Brave and pure thy men and women,
Better this than corn and wine
Make us worthy, God in Heaven
Of this goodly land of Thine
Hearts as open as thy doorway
Liberal hands and spirits free
Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!
— from “Alabama,” the official song of the State of Alabama, written by Julia S. Tutwiler, composed by Edna Gockel Gussen
In the run-up to Christmas Day, I made two driving trips — one southward on business, the other northwesterly for a holiday gathering with family — by routes that took me through long and varied stretches of Alabama countryside and a succession of small towns and crossroads communities. I was nowhere near encompassing the length and breadth of our state, but in motoring through 11 of our 67 counties, I covered something on the order of 500 miles over the course of a couple of days.
It is a longstanding preference of mine, the avoidance of interstates and other major thoroughfares in favor of roads less traveled. As a child, traversing such byways with my parents or grandparents, I watched the landscape glide past the backseat windows, listened to my elders’ comments and conversations and observed the quality of their interactions with fellow Alabamians encountered along the way.
Those experiences were formative for me. They attuned my ear to the ways in which the roads we traveled bespoke the essential character and condition of Alabama and its people. They made me feel a part of something much bigger than myself.
Above all, they instilled in me the notion that Alabama was a communal enterprise, in which a shared sense of the greater good transcended the superficial boundaries of race, class and circumstance. It might have been born in the dewy-eyed presumption of youth, but my conviction that all but the worst among us want the same things — for our state, for our families, for our communities, for humanity — survives intact. Battered around the edges, scratched and scarred, missing a non-vital piece or two, but intact. Not that it’s easy to keep it that way, especially in these times.
Alabama is breathtakingly beautiful, and heartbreakingly poor. These facts are nowhere more apparent than along the backroads that I so love exploring. These roads still speak to me of the essential goodness of our people and the untapped riches of our heritage, but they also tell the story of Alabama in the 21st century, providing ample illustration of the razor-thin line that most Alabamians walk, that between the diminishing security of a regular paycheck and admission into the growing ranks of the officially poor. Out on the land, the juxtaposition of natural beauty and economic deprivation becomes a metaphor for Alabama’s degenerate politics, an atavistic endeavor in which betrayal of the public trust and the state’s vast human potential is systematic and routine.
For most of our history since the Civil War, the source and center of political power, untrammelled corruption and executive and legislative sloth was the Alabama Democratic Party. If the Democrats had ever seen fit to govern the state from any impulse other than naked self-interest, they’d still be in power and Alabamians would be considerably better off. But, being Democrats, they blew it. They blew it for themselves, which wouldn’t be so bad if that didn’t mean that they blew it for the rest of us, too.
Which, in a nutshell, is how it has come to pass that, since George Wallace completed his last term in 1986, all but one elected occupant of our Governor’s office has been Republican. More importantly to our present troubles, that is how it has come to pass that since January of 2011, we have had not only a Republican governor — the redoubtable Dr. Robert Bentley — but also a state Legislature controlled in airtight fashion by a Republican supermajority.
Alas, presented with the opportunity to make Democrats completely irrelevant by taking thoughtful approaches to addressing economic and social issues affecting constituencies the Democrats had taken for granted, the Republicans also have blown it. But, being Republicans, they have made certain to blow it only for the rest of us. In the process, they have used the machinery of state government as a vehicle for prosecuting an all-out war on the poor.
In tandem, the policies of Governor Bentley and a raft of bad laws railroaded to passage by the Republican supermajority have made life harder for Alabama’s most vulnerable citizens — single parents, children, the elderly, the disabled and chronically diseased, the working poor. Not coincidentally, things like the Alabama Accountability Act, our mostly erstwhile immigration law, and the governor’s unconscionable refusal to expand the state Medicaid system to accommodate the federal Affordable Care Act have poisoned the well of economic development, to the point that statistics released last week showed Alabama ranking 49th among the 50 states in job growth during 2013.
For most of Alabama’s history, politicians and power brokers have conspired and colluded to perpetuate the status quo and keep in place the governmental structures that support the exploitation of the poorest Alabamians. But the stench of betrayal has never been stronger than now, not least because never have the lives and livelihoods of so many Alabamians — not just the poor, but the multitudes scrambling to remain just on the high side of the poverty line — hung so precariously in the balance.
And never has the welfare of the people — the economic, social, civic and physical health of the polity as a whole — been so openly and savagely scorned and mocked by Alabama’s presumed leaders. Their war on the poor is not an ordinary war, but a holy war. In their professed brand of Christianity, poverty is not a condition, but a sin. The punishment for that sin? No health insurance, inferior education, diminished access to cultural amenities, scant opportunity for upward mobility.
Bentley and the Republican supermajority have delivered unto us their own version of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the wealthy and powerful, for theirs is State of Alabama, and the fiscal and natural resources thereof, and the fruits of all human endeavors within…Blessed are they who see nothing for which to mourn in a state that has never been anything but one of the poorest in America…Blessed are the malevolent and the ruthless, for they know that displays of mercy only encourage the weak to feel entitled…Blessed are the hypocrites, for they are not bothered by the disparity between their professed faith and their political deeds.
Ruminating during my recent rambling around our state, I came to the conclusion that the biggest sin committed by Alabama politicians and power brokers of all stripes has been their galling presumption that the people of Alabama are too stupid to know when they’re being hoodwinked. Our biggest sin as Alabamians is that we have let them get away with it for so long. I don’t know about you folks, but I’m tired of being insulted.
I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but why don’t you and I see if we can’t do something to make 2014 the Year of the People in Alabama. Who knows? Maybe we’ll like it and decide we want that every year from here on out. Otherwise, it looks to me like we’re headed down a bunch of miles of bad road.