary,” said Jones’s campaign pollster Paul Maslin, of the Montgomery-based ALG Research. “No one denies it’s a conservative state, no one denies Trump’s going to win, but it was a conservative state in 2017. It’s all pointing to a very close election.” Republicans scoff at that idea. “That’s the sound of staffers who need to motivate themselves to go to work every morning,” a Republican strategist told Vox. Tommy Tuberville certainly doesn’t carry the political baggage that Moore does. He still has liabilities; the Jones campaign plans to hammer Tuberville over accusations of fraud stemming from a shuttered hedge fund he once co-owned. Tuberville was largely absent from in-person campaigning in the GOP primary and the general election and has a paltry $551,285 cash on hand, compared to more than $8 million in Jones’s war chest. “They have a strategy; I’m not sure Tuberville does,” a Republican consultant in Alabama told Vox. “Tuberville doesn’t really campaign. He’s not showing up anywhere. He’s going to win this race with virtually no grassroots campaign.” Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville speaks to his supporters after he defeated Jeff Sessions in the Republican primary for US Senate on July 14, 2020, in Montgomery, Alabama. Political observers in the state say they’re seeing similar energy to 2017, with Trump’s reelection bid firing up both Republican and Democratic bases. Jones is running a field strategy focused on boosting turnout in Jefferson County (encompassing Birmingham and its suburbs) and suburban areas around the state including outside Huntsville. “The organizations on the ground seem just as engaged, and so we could see a form of Trump effect, where the heightened awareness of the importance of the coming presidential elections brings out Black voters in large numbers,” University of Alabama political science professor Utz McKnight told Vox. Black women organizers, who helped turn out a staggering number of voters in 2017, are once again set to play a pivotal role. Organizer and Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson says the pandemic hasn’t dampened efforts to reach voters. With nationwide protests against racism and police brutality toward Black Americans, Tyson sees a heightened sense of urgency this cycle. “They are shooting down Black men like life isn’t important to anybody but white people,” says Tyson. “The next bullet is going to be for your son, for your daughter, for your grandson. So what are you going to do?” Much like in 2017, Tyson’s group, Black Women’s Roundtable, and several others are going door to door to make sure Alabamians are committed to voting this fall and aware of the requirements for mail-in balloting. Tyson’s group is focused on what’s known as Alabama’s “Black Belt,” a series of counties in the center of the state where the majority of constituents are Black. “The only difference is that we wear masks,” Tyson told Vox of voter outreach this time around, adding that efforts this year have focused heavily on making sure people have the resources they need to vote by mail. “We are supplying the stamps; we are supplying the envelopes.” Even though Democrats and Republicans in the state agree the race will be closer than expected, some Democrats in the state think Jones’s chances are ultimately dim. Even if Jones does everything right, Alabama is still tough political terrain. “I think he would need those Roy Moore-type revelations; you would need Donald Trump to completely collapse,” said an Alabama Democratic operative. Doug Jones isn’t your average Southern Democrat The main Republican attack on Jones is that he’s a Democrat in a red state. Jones would agree. “I think Democrats didn’t compete in the South for so, so long — trying to be Republican light or whatever you call it,” he told Vox. “We had a solid Democratic South in name only. It was never solid Democrat, it was a bunch of different factions of something called the Democratic Party.” After his 2017 election win, Jones has stubbornly made his own way in the Senate. He certainly touts his bipartisan work with Republicans, including the Military Widow’s Tax Elimination Act, the Automotive Jobs Act, and the POWER Act. But Jones hasn’t gone out of his way to try to take Trump-friendly votes, voting against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and voting to convict the president during the Senate’s February impeachment trial. “I have votes that come to me on the floor of the Senate that Mitch McConnell picks for me, and some of those are tougher votes than others,” Jones said. “I think people tend to see this as a loyalty test for either Democrats or Republicans, and I don’t see it that way at all. I don’t pick and choose battles.” Compared to more conservative members of the Senate Democratic caucus like Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), who vote in line with Trump’s position about 52 percent of the time, Jones votes with Trump about 35 percent of the time, according to a vote tracker from FiveThirtyEight. “I think of Manchin at least on cultural issues, is center/center right,” said Alabama Democratic strategist Zac McCrary. “Jones is certainly in his own way moderate and bipartisan, but certainly is not leaning into some of those things. He’s going to be the senator he wanted. He’s not going to twist himself into a pretzel; he’s going to do his own thing.” Anna Moneymaker/Pool/Getty Images Sen.Doug Jones (D-AL) sits in a Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on May 7, 2020, in Washington DC. Republicans are trying to turn this against Jones, painting him as anti-Trump in a state where the president remains politically popular. Some Republicans in the state rejected the idea that Trump’s support among voters there has softened, saying the president remains as popular as ever. “I think they’re all coming home to Trump,” said Brown, the Alabama Republican strategist. The president’s message around law and order amid protests and uprisings this summer is “solidifying stuff behind Trump.” As