The Death of Democracy in Duval County
DTG: 05:59 Wednesday, 22 March 2023
They held an election in Jacksonville Florida last night. Ennui won walking away in a landslide.
It wasn't an ordinary election, it was something un-ironically called a "jungle primary." In this peculiar institution, a candidate who receives fifty percent of the vote plus one is declared the winner. Failing that, the top two vote-getters advance to a run-off in May.
Roughly three quarters of Jacksonville's registered voters couldn't be roused to cast a ballot, either by mail, early voting or on election day. Despite the expenditure of the most money in a municipal race in the city's history. Despite having one candidate with a clear, positive vision and message, a compelling personal biography and a lifetime of personal and family connection to the city. She did earn the most votes, but not enough to win outright.
Instead, she will face a wooden white man. A caricature of the status quo. An inert, perpetual politician, seemingly groomed by the donor class to eventually be mayor some day. A man who spent millions of dollars trying to destroy his Republican opponents, succeeding in dispatching one, and likely improving the election performance of his closest Republican rival.
If democracy isn't dead in Duval County, it's on life support, hanging by a thread, if not a chad. (Though Daniel Davis, leading Republican candidate, has "Chad" written all over him.)
What kind of democracy is it when nearly three quarter of the citizens don't vote? And this isn't a new phenomenon in Jacksonville. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but it seems like someone's been holding a pillow over the face of democracy for some time around here.
What does "democracy" even mean when the majority of the citizens don't vote? It means "self-government" is government by the will of a minority. It's a message to any administration that the majority just doesn't care.
If democracy is dead in Duval, did it die of natural causes? Was it an accident? Or was it killed? If so, was it suicide, negligent homicide, or murdered with malice aforethought?
In any obituary, democracy's early life and young adulthood in Jacksonville would be seen as at least, "troubled." A part of the Confederacy and, later, Jim Crow, Jacksonville never embraced democracy for all its citizens. And yes, my little Republican friend, the power that imposed that was wielded by Democrats. It's about the only fact of history you seem to have mastered and can recall at will.
Not long after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Jacksonville decided that it would become a "Bold New City of the South," by consolidating Jacksonville city government with Duval county government. There were many reasons for this, and the city's defenders will say that race had little or nothing to do with it. The net effect, however, was to dilute the voting power of the city's Black population.
To be sure, Black voters were courted in the referendum; promises and assurances were made, which ultimately resulted in an on-the-record approval of consolidation by Black voters, providing white politicians with a solid alibi for decades to come.
Nearly contemporaneous with the beginning of Jacksonville's experiment with consolidated government was Nixon's "southern strategy." Whether or not it was Nixon's design to court disaffected racist southern Democrats, it began the process by which racist southerners found a welcome home in the Republican Party.
Writing this now, I'm wondering if this is where the fear of democracy began to infect the Republican Party. Because one thing is clear, Republicans today do fear democracy, and that wasn't always so.
If democracy was murdered in Duval, perhaps we have our motive.
If it was murder, was it a crime of passion? A lone, deranged killer?
Or was it a conspiracy?
Jacksonville has a civic and political culture. It's not particularly pretty, especially lately. It's a monoculture of Republican politics and governance. There is a Democratic Party in Duval county; but it's riddled with an auto-immune disorder that has left it nearly as dead as democracy.
If it was a conspiracy, it's to be found in the leadership of Jacksonville's civic and political culture, which is a Republican one.
In agriculture, a monoculture is a field or region that is cultivated to produce just one species of plant. This specialization offers greater efficiencies and greater profits for the planter. But it makes the crop especially vulnerable to disease and parasites.
The same is true in a political monoculture.
Any observer of Jacksonville's city government, whether it's the city council or its "strong mayor," Lenny Curry, would have to note the fecklessness and faithlessness that defines its actions. Embarrassing spectacles that would shame any rational political party or office are a routine occurrence. The public has grown inured to the farce that routinely plays out on the public stage.
There is a leadership vacuum in Jacksonville. There are no elder statesmen that command respect, who can criticize the people in power and direct public attention and opprobrium to their conduct and failures. The last one was Jake Godbold, and he played the part brilliantly in his last public act.
There are former mayors still around. The most visible one is John Delaney, a man who is seemingly most proud of his popularity as mayor, still able to quote his approval ratings nearly twenty years after he left office. Abandoning politics for the academy, Delaney is sometimes active on Twitter, though he demonstrates little talent for the platform.
When engaged about politics on Twitter, Delaney stakes out a bold stance, feet firmly planted on "both sides" of any issue, defiantly proclaiming, "I shall not be moved."
There will be no leadership from Jacksonville's most popular former mayor.
There are no civic institutions that call local government to account. They're all insiders. There's this thing called the Jacksonville Civic Council, which seems to mostly be a vanity effort by some local business leaders. It doesn't do much, if anything, to weigh in on issues. It did get excited about Lenny's plan to spend city money to build a University of Florida graduate school in Jacksonville, racing to city council as fast as it could to endorse that idea. And it did manage to rouse itself on the JEA debacle, late in the game. Mostly though, it's just a web site and a bullet in a bio.
The local chamber of commerce? Headed by the Republican favorite to succeed Lenny Curry to be what many expect to call "Lenny's third term."
How about the media? Well, we have some excellent reporters and commentators in Jacksonville. Nate Monroe, A.G. Gancarski, Mark Woods, Melissa Ross, and many others. But traditional journalism outlets are competing for attention in an attention economy that is saturated with competitors. While they have a pretty clear assessment of the dismal state of affairs in Duval, they don't command a following that can move the needle. They're lucky if they can make payroll.
It seems the public can't be bothered to pay attention to local government, and local government likes it that way. With only a quarter of the electorate willing to make the effort to vote, local pols, mostly Republicans, only have to target their "super-voters." Their messages narrowly tailored to the fears and prejudices of their most rabid supporters.
Lenny Curry likes to call the toxic cesspool of Jacksonville politics, "the arena." Well, Jacksonville has a septic tank problem. A holdover failed promise to underserved neighborhoods, that threatens local health in an increasingly flood-prone city, and water quality in the city's largest asset, the St Johns River.
A better writer than I could probably do something with that metaphor. Suffice to say, democracy's death may be due to criminal negligence. An insufficient attention to duty to guard the public health.
I don't know who the public authority is to declare democracy officially dead in Duval. Perhaps it'll be kept on life support, because, you know, Republicans are "pro-life." At least that way, there'll never be an autopsy to determine the official cause of death.
Damned by distraction, indicted by indifference, condemned by complacency, democracy was put to death in Duval County.