Same Scalawags, Different Party
“The South may not be the nation’s number one political problem, as some northerners assert, but politics is the South’s number one problem.”
This opening sentence to Professor V.O. Key’s 1949 book, Southern Politics in State and Nation, offers a felicitous and insightful summary of just how little some things have changed since 1949. To give you an idea of how much has happened since then, when Key’s book was published, George Wallace was a member of the Alabama Legislature, and as a protégé of Governor James “Big Jim” Folsom, was considered a moderate on racial issues.
The political party in control in Alabama may have changed over time, but it seems as though the change has been in name only. The debated issues are basically the same as they have always been.
Many of us, whether by virtue of age or sheer preference, may not remember when Alabama was an almost exclusively Democratic state. However, for nearly a century following the Reconstruction era (1865 – 1877) the Deep South states hated the Republican Party with a passion. A running joke at the time was that a man’s last words would often be to his children, “Never sell the farm and never vote for a damn Republican.”
The Republicans had been, after all, the political appointees who came down from “up north” after the Civil War. These Northern transplants seized the power of government and oversaw the rebuilding of the subjugated South.
I often wonder how Reconstruction would have been handled had President Lincoln not been assassinated. I am convinced — to borrow a term from the 41st President — it would have been a kinder, gentler America that rebuilt the former Confederacy. As a result, the course of history would have likely altered making America a different place even today. Thanks a lot, John Wilkes Booth.
It was often said after Reconstruction and well into the latter half of the 20th century that Alabama had a “one-party system,” as practically all elected offices in the State were held by Democrats. This characterization is unfitting in some ways, however, as there existed what could more accurately be described as a “no-party system.”
Alabama’s Democratic loyalties were mainly for external affairs such as presidential and congressional races. Inside the State, there were so many factions within the same party one could hardly describe it as a “one-party system.” In this way the South was and is, in my view, anomalous in that unlike most of democratic civilization, we don’t really have political parties in the traditional sense. We have now, just as we had then, a common umbrella under which stand many groups with competing interests.
Today we see the same thing under the new era of Republican control. There are essentially two groups of Republicans today: “Establishment” Republicans and “Tea Party” Republicans. During a primary there is in-party fighting, which usually includes a Tea Party group criticizing a more establishment Republican for not being conservative enough. The establishment will also state that candidates as extreme and stubborn as Tea Partiers will never work to build consensus and get anything accomplished.
One has only to look at last year’s congressional race in the 1st district. We saw Bradley Byrne, who was painted as an establishment Republican, up against Dean Young, who was considered, among other things, a Tea Partier. The Democrat on the ticket was always obligatorily mentioned during coverage at the end for journalistic integrity’s sake, but everyone knows the real fight for victory these days takes place in the Republican primary.
Because of that, Alabama will continue to be irrelevant in national politics and a factitious free-for-all in State politics. Thanks to the Electoral College only a small handful of states actually matter in presidential elections. As long as Alabama is a checkbox on either party’s list of default states they can depend on, we will continue to be treated like a checkbox. And, dare I say, if so it’s no less than we deserve, because we can change our circumstances with our ballots each election, but we too often choose not to.
The Solid South is still solid, just as it has always been. The only difference is state and local officials have traded in their giant collective Eeyore umbrella for a newer, shinier Dumbo umbrella; you still need knee-high galoshes though.