this summer has seen waves of protests against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Jones cut his first campaign ad saying, “Black lives matter.” Jones had built a strong base of support among Black voters in 2017, in part because he has a strong record on racial justice. He is a longtime civil rights attorney who in 2001 and 2002 prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four Black girls. And in 2018, a bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Ted Cruz aimed at forcing more records to be released in civil rights cold cases. “Doug will always be a hero of mine for finishing what I couldn’t finish,” said former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, who prosecuted Klansman and 1963 church bomber Robert Chambliss in 1977, but wasn’t able to convict the other men involved in the plot. “The biggest regret about my time in office — even though we convicted Chambliss — there were the other killers of those little girls out there free, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it.” Jones’s history on the case helped energize turnout among Black voters in 2017. He has made an emphasis on racial justice a centerpiece of his reelection campaign and co-sponsored the Justice In Policing Act, though there’s a push for him — and Democratic lawmakers writ large — to do more. “Black women are realists. We’re practical. In Alabama, to have a Democrat in the Senate is important. We are far more likely to have a candidate to listen to those issues, so he gets the support based on that,” said Lecia Brooks, of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. She notes, however, that Jones hasn’t offered the kind of transformative leadership she was looking for. ”There were great hopes that he would use that time wisely, rather than convince Republicans he was a safe Democrat,” she said. AP Photo/John Bazemore Supporters of Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Doug Jones wait for results of election night during a watch party on December 12, 2017, in Birmingham, Alabama. Jones sees the South as a changed place since the segregated 1950s and ’60s he saw as a kid. But he also thinks progress on racial justice has slid back in recent years, with violent clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia; police killings of unarmed Black men; and a sitting president who has repeatedly used racist language. “I grew up in a segregated South, and we are so far removed from the South of the 1950s and early ’60s. But clearly, we have a long way to go,” Jones said. “We assumed — especially with the election of Barack Obama — that things were just better and things would continue to get better. And actually, things started getting worse. It’s hard to measure how far we’ve come, especially since we’ve slid back a good bit, but we clearly have a long ways to go.” Jones also sees himself as a new kind of Democrat from the Deep South. “I quite frankly reject the term ‘Southern Democrats’ to some extent because of the connotation” with segregationist Democrats of the past, Jones said. “We’re Democrats in the South, and the connotation earlier I think has gone away.” There’s a new kind of Democratic wave in the South Jones’s 2017 special election win was one of the first glimmers of hope for Democrats after a Republican sweep in the 2016 presidential election. But it also has ushered in a new generation of Democratic candidates in the South. Southern states that used to be reliably Republican are starting to change. Swift demographic change and suburban voters who used to vote Republican but have been turned off by Trump are turning the South into a real battleground. This year alone, there are four Senate races that the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates either toss-up or Lean Republican: North Carolina, South Carolina, and the two Georgia races. Democrats are also contesting Texas and Kentucky, and two Black candidates in Mississippi and Louisiana could narrow the race in states that are currently rated Solid Republican. Republicans are watching the changing map with trepidation. “The fact we’re even talking about a competitive race in Georgia tells you the impact of demographic change on American politics,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres told Vox. “Normally, a few years ago we would never even be talking about Senate races in Texas or Georgia or North Carolina even being competitive. And now they’re certainly on the list of states to watch, which shows you the kind of change that’s occurred in the voting electorate in those states.” Jones also sees these demographics, but he also thinks it’s the result of Democratic candidates like him not trying to fit themselves into a conservative box. “We need to be the party that looks out for the little guy, the party that is not anti-business by any stretch. ... But we need to make sure that everybody has access to good health care,” Jones said. Whether these changes are enough to save Jones in 2020 is yet to be seen. But even if Democrats lose his seat in Alabama, they’re gaining ground in the South that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. “Alabama is Republican today, but so was Georgia 10 years ago,” the Republican consultant in Alabama said. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Dear Therapist: Should My Lover and I Confess to Our Affair?
Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at Dear Therapist,I was married for 25 years, had three children, and went through a very messy, traumatic divorce 10 years ago. My ex had become an abusive alcoholic and was very mean, especially to our middle child, a girl with learning disabilities.In the decade after my divorce, I focused on working and raising my children, but I occasionally dated. It was a difficult decade, with no financial assistance from my ex, who lost his job after a series of DUIs. My children are now independent and my life is full with friends, books, and distance running, although I have often felt very lonely.A few years ago, a family friend I have known for 15 years began working out in the same running clinic. He is the father of three kids who were in the same grades at school as my three children, and the husband of a woman with whom I used to do PTA work. He and I always had an easy, emotionally connected relationship, given our children and mutual interests. Over time, he began to confess on our long runs that his wife is an alcoholic and that they had not been physically or emotionally close for more than a decade. He says that they tried marriage therapy unsuccessfully and that she is in denial about her drinking. Three months ago, against my better judgement, we began an affair.I am 67 and often felt old and tired, but suddenly I felt youthful and happy and like I had something to look forward to. When guilty thoughts came up, I told him that this couldn’t go on, and that he had to get divorced if we were to continue. He has agreed to get a divorce, and we feel that we are in love and would like to spend the remainder of our lives together. But I’m worried about what the children will think, and how honest to be with all six of them. And what will I say to his wife? We were never close friends, but we worked together for years in PTA leadership positions and respected each other.I feel incredibly guilty and am worried that if we come clean, we will lose the respect of our children and become pariahs in our community.Can you offer any guidance?AnonymousDear Anonymous,Taking responsibility for something that has caused other people pain is hard, so I understand your concern about how much to tell your children. You’re right that telling the truth has consequences, and you may well upset your adult children and be judged by them and others in your community. But here’s the thing: Telling the truth is also the path to gaining their trust and respect in the long run.This is because one problem with not telling the truth, or sharing only part of it, is that it will likely come out anyway, even if you and your partner do your best to spin the timing of his divorce and your subsequent relationship so that it does not appear to be what it was. This lie will become a family secret in not just one but two families, and family secrets have a way of being felt even if unspoken. What makes many family secrets so damaging is that there can be a sense that something is not quite as it seems, which creates a feeling of unease. Generally, the secret eventually comes out—something is found on a phone, an offhand comment reveals a different timeline, someone in the running group strongly suspected or even saw evidence of the affair—and when it does, people feel angry and betrayed.The point is that no matter how your adult children feel when you tell them about the affair—and each of them may have lots of feelings about it, especially your partner’s children—they need to be able to trust you and your partner going forward.So the question is not whether but how do you tell the children? You do it family by family, and let’s start with yours. For your part, you—without your partner present—gather your three children together, preferably in person, but if that’s not possible, video chat will do. Then you share the facts—you say that for the past three months, you’ve been having an affair with so-and-so’s dad. You tell them that you felt terribly guilty—this wasn’t consistent with your values—so you decided that you would both come clean so as to continue your relationship. You say that you realize that this will cause his wife much pain, and that you take responsibility for that and will have to find a way to come to terms with it. Then you explain that as hard as it is to share this with them, you wanted to be honest about what’s happening, because you know from this experience how destructive hiding the truth can be.At that point, you stop talking. Give them space to react, and avoid responding defensively to their feelings by trying to justify your actions (I was lonely; their relationship had been dead for a decade). Tell them that no matter what your reasons, you should have handled this differently, and you understand why they feel shocked/angry/sad/disgusted (or whatever comes up). If they were or are still friends with your partner’s kids, own your role in potentially damaging those friendships permanently. Be prepared to answer their questions truthfully, but remember that you don’t have to share every detail. Then reassure them that you are always there for them, and that you hope they’ll feel free to talk with you anytime about how this has affected them and will continue to affect them going forward. For instance, they might not want to be around the two of you early on, and you will respect their feelings as they evolve.Your partner, of course, has a more difficult task. He needs to tell his wife first, and she may tell the children before he does. If she is willing to go with him to a therapist to talk about how to manage the fallout of the affair and the end of their marriage, including how to best help their children process the infidelity and subsequent divorce without burdening them with their own issues (your father is a scumbag; your mother is an alcoholic), that would be ideal. If not, he can follow the guidelines I suggested to you when talking to your kids candidly about what happened, without getting into the details that are best left between him and his wife (we hadn’t had sex in 10 years; your mother is in denial about her drinking).Remember, too, that many adult children grieve the end of their parents’ marriage, because despite being grownups and living independently, they’re still losing their family as they always knew it. This may be true for your partner’s children, while your children might be losing the sweet memories of a family friendship that has now been upended. The more you can empathize with their losses, the safer they will feel as you all adjust to this next phase of your relationship with your partner.As for what to say to the wife, ask yourself what you might say that would be