There’s an old joke told by Auburn fans about Alabama fans when poking fun at the difference in the two colleges’ followers that goes, “I wear this Auburn T-shirt because I went to Auburn. You wear that Alabama shirt because you went to Wal-Mart.”
The joke is meant to point out that a majority of the Alabama Crimson Tide faithful over the last hundred years or so were fans of the university not because they attended classes at the University of Alabama, but instead rallied around a successful program that just happened to have the state of Alabama’s name attached to it. It was Alabama’s 1926 Rose Bowl win over the University of Washington that restored a sense of pride in the South after the Civil War and for better or for worse created generations of Crimson Tide fans in Alabama and beyond, regardless of where or if they went to college.
On the Wednesday morning following Bradley Byrne’s victory over Dean Young to become the Alabama first congressional district’s Republican nominee, an Auburn professor pointed out a compelling comparison to me. That comparison? The Alabama fan versus Alabama alumni dichotomy is similar to the current Tea Party v. Establishment rift in the Republican Party.
It’s actually a solid analogy if you take a look at all the working parts.
Alumni of the University of Alabama have for the most part tolerated their institution representing the South and being symbolic for regional pride over the years. Although behind the scenes, they look down their noses at the average Alabama fan who doesn’t attend games regularly, but always watches them on television and tunes into Paul Finebaum on the way home from work every day.
But what happens when a fan that isn’t necessarily affiliated with the university steps out of line and embarrasses the institution? What happens when someone like Harvey Updyke goes to Auburn and poisons the Toomer’s Corner oak trees?
The way many Alabama fans look at Updyke is much like how a lot of Republicans view former Republican congressional hopeful Dean Young. Young, in an interview with the Guardian (U.K.) became what’s wrong with the Republican Party when he embraced the conspiracy theory President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and made disparaging remarks about supporters of same-sex marriage.
Young’s remarks were trotted out in left-leaning publications and on MSNBC and used as fodder for opponents of Republicans and conservatives.
“Then there’s Dean Young, a Republican congressional candidate in Alabama,” MSNBC’s Al Sharpton said on his show right before last week’s election. “He thinks President Obama was born in Kenya. And once said that gays should leave Alabama and quote ‘go back to California or Vermont or wherever they came from.’”
Much like the rank-and-file Alabama fans disavowed the actions of Updyke, Republicans have found themselves in a similar position regarding Young’s remarks, even after his loss last week.
Yes, the wealthy Alabama boosters who have their names engraved on the water fountains at Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility in Tuscaloosa look at the half-crazed Paul Finebaum show caller just as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-blue blood country club Republicans see many in the extreme John Birch Society wing of the Tea Party.
But just as that relationship is uneasy, it’s a mutually beneficial one as well. Alabama boosters realize they need their great masses of unwashed fans with no affiliation to the university to maintain an edge over rival institutions just as the so-called establishment side of the Republican Party is reliant on Tea Party activists for enthusiasm and votes.
Likewise, Alabama fans need the rich alumni boosters so that the university is able to pay head football coach Nick Saban $5.5 million annually to put a good product on the football field and the unorganized factions of the Tea Party need the Republican Party apparatus so that candidates may be put on the ballot and promoted.
This may be the last time in a generation Alabama’s first congressional district gets any sort of national attention. This election fell in an off-cycle year and was highlighted not only because of the intrigue in the Tea Party v. Establishment fight, but also because of Young’s outspokenness and willingness to boldly go into subject matters that are frowned upon as crossing the boundaries of political correctness.
Rest assured this fight will go on around the country in other precincts as Obama’s approval ratings wane over the economy and the faulty rollout of his controversial 2010 health care reform law. If Republican base voters, especially self-described Tea Party voters, don’t think their incumbent member of Congress is fighting the president in a sufficient way, they will continue to be primaried and the Dean Youngs of the movement will continue to garner national attention.