In the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel there is a well-known story found in Chapter 37 often referred to as the “Valley of Dry Bones.” In it, the prophet Ezekiel recounts how, through a spiritual vision, God had brought him to a valley that was full of dry bones. “The Lord,” he said, “led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.”
As Ezekiel observed this lifeless valley, full of scattered, disjointed and deteriorating bones, God posed to Ezekiel a pressing and crucial question: “Can these bones live again?” Conversing with several friends recently, a similar question was raised about the Alabama Democratic Party.
After President Lyndon Johnson signed the momentous 1964 Civil Rights Act, dealing a death blow to legal segregation in the South, he is noted to have told a close associate that he had just signed away the Democratic Party’s dominance of the South for a long time to come. Dixie, he foresaw, would soon abandon the Democratic Party. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen.
In Alabama, 2010 was the watershed moment. It was the year Republicans — for the first time in 136 years — controlled the state Legislature. In 2016, their dominance is unquestioned. They hold a supermajority in the state Legislature. They hold the governorship. They hold all major elected state positions: lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer, state auditor. As the young folks would say, the Republican Party has things “on lock” politically in Alabama. Total political hegemony exists.
Can the Democratic Party in Alabama be dominant again? Setting aside dominance, can it become relevant or even competitive in state politics again? It’s not impossible, but it will be a daunting task.
Jaclyn Bunch, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science at the University of South Alabama, believes the two most urgent problems facing the party are funding and internal divisions. The former is critical to the success of any organized political endeavor.
“Advertisement and campaign efforts are essential in ensuring name recognition of candidates and mobilization of potential voters,” Bunch said. Research has perpetually shown the importance of name recognition when it comes to voter choice, and a well-funded state party is able to assist candidates in name saturation, she said. However, this is something the Alabama Democratic Party is not able to do.
“With the Democratic Party in Alabama suffering from low funds, it is difficult for them to invest in worthy candidates, supply mobilization efforts or endorse the party further,” Bunch said.
Until the internal divisions are bridged, it’s going to be extremely difficult for the party to raise cash. Much has been discussed and written about regarding the schisms within the party and the way this is retarding the party’s long-term growth and vitality. The state Democratic Party is split into various factions that unfortunately often have competing interests and issues.
Bunch asserted: “Given the already weakened position of the party as a whole, having factions within the state does not aid in the overall effort. As put forth by Lincoln, ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’ If the party wants to start claiming seats, their focus needs to be singular and organized. Party unification is key to political success.”
According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, 47 percent of Alabamians identify as conservative, 31 percent as moderate and 15 percent as liberal. The numbers show there is opportunity for Democrats in Alabama to win positions.
It is this belief that has motivated Christian Smith, chairperson of the Bay Area Young Democrats, to be as dedicated and involved in local and state politics as she has been. In 2012 at the age of 25, Smith ran for the open Mobile County Treasurer’s seat as a Democrat. She received more than 77,000 votes, garnering 62 percent of the vote in the city of Mobile and 48 percent countywide. She lost by four percentage points. Not bad for a 25-year-old white female Democrat in the Deep South.
For all the complaints about the state party, Smith said she believes the battle is fought and won on the local level. She said before the Republicans took control of the statehouse in 2010, they consistently and steadily consolidated their power in local districts. For Democrats in Alabama to be relevant again in state politics, they will have to build up and strengthen local chapters across Alabama.
“Yes, I’m excited about the presidential race,” Smith said. “But I think what’s really important is Democrats across the state getting connected with and involved in their local Democratic Party organization.” Just getting excited, showing up and supporting a national candidate during a presidential election year is not enough. At the end of the day, only being concerned about a national candidate “will do nothing to advance the state Democratic Party as a whole … the Republican supermajority in the state will still exist, and progressive issues and causes in this state will continue to suffer.”
For an organization to grow it has to be willing to deal openly and honestly with the issues that prevent its success. For Democrats in Alabama, it’s that time. At present, with a filibuster-proof supermajority, Republicans in Alabama are able to impose their will legislatively on issues from education to health care, to social services funding and redistricting. Even if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were to win in 2016 and again in 2020, that would not change the political dynamics within the state of Alabama. Only having a unified, focused and potent state Democratic Party will.