helpful to her. An apology, for example, might make you feel better by alleviating your guilt, but it might also add to her pain. Remember that she will be experiencing a double betrayal—first the affair, and second the involvement of someone she considered a friendly fellow mom for many years. She may feel that you stole not just her husband, but her dignity, the life she had planned to live for the next several decades, and her sense of safety or trust in those she believed loved her. If you can’t think of something to say that you feel confident would be for her benefit and not yours, then you might want to hold off for now.You’ll find that your children and your community will have all kinds of feelings and opinions about your relationship with your partner, but you’ll also experience more than ever before the fact that nobody can really understand someone else’s life and the choices they’ve made without having lived it themselves. What’s most important here is that going forward, you and your partner learn from this experience and bring honesty into all of your relationships, knowing that it’s the soil from which everything healthy grows.Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.
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Why do gender reveals unleash so much destruction?
The Creek fire in the Cascadel Woods area of Madera County, California — a fire started by a gender reveal. | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images Experts have their theories about why gender reveals cause wildfires, and kill, maim, and burn people. Earlier this month, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined the catastrophic El Dorado wildfire was caused by a “smoke generating pyrotechnic device.” The device was set off during a party, intended to release pink or blue smoke to signal that the gathering’s unborn honoree was either a girl or a boy. Instead, it was baby’s first introduction into a world of inferno, destruction, and gender. In a very short time, gender reveal parties have become a new tradition in popular culture. It started with a piece of cake, dyed pink or blue on the inside. Now they’ve grown exponentially and resulted in not one but at least two acre-scorching wildfires, a fatal explosion, a fiery car crash in Australia, and party attendees burned by fireworks. We’re at the point now that the woman who’s credited as creating these parties is begging for them to stop or at least calm down — the same plea she made on Vox a year ago. But given that people are risking social distancing measures in the middle of a pandemic and setting off smoke bombs during wildfire season, it seems as though that plea will go unheeded. It’s particularly hard to get people to stop a behavior without fully examining that behavior. Gender reveal parties are a young tradition, and so they haven’t been studied extensively and academically yet. But gender and social experts have ideas, some more abstract and some more tangible, that explain why these parties have become more explosive and more destructive as time goes on. And at the heart of it, they explain how we think of parenting today. It’s a last gasp of gender construct Logan Riely/Beam Imagination/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images CONGRATULATIONS! Your baby’s gender is the Truist Park stadium in Atlanta, Georgia! “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s at the moment when the gender binary system is being challenged more intensely than ever before that we see gender reveal events become more and more performative and over-the-top,” Gayatri Gopinath, the director of NYU’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, told me over email. Gopinath explains that this long-clung-to binary is facing examination “due to the increasing visibility and activism of/by trans and nonbinary folks and their allies.” Gopinath’s assessment of gender reveal parties — she said it was a quick take — was something other experts I spoke to mentioned as well. The idea is that Americans have become more and more progressive when it comes to understanding the nuances of gender and have shown a growing support for trans rights (a work in progress, however, especially when you consider the number of violent acts against trans people). In fact, experts say that “gender reveal party” is a misnomer since gender is a social construct: It’s actually a baby’s biological sex reveal party. We’re growing more comfortable with the idea that there’s nothing wrong with allowing our kids to be who they want to be, that maybe the pinks, blues, and behaviors we assign kids based on their sex isn’t really that helpful or that important. Gender reveal parties and their fixed concepts about boys and girls, masculinity and femininity, and the men and women they’ll become, are the last vestiges of those “traditional” ideas. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that straight couples tend to be the drivers behind the gender reveal party phenomenon. “It seems to me to be an anxious and reactionary response that attempts to stabilize the meaning of gender at precisely the moment that it is becoming less rigid and more unstable,” Gopinath said. According to Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University, this “last gasp” concept has been written about in regard to rapid social and political change in the US. An example: President Obama’s election and reelection met with a flare-up of vociferous racism. Gender reveals, in the context of Americans’ progression on gender, could implicitly be about resistance. That could definitely be what’s happening here, she said, but we need more information. “When you’re about to extinguish a behavior” — in this case, antiquated and fixed gender norms — “there’s oftentimes a burst of the behavior before the behavior is fully extinguished, like one last-ditch effort,” Solomon said, describing the phenomena. “I don’t know if that’s exactly part of it.” She explained that more research about who is conducting these parties needs to be