If you have studied Alabama politics for any amount of time, you are aware of how, for the better part of the 20th century, the so-called Big Mules and Planters influenced state government.
Much of their efforts explain why the state is where it is today.
For those of you who are not students of Alabama history and politics, the Big Mules represented the industrial and business interests, while the Planters represented the agricultural influences.
Often those two entities would collaborate to achieve common goals in Montgomery.
Now they go by more formal and official-sounding names, like the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) and the Alabama Farmers Federation (ALFA), which in 2020 have unmatched influence in the Legislature, the governor’s mansion and, as we saw last week, in elections.
For a few decades, the Alabama Education Association (AEA), the teachers’ union, gave ALFA and BCA a run for their money. However, the 2010 election cycle that surrendered the State House and the Capitol to the GOP broke the power of AEA under the leadership of Paul Hubbert, the union’s long-time leader.
If you went out and polled average Alabamians, asking them what they think the priorities of the state government ought to be, you can get any number of responses.
Infrastructure? Yes, as long as it means better and wider roads and bridges to make the commute to and from work easier.
What about gambling? If it means a lottery, like all four states that border Alabama have now, then perhaps.
Education? Yes, we have heard the criticisms of Alabama’s education system. How much should and can government at the state and federal levels do for local schools?
Beyond that, there’s public safety, health (maybe even healthcare) and environmental protection, etc.
How many people would say, “You know what? It would be fantastic if we could expand that Port of Mobile?” How many would even say that if you polled in Mobile?
Yet, the Port of Mobile was given special attention during the Rebuild Alabama Act passage. At the top of the legislation, which passed in a special session of the Alabama Legislature in 2019, was state funding for the Port of Mobile.
For the average person in Alabama, assuming they are aware of the port’s existence, the port expansion would not be at the top of the list.
But it was. How does that happen? It had a lot of help in Montgomery from the alphabet soup of trade and special interest organizations within a five-block radius of the State House.
There are other examples, like the Interstate 10 toll bridge proposal that went down last year. There were those in the governor’s office and at the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) who assumed a ridiculous public-private partnership, as was being proposed, could become a reality and only people who commute between Mobile and Baldwin counties daily would be upset.
It became a big story statewide. Gov. Kay Ivey went on the airwaves to defend the efforts in Birmingham. Why Birmingham and not Mobile? Because the entire state expressed a collective, “WTF?”
There are other examples. One such example is an effort to abolish an elected school board. It was a proposal predicated on the assumption that taking politics out of education is a good thing. If you consider the state education budget was $7.1 billion in 2019, is it in the public’s best interest to take the politics out of education?
Something we have witnessed over the last several years on the federal level is pushback against the establishment. It came with the election of Donald Trump, who is very popular in Alabama.
If Trump succeeds in Alabama because of dissatisfaction with politics on a national level, how far behind can the next populist-inspired movement in state politics be?
It will be something different than just saying, “I’m with Trump.” That’s a cult of personality. Instead, it is who will be the first to say, “I am with doing away with the politicians and policies pushed by usual heavy-hitters in Montgomery.”
There have been populist movements in Alabama in the past. The legend of “Big” Jim Folsom was built on the notion that he represented the pushback to the powerful and business as usual in state government.
Thus far, no one has been able to capitalize on the state level on the mood of the electorate. You cannot blame one-party supermajority rule because, for most of its history, Alabama has been ruled by one party — the Democrats from after the Civil War until the end of the last century, and for the last decade, the Republican Party.
It has been a good run for this wave of Alabama’s movers and shakers. However, at some point, people will see through laws and policies that benefit the elite institutions in the state — be it higher education, finance, auto manufacturing or agriculture.
When it comes, there will be someone with an eye on the seat of power who will try to use it to their advantage.
Given these populist revolts that have happened nationally and even internationally, is it naïve to think it can’t happen on a state level, as well?
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