As long time readers know, early in my legal career I worked at a large corporate law firm in Mobile, Alabama. When I first started work, George Wallace was still governor and the state, while reactionary in some ways, was more progressive that it is today and its government worked and constant scandal did not surround every branch of the state's government. Now, Alabama is a basket case and lunacy prevails, thanks largely to the ascendancy of the Christofascist. Simply put, logic, reason, and good government are mutually exclusive of Christofascists in control of public institutions and setting social and governmental policy. As a piece in Harvard Political Review argues, the forces that have ravaged Alabama are now destroying the nation as a whole. Here are article highlights:
The 2016 presidential election looked, more than anything else, like an Alabama election. Donald Trump’s relentless appeals to populist conservative ideas echo decades-long trends in the South. The current worries about Trump’s irresponsible governing style are similar to concerns Alabama commentators have been expressing about their often-demagogic leaders since before the 1940s. To understand the Trump administration, in which Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions will likely serve as attorney general, we should look to Alabama, and the reasons why the state government is teetering toward collapse.Leaders in all three branches of Alabama’s government are either under investigation or have been recently removed from office. After using his position to obtain over $1.1 million in financial favors, Mike Hubbard, the former speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, was convicted of 12 felony corruption charges in July 2016. He has been described by many as “the most powerful man in Alabama,” a state where the governor has relatively little authority and the legislature holds all the cards—a simple majority is all that is required to override most vetoes. The Hubbard trial was full of fireworks, including testimony from former Governor Bob Riley, but ended in a sentence of only four years in prison.
The drama of the Hubbard case stirred up another scandal which otherwise might have gone unnoticed. Governor Robert Bentley, a man who ran his 2010 campaign on family values, divorced his wife of 50 years after allegedly having an affair with his powerful chief advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. Although neither admit to a “physical affair,” sexual voicemails the governor left for Mason say otherwise.
In 2016, Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was removed from the bench for ethics violations after he ordered the state’s probate judges to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. The result has been mass confusion in courthouses across the state, several of which stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether. Moore was previously removed from the same office in 2003, after erecting a stone monument of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Judicial Building and ignoring a court order to have it removed.
Montgomery, the state capital, has become dominated by special interests, creating an environment where corruption is the norm. Far-right swings in the electorate have enabled extremists like Moore to come to power. But the forces destabilizing Alabama are not unique to the state. Donald Trump’s cabinet selections suggest that moneyed interests will be given influence in the federal government, and that far-right voices, like Steve Bannon, will be given a stage. Montgomery’s fate may be Washington’s future.
The lesson is simple: populism rises above all other concerns in Alabama. Demagoguery has a long track record of success in the South, and a politician who sufficiently channels that energy can say and do most anything—“grab them by the pussy,” for example—and still win by a landslide. George Wallace’s racism cost Alabama millions in economic development and outside investment, yet his populist appeal won elections. He served several nonconsecutive terms as governor, including one as late as the 1980s.
Why is Alabama, a place known for social conservatism, evangelical Christianity, and strong emphasis on family values, a hotbed for corruption and sex scandals, where removal from office serves to prove one’s conservative bona fides? To Fording, the answer lies in Alabama’s traditionalistic culture, a hierarchical system where citizens fall in line with authority and accept “an elite class entitled to power.” This results in low rates of citizen participation.
Religion is an important tenet of traditionalism. . . . “the Evangelical church is not concerned with social justice.” Personal ethics are also not important—“Southern Baptists have one of the highest divorce rates in the U.S. When it comes to premarital sex and children out of wedlock, Alabama doesn’t do well.” This leaves only theology, which Flynt sees as strict adherence to the text of the Bible.
Despite his public failures in social and personal ethics, Trump, like Moore, gives off strong traditionalist airs. He may not know the books of the bible, but his strong stance against Islam is a classic evangelical stance—traditionalist Christians stand up to those that do not accept the text of the bible, a pillar of traditionalist Christianity.
The root of Alabama’s unusually toxic political climate dates back to the anti-populist movement orchestrated by plantation owners and industrialists which culminated in the Constitution of 1901. While an anti-populist force and Donald Trump may seem antithetical, the political strategy used in 1901 remains relevant today.
Following the Civil War, Alabama industrialized rapidly. Wealthy “Bourbon” Democrats, worried about labor insurrections, called for a new constitutional convention to cement their interests and power. While the suppression of the black vote figured largest in convention (John B. Knox, president of the convention, opened by saying: “And what is it that we do want to do? Why, it is, within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State”), the suppression of the white populist vote was important as well.
After the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, Southern states promptly started to pass voter ID laws. There is plenty of evidence that voting fraud is negligible, but politicians claimed that it was a pressing issue, and capitalized on those fears to pass legislation that previously would have been struck down as a civil rights abuse. Recently, Alabama has closed DMV offices in largely poor, black, Democratic counties, curbing access to driver’s licenses just as the strict new voter ID law came into practice. The move has been defended as necessary to balance the budget.
Trump’s recent claim that millions voted illegally fits soundly into this tradition. His statements are already changing perceptions of facts—about half of Americans believe that voter fraud is at least somewhat widespread. Trump’s prowess in media, coupled with a chance to fill vacant seats in the Supreme Court, leaves little to prevent Alabama-like changes in election law.
Alabama columnist Kyle Whitmire warned this past May that Donald Trump was part of what he called the “Alabamafication of America.” Like Alabama, America is full of promise, great ideas, and diverse people. But it is in danger of the same fate as the Yellowhammer state, hit with scandal after scandal until its citizens lose hope.