done, but it wouldn’t surprise her if the couples who arrange gender reveals tend to lean more conservative and less inclined to recognize gender as a social and psychological construct. Occam’s razor: Gender reveals are so big because social media demands it The simplest answer for why these parties have become ceremonies of destruction is that tame gender reveals seldom gain viral status. Gender revelation has become an industry — books, blog posts, hashtags, party planners are devoted to the event — and an arms race. “People want it to be dramatic, celebratory, an event,” Peter Glick, a professor of psychology and social sciences at Lawrence University, told me. “And to go viral above all, which means an explosion or something else eye-catching or funny or sweet.” While people do attend gender reveal parties in person, the audience is actually much bigger. The reveal is as much for the people watching on TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook as it is for those present. With that in mind, the stuff that tends to get the most attention on social media sites is videos, preferably videos that have a punchline and an emotional impact. A photo of a slice of pink cake isn’t as dynamic as confetti cannons going off, and confetti cannons firing blue bursts into the sky aren’t as spectacular as a military F-14 flyover. “It’s the ‘big reveal’ about who the child ‘is’ or ‘will be’” The bigger the reveal, the better chance it has of going viral, and the more pressure there is to outdo the gender reveals that came before it. But as Glick told me, the bombastic nature of the event is also connected to how important gender is to these parents — something that seems related to Gopinath’s idea about how tightly we’re holding on to old masculine ideals. “It’s the ‘big reveal’ about who the child ‘is’ or ‘will be,’” Glick told me. That’s a tall order, even for a pyrotechnic smoke device. But is it really about dudes? Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images A gender reveal sparked the Creek fire in the Cascadel Woods. The fire destroyed 7,000 acres. Solomon, who specializes in gender and parenthood at Northwestern, told me that birth is something American society associates with mothers, women relatives, and the feminine. That affects Americans in a personal way — like fathers-to-be feeling left out — but is also reflected in bigger ways, like employment policies that lack paternity leave. “In relationship education, I talk a lot about the importance of the couple, of really ensuring that they both feel equally connected to the baby, equally responsible for the babies, and setting those good habits right from the start,” she told me. This is particularly a concern in heterosexual couples “because the cultural pressure marginalizes the male role, which has huge consequences for him, for her, for the baby, and that doesn’t do anybody any good.” The need to break down those cultural barriers and include men squares with the narrative that gender reveals are a way to make straight, cis men part of the pre-birth excitement. Traditionally, baby showers have been thought of as female-centric. A gender reveal opens up the avenue to help men celebrate the imminent birth of a child. But what if making men a part of these celebrations makes them inherently more deadly? Do all these explosions and destructive events coinciding with the birth of a child have to do with performative or precarious masculinity? Researchers have observed the social and psychological reactions men display when their masculinity is threatened and discovered that many men double down on risky or dangerous behavior when challenged. Becoming a father is commonly recognized as a test of one’s manhood. Solomon described to me a 2009 study in which men were asked to braid — some got ropes, others got a baby doll’s hair. “The men who were braiding the hair then went on to choose a more aggressive hostile task next.” Including men in a traditionally feminine space, like a celebration of pregnancy, could trigger masculinity loss, and this would partly explain why gender reveals have featured explosives, guns, wildfires, and bullet wounds, while traditional baby showers didn’t. To be clear, there are plenty of gender reveal parties that never make headlines and are no doubt enjoyed by many people; there wouldn’t be an industry around them if they weren’t so popular. But there’s an underlying current of schadenfreude with these freak reports of gender reveals gone wrong. When a gender reveal fail surfaces — like the wildfire or someone hurting themselves setting off a gender reveal firework — there’s a common reaction: Maybe the people behind it aren’t the best or brightest America has to offer. It’s the opportunity to judge these people’s choices and conduct. A lot of us think of the other ways we would spend pyrotechnic gender reveal money or how we’re smart enough not to be suckered into that kind of behavior. Or, we think, if we were to engineer a gender reveal party, we would do it better and not leave an ecological disaster in our wake. But as Solomon points out, these explosion-filled fetes and the reactions to them speak to a bigger idea that we’re whiffing on — and a possible solution to the damage and destruction of a gender reveal party gone wild. It’s the opportunity to redefine masculinity, fatherhood, and parenthood so that we don’t need bombastic instruments of obliteration to compensate. “What we’re missing out on is a chance to have a larger conversation about how men can create for themselves a really sturdy masculinity that is both tough and tender, that is both strong and nurturing,” she told me. “All the data shows that men are healthier when they’re able to access all those parts of themselves. And becoming a parent is an incredibly powerful way to move toward a deeper understanding of what it truly means to be masculine, to be a man, and to be partnered and connected to your family.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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