The arrival of State Rep. Chris England was supposed to usher in a new era for Alabama Democrats.
No longer would the loyal opposition in Alabama be held hostage by an inept chairwoman and a party boss motivated by his self-interest. There is a saying that politics is a game of addition and not subtraction, which the Alabama Democratic Party is up against.
Right now, it is the most loyal of the loyal that remain true to the state’s party. They are motivated by an ideology that is not ready for wholesale consumption in this conservative state. The challenge for England or anyone else who dares try to get more people to join the ranks of the Alabama Democratic Party is how do you make the party have broader appeal without diluting the stridently liberal policy approach that so many of the party faithful support?
For now, party executive director Wade Perry’s message seems to be one of hitting Republicans for their perceived vulnerabilities, like GOP State Rep. Will Dismukes dabbling in the lost cause of the Confederacy or a rejection of nearly any government-imposed COVID-19 protocol.
Some of those are perceived to be lay-ups for a political party punching its way back to relevancy, at some point, the alternative to the status quo must be something besides, “We’re not them.”
Meanwhile, in the Alabama Republican Party, there is a whole different situation.
Republicans are in control of almost everything in Alabama. Majorities in the urban centers and the Black Belt, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell’s congressional district are a few exceptions. For now, the GOP has a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature and holds every constitutional office from governor to state auditor.
Yet, Alabama government is not as rabidly right-wing as some other states where the Republican Party is in charge.
Florida has a ban on mask mandates. Alabama would not dare do that. The state is closer to expanding Medicaid than a comprehensive school choice program.
There are still relics of state government that go back to Democrat rule – state-run liquor stores, unelected bureaucrats with more power than some elected state officials at the Departments of Transportation and Corrections, gambling and teachers’ union influences in the statehouse.
It is the usual Big Mules and Planters wielding their influence, except with a different party allegiance.
If a stranger stopped into Montgomery and visited the House chamber in the Alabama legislature the last week of this past session, they would have thought Democrats were in charge, given how Democrats were able to slow down the processes of legislation and run out the clock.
Alabama Republicans have a luxury that their Democrat counterparts do not have. They can dine off national politics to win power. So what if the conservative orthodoxy that guides the Republican Party gets watered down at the state level? If anyone questions restrictive regulations, a hike of the gasoline tax, or any other expansion of state government, yell “pro-life” or “Biden is the devil” and move on.
Alabama has been under one-party rule of some form, be it Democrat or Republican, for most of its history. Consider how many elected Republicans in Alabama were once Democrats. They may not have been Ted Kennedy New England liberals, but they were aligned with the Democratic Party.
The Republican Party – that was the party of Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction. Oddities like the Free State of Winston, Mo Brooks and Jeff Sessions dared to be dedicated to the GOP before the 1990s.
As national politics became the dominant factor in all politics, there was an increase in straight-ticket Republican voters, and here we are today. That forced a lot of Democrats to switch parties or lose in the general election.
That migration was a moderating influence on the GOP and watered down whatever conservative ideology might otherwise dominate an all-powerful state Republican Party.
The alternative to what Alabama has could look like what we have nationally. It is a near-even split of Congress and the last two presidents being politically weak and unable to move an agenda.
That is divided government with two relevant parties guided by the ideologies of the day.
Bill Clinton’s triangulation and George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism are not possible now. You must win with the base. You cannot win with some watered-down approach to woo undecided purple district voters. There are just not enough of them that care enough about politics to be a reliable voting bloc to win a national election.
The stabilizing factor in national and Alabama politics is the pursuit of power.
For national politics, it is gridlock that tamps down on significant ideological swings. What was the last non-COVID life-altering act of Congress? Probably 2010’s Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
In Alabama, the impulse to maintain long-standing power structures remains a dominating influence that lends itself to stability. The parties have changed, and the industrialists of Birmingham have been replaced by brand names with friendly logos like Regions Bank, Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the UA System.
That is why one-party GOP rule has not led to Alabama being the laboratory for the John Birch Society and is the reason Democrats should rethink being wedded to a dogmatic pursuit of their liberal ideology.
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