Later this year, prominent Democrats gather in another spot south of the Mason-Dixon. The Democratic National Convention heads to Charlotte, N.C., in late August to go about the business of nominating Obama for a second term. The scene in Charlotte will be far different from the one in Selma this week. Political conventions draw the big-money crowd, the 1 percent, as the Occupy movement terms it. High-roller Democrats will sweep into town much the same way corporate-class high-fliers visit Super Bowls and NASCAR races. It’s a place to see and be seen in luxury boxes placed high above the hoi polloi. Oh, sure, I’ve been down South, many of the Democratic politicians and convention-goers might remark later. I went to the DNC in Charlotte.
The problem is that there’s a lot of the South missed if you only remain on the Selma-Charlotte axis, where politicians either check a box on the civil-rights checklist or pick up a campaign check in one of the South’s white-collar boom towns.
Let’s look around the rest of Alabama. In Tuscaloosa, Cullman and across a broad swath of the state, the rebuilding work continues 10 months after last April’s deadly tornadoes. As is frequently the case, long after the politicians and national media are gone, the difficult and costly work of recovery drags on.
Montgomery’s belt-tightening is cutting into the basics of government for things like education, public safety and health care. The pain is felt hardest in small towns across the state.
Anniston, with its dependence on military spending, deserves attention, as well. The Anniston Army Depot is bleeding jobs, the result of a shrinking military and the conclusion of the occupation of Iraq and wind-down of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Yet, few in national politics are discussing what comes next, with storm recovery, the results of cash-strapped state budgets or a downsized military.
Marching in Selma or convening in Charlotte do very little to address those questions.
With several primaries in Southern states over the next two weeks, Republican presidential candidates can join this discussion. The conversation thus far leaves plenty of room for improvement. Fights over health-care insurance and women’s access to contraception, the demerits of sending your children to college or when to launch pre-emptive war with Iran won’t cut it.
While campaigning down South for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Obama went outside the Selma-Charlotte axis to Dillon, S.C. There he found a crumbling public school full of children with the same potential and dreams of their more fortunate peers across the country. Obama, a master orator, worked it into a classic 2008 stump speech, reminding Americans to not forget “the hopes of the little girl who goes to the crumbling school in Dillon.”
This campaign season is a wonderful time for Republican presidential hopefuls to find their own versions of the “little girl from Dillon.” If those candidates sat down with Southerners in places like Dillon, Tuscaloosa and Anniston, we suspect what they hear might surprise them. Their earning power is shrinking. The American dream of a better life for their kids is less secure. They worry that a nation that once attempted great things, from highways to space travel, is obsessed with the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.
In an unguarded moment, Obama infamously referenced these sorts of voters four years ago. He told a group of San Francisco fundraisers, “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Amid these elitist and graceless words is something quite true, for the rural South as well as other hardscrabble sections of the nation. Indeed, as Obama said, “the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” although “each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.”
Four years later, the same holds true.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.