To be on the side of people who are struggling for something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re political.
— Bob Dylan
The Democratic Party in Alabama is awful. Or it would be, if it actually existed as anything other than a diminishing cult of personality and a conduit for whatever hollow semblance of graft can be perpetrated by a political nonentity. I would say that the Alabama Democratic Party has become a joke but for the fact that there is no punch line, unless you happen to consider death by a thousand self-inflicted cuts to be the height of comedic enterprise.
Lest some of my Democratic friends out there have read the first paragraph and are well on the way to concluding that this week’s column isn’t worth reading, I’m going to interrupt myself here to make the following, highly pertinent, distinction: My references to the Alabama Democratic Party are just that — references to the rotten and reeking carcass of the organization that dominated Alabama politics for most of the 20th century, and not to the many fine women and men who live in Alabama and continue to identify themselves as Democrats. Personally, it’s been more than a few years since I ceased to self-apply that label, so those folks have my admiration for their insistence — whether stubborn or hopeful or equal parts both — on expressing their political faith in those terms.
Nor is any of what follows meant to be interpreted that the long, unchallenged iron rule of the Alabama Democratic Party produced a great deal that was of discernible value to the average Alabamian. It did not.
In consideration of that point, it is instructive to recall that George Wallace was a Democrat (at least when it suited him; above all, Wallace was about Wallace, and I think I’m safe in saying that, outside of immediate political expedience, he cared even less about his party affiliation than I do about mine). In 1963, while Birmingham was in the midst of the municipal campaign that ultimately would change the city’s form of government and effectively depose Bull Connor from City Hall, Alabama’s leading Democrat had this to say:
“It behooves any local or state official to use all his ingenuity and ability to prevent integration rather than bring it about. Any official who by overt acts encourages efforts to integrate…and then, at the same time, says he wants to maintain law and order is, in effect, taking action which is not conducive to law and order.”
This sort of rhetorical torturing of logic — that by acting in support of the concept of equality under the law, an elected leader would be encouraging lawlessness — was a Wallace staple, analogous to such present-day gems as the assertion that unfettered ownership of guns promotes public safety, or that providing free access to things like healthcare and a college education — something that other provisionally democratic nations around the world view as a right of citizenship — would somehow weaken the moral fiber of our country. The upshot, of course, was that Wallace’s stated stance implicitly encouraged certain of Alabama’s racists to do their part to maintain order by, for example, killing four black girls with a bomb planted at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
Today, there are those apologists for Wallace who point to the “conversion” on racial matters that began to manifest after the 1972 assassination attempt that confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. To be sure, the course of that decade unspooled a brief era of bi-racial accommodation (if not outright progress) in Alabama politics and government that owed a good deal to Wallace’s influence, or at least his acquiescence. But there’s no escaping the responsibility that he and his nominal governing party bear for the atmosphere of violent resistance that characterized our state for the whole of the Civil Rights Era and beyond.
The Wallace legacy notwithstanding, if you’re a Democrat in Alabama, and the closest thing to a progressive, “New South” governor your party (and your state) has produced is Don Siegelman, it’s way past time to stop congratulating yourself and your compatriots for political sensibilities that date to the early 1970s and to start thinking about where Alabama goes from here. From my view here on the sidelines of party loyalty, the Democrats have nowhere to go but up, and nothing to lose but a generation of being on the outside looking in while the people of Alabama continue to suffer the deficiencies of our state government.
Which is where Alabama Republicans have blown their chance. Rather than seeking to right wrongs that transcend generations, and to make Alabama work for Alabamians, the Republicans who now run our state have succeeded only in proving that they are not just the equal of the Democrats, but actually their betters when it comes to making life miserable for those of our citizens who need state government most. More is the pity that they have done it willfully, deliberately, hatefully and without the slightest regard for the human toll of their devotion to malfeasance and corruption.
