The Democratic exodus to blue states solidifies Republican power

The United States is witnessing a new phase of the ‘Big Sort’ – with likely grave consequences.

An abortion rights supporter holds her protest sign
An abortion rights supporter holds her protest sign outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, June 24, 2022 [File: Rogelio V Solis/AP Photo]

The recent wave of restrictive Supreme Court rulings that has swept the nation and the consequent ultraconservative state laws that have permeated the South have left millions of people across the United States angry, panicked and scrambling for ways to respond. For an increasing number of people – women, LGBTQ individuals and couples, and racial minorities – the only viable option may be to move away from states where their rights will be restricted.

In the early 2000s, much of the discussion about people relocating to politically compatible locations – a phenomenon called The Big Sort by some – focused on local migrations. Individuals and families moved across neighbourhoods, or perhaps counties, to find communities where they better fit. Liberal-leaning individuals could find oases in left-leaning urban areas of otherwise red states – cities like Austin or Atlanta, for example.

However, as restrictions on voting rights, abortion, and LGBTQ discrimination take hold at the state level, Republican legislatures are purposely denying liberal-leaning cities in their states the right to set policies on everything from guns and reproduction to recycling. Furthermore, the Supreme Court is largely backing and protecting these conservative efforts to restrict and redefine rights within red states. Living in a liberal neighbourhood or city no longer affords the protection it once did. And so a growing number of people who are being targeted by these new policies are faced with a tough choice.

In his 1970 book Exit, Voice and Loyalty, political scientist Albert Hirschman described the three possible responses that citizens can take when displeased by their governments: they can choose to remain loyal to those in power, simply abiding by decisions they do not support; they can exercise their voice – through voting, protests, and other types of political activities – in order to influence their officials to change the objectionable policies; or they can exit, withdrawing their participation from the political process or even physically removing themselves from the jurisdiction of those with whom they disagree.

For many of the people affected by the recent waves of ultraconservative laws and restrictive Supreme Court rulings, loyalty to their own oppression is not a viable option, and voting and other forms of political voice have simply been fruitless. And so the only option left for many is simply to leave, relocating to states where their rights will be protected.

The exodus is coming in many forms and for a variety of reasons. Parents are warning their daughters not to go to colleges in states where they will not have access to abortion services, and Black families are wary of having their children attend school in the South amid lingering racism and declining legal protections for their minority rights. Black students are becoming wary of attending college in conservative-controlled states, endangering enrolment even at historically Black colleges and universities that are predominantly located throughout the South. Parents of trans children are leaving Texas amid fears of being accused of child abuse or subjected to harassment. Google is encouraging its employees to move away from states with restrictive abortion laws, with other companies likely to follow their lead.

We have seen this type of policy-induced migration in American history before. After the American Civil War ended slavery and the period of Reconstruction temporarily enforced economic and political freedom for Black people across the former Confederacy, the southern powers that be quickly went about undoing as much of that progress as possible. By implementing Jim Crow laws to enforce segregation, Black Codes to essentially make being Black in public a potential crime, and sharecropping to keep Black farmers in perpetual debt, southern authorities reduced the newly freed population to a condition of virtual serfdom.

These intolerable conditions led to one of the great population shifts in American history – the Great Migration of the early to mid-20th century – as millions of Black people left the South for relative freedom in northern and western states. Beyond its demographic effect, this process also hugely shaped American politics. The political impact of the Great Migration was minimal in the South. Black people had been systematically denied their vote and civil rights there anyway, so their presence or absence had little effect on politics.

The Great Migration heavily affected the destination locations, however, as non-southern urban areas gained significant Black populations. These new Black arrivals eventually became reliable voters, as well as candidates, for the Democratic Party in urban areas and, from Kennedy on, formed an overwhelmingly loyal voting block for Democrats nationally.

The new migration that is being spurred by restrictive Republican legislation – the new phase of “the Big Sort”- will likely have a much different effect on American politics. Though voter suppression laws have been spreading across GOP-led states, political organising and voter enthusiasm have been able to partially counteract these policies, as evident by Democrats’ victories in Georgia during the 2020 election cycle. But as potential voters move away because of the increasing denials of civil and political rights, these votes are removed from these states’ constituencies.

In heavily Republican areas, the effect on overall elections will be minimal, since the GOP is already dominant. But even red states tend to have blue-leaning districts – often predominantly Black counties in southern states, for instance – and a combination of out-migration, voter suppression and racial gerrymandering have already eliminated these districts or threaten to flip them to Republican control by redrawing their boundaries in Republican-friendly ways.

As a result of these trends, a number of red states that have become purple in recent years – Texas, Florida, Georgia, perhaps even North Carolina and Virginia – are more likely to remain Republican-controlled as a result of this sorting (especially when combined with restrictive voter laws that artificially suppress the remaining blue vote in those states).

All of this will help to further the current trend of Republicans holding disproportionate power in federal and state governments. Statements made by Republican politicians hint that these long-term outcomes are intended by the current policies being enacted.

Ahead of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v Wade earlier this year, Fox News hosts began asserting that any woman who disagreed with a state’s abortion policies could simply relocate to a different state. Now, this message is coming from officials within the GOP itself, such as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson telling citizens of his state that they can “move” if they are unhappy with the state’s restrictive abortion laws. Other Republicans who won’t say the quiet part out loud are likely similarly inclined to encourage more liberal citizens to exit.

By using restrictive laws to force Democrats out of red states, Republicans are simply enhancing the advantages they have already built for themselves in everything from the Senate to the Supreme Court. And while this overall plan seems likely to lead to an even greater Republican advantage in American political systems, there is a chance that the GOP may be going too far.

In recent decades, Black Americans have been moving back to the South in a sort of reverse Great Migration, and these recent arrivals have helped fuel surges in Black vote and activism that contributed to flipping Georgia blue, for example. Opinion polls across the nation, as well as Kansas voting to affirm abortion rights in its constitution, indicate that moderates may be turning against the Republicans after the loss of Roe and the implementation of draconian anti-abortion laws. But even a temporary pro-Democrat bump in the next election may not be enough to overcome the longer-term GOP advantage as the demographic effects of anti-abortion laws and other policies solidify Republican control across red states. As was the case with the four-decade push to overturn Roe, Republicans are playing the long game. And so far, at least, they are winning.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.