All that matters is the politics, the attainment and accumulation and application of the political upper hand. Take, for example, the current proposal by our (rightfully) beleaguered governor, Robert Bentley, to place on the ballot this November a referendum proposing the authorization of a statewide lottery. Bentley is pitching the lottery as the only solution — short of overhauling Alabama’s regressive tax system to require corporations and large landowners to pony up anything close to their fair share of the cost of running the state, which is not going to happen — to the dire fiscal straits the state is facing as the result of less than six years of absolute Republican rule.
Bentley’s move is a cynical ploy to elide the responsibilities of his job and provide the Republican-dominated Legislature with millions upon millions more to misappropriate. More cynical still is the grounds for the opposition to it that has cropped up in some Republican circles. Consider a letter sent last week to Bentley and the Republican members of the Jefferson County legislative delegation by Sallie Bryant, chair of the Jefferson County Republican Party, asking them to oppose holding the vote in November.
We do not make this recommendation lightly, wrote Bryant, as we understand the ballot issues Alabama is facing, especially as it pertains to our schools and the rising cost of Medicaid funding due to Obamacare. But approval by the voters of a lottery now would not solve Alabama’s current budget crisis.
Noting that “[t]he cost of enacting a lottery would far outweigh the benefits it would bring,” Bryant’s letter enumerated three arguments against Bentley’s proposal:
- Study after study finds that lotteries are a regressive tax that has a disproportionately negative impact on the poor, who represent the largest number of lottery players.
- Income raised by lotteries fluctuates from year to year, often declining, making it impossible to truly project how much revenue a state can count on for long-term needs.
- Researchers say lotteries suck millions of dollars out of local economies, impacting sales tax revenues and business owners.
Now, I feel the need to add here that — notwithstanding the disingenuous implications that, a) the Republicans care about public education, and b) that health insurance costs in Alabama are rising, not because of Obamacare, but because of the refusal of our governor and legislature to accept the hundreds of millions in federal funding that would flow to our Medicaid system if they would just sign us on to Obamacare — I am in full agreement with Bryant’s three points pertaining to the lottery. Lotteries hurt poor people, period, and we do plenty of that in Alabama without adding to the mix another means of separating them from their hard-earned and scarce dollars.
No, my problem is not with Bryant’s letter, per se. It is with the real reason for her opposition to the governor’s proposal. She also stated that reason last week, in an email to local GOP stalwarts, calling on them to join her in prevailing on Republican legislators to oppose, not necessarily the lottery itself, but the governor’s intent to hold the vote in November, in conjunction with the Presidential election.
[A November vote] would be disastrous for Republicans in Jefferson County, as it would drive up Democrat turnout in a year when it is expected to be lower, Bryant wrote. I realize there may be some of you who support having a lottery, and I want to assure you that I respect your position on this matter, but it would be far better for the Republican Party, especially in Jefferson County, if a vote were postponed to later.
In other words, if I might be allowed to extrapolate from the barely-concealed subtext of Bryant’s stated concern, the last thing that Republicans want or need is a lot of people exercising their right to vote. That’s most particularly true of those pesky black folks, who continue to demonstrate the tendency to support Democrats in highly disproportionate numbers. Also worth noting is Bryant’s marked lack of regard for the expense of holding a stand-alone election, and the dollars that would drain from our ability to deal with the “budget crisis” that she acknowledges.
In other words, the political interests of the Alabama Republican Party trump (no pun intended) the notion that the salutary outcomes of the democratic process are directly and positively proportional to the percentage of voters who participate in any given election. For Republicans, the fewer voters, the better — which is something that is apparent to anyone with even a pedestrian interest in political science, but still a little dismaying when a given Republican is not shy about admitting it, even if just in a letter meant only for the eyes of the party faithful.
Which leaves most Alabamians — including you and me and virtually everyone we know — in the same position we’ve always been in relative to our state government, which is so far down on its list of priorities that it’s difficult even to conceive of what it might mean to live in a state where the government serves the people. And, as much as I hate to say it, I’m afraid that’s not going to change in my lifetime.