In my more than half-a-century of following politics — state, local and national — I cannot recall such a general disgust with the quality of the folks who govern us.
How, I hear it asked repeatedly, did these people get elected?
The answer, of course, is that they got the most votes.
But that is not the answer most people want.
What they want to know is how these politicians were able to convince a majority of Alabama voters to cast a ballot for them.
Well, I’m gonna tell you.
Today, politicians in Alabama get elected because they have mastered a strategy that has gotten Alabama politicians elected as long as there have been politicians and elections in this state.
Here is how it works.
First, a candidate must convince voters that someone or something exists out there that threatens something they hold dear.
Once that is accomplished, the candidate must convince the fearful that he (the candidate) is the person who can turn back the threat and save the threatened from the fate that would otherwise befall them.
Classic in its simplicity.
Historic in its success.
In Alabama, it started with Israel Pickens, more or less.
Pickens arrived in Alabama in 1818, just before the state entered the Union. By 1821, he was governor.
He rose rapidly while Alabama was in the middle of a depression. Farmers were losing their farms. Shopkeepers were losing their shops. These folks wanted to know who did this to them. Pickens gave them the answer.
The only people who seemed to be making money, he told them, were the people who already had money — planters, merchants and bankers, especially bankers.
Elect me, and I will save you from such.
So they elected him.
Then, to “solve” the problem, he pushed through a state bank to drive the others out of business.
Of course, the state bank was a disaster, and before it had run its course it created more problems than it solved. But by then there was another politician fanning other flames and getting the votes.
In 1831, John Gayle was elected governor on the promise that he would keep the federal government from honoring its treaty with the Indians, a treaty that let them keep land that white Alabamians wanted.
With that, “Washington” was added to the list of enemies from which politicians could promise to protect the people.
The next master of this was Dixon Hall Lewis, all 350 pounds of him. Lewis preached that a plot had been hatched in Washington to make the states dependent on federal money and use that to strip Alabama of its sovereignty. Elect me to Congress, Lewis said, and I will fight for lower taxes and less spending.
So they elected him.
That was 1829.
What Lewis failed to mention was that lower taxes and less spending meant Alabama roads would be rutted, her rivers clogged with fallen trees and her harbors unusable. Not that most voters would have understood or cared. You see, a necessary component of the strategy of scaring folks was keeping them from developing the reasoning skills they might pick up in school. So it follows that funding education was never a priority among those who practiced this approach.
However, it is hard to keep the public upset for long. Fear subsides with time. A new issue had to be found to scare the bejesus out of folks.
Alabama politicians soon found it.
Well, to be honest, “slavery” had been the issue from the start.
Not chattel slavery — turning black folks into property — but the idea that there were sinister forces working to take away the freedoms enjoyed by common folks and turn those folks into dependents, into slaves.
When politicians warned people that rich folks, banks, the federal government — all the usual suspects — were threatening them, it was the fear of a loss of freedom that politicians played upon.
So when William Lowndes Yancey promised to go to Washington and stop Yankees from violating the rights of Alabamians by limiting what they could do with their slaves, he was telling Alabamians who did not own slaves that he would also protect them from Yankee interference in their lives, which they believed that Yankees planned to do, sooner or later.
Thus, by the time 1861 rolled around and President Lincoln was elected, Alabamians were primed to believe that the Yankee enemy was winning and the best way to remain free was to get out of the Union altogether.
And you know how that turned out.
Except for Alabama politicians, because defeat gave them a new set of enemies to feed into the political maw.
Carpetbaggers, scalawags and “incorrigible” blacks — they ones who rejected the controls whites tried to impose on them — were the new threat. Pounded by Democrats as enemies of white supremacy, they were beaten back and Alabama was “redeemed.”
To make sure that they remained in power, these “redeemers” — powerful planters and merchants, timber barons, industrialists and bankers — intimidated voters, stole elections and wrote a new state constitution that muted the voice of the people.
Then, with democracy undone, politicians could turn once again to the tried-and-true formula and get elected by running against Washington, Yankees and anyone who threatened the status quo.
Oh, there were bumps in the road. The New Deal and the jobs it brought made it difficult to lambast Washington, but Alabama politicians like Gov. Frank M. Dixon, of whom it was said “the Legislature could never pass enough anti-labor bills to please him,” did his best to convince the convincible that FDR and unions were a threat to white control of the state.
There were also moments when politicians like Bibb Graves and Jim Folsom were able to get the people to think of economic inequality as an enemy, but when political opponents played the “race card” other issues were quickly forgotten.
Of all those politicians, George Wallace was the most versatile and successful. His enemies list — federal judges, race-mixing communists, outside agitators, JFK, RFK and MLK, to name a few — kept white folks stirred up and voting.
His legacy lingers on.
But even more enduring is the strategy that Wallace inherited and employed, the strategy that has been mother’s milk to our politicians — identify an enemy and vow to protect the people from it.
Today, the enemy comes in many guises — liberals, conservatives, the Religious Right, the Godless Left, immigrants, poor folks who live off the state, rich folks who live off the state, businesses that would sell Alabama’s natural beauty for a mess of porridge, environmentalists who would kill jobs to save a snail, the teacher lobby, the privatization lobby, feminists, anti-feminists, politicians who would raise taxes and politicians who won’t. Whatever and whoever we can be convinced to fear, there is a politician out there ready to make the most of it.
Then, once they are elected, we act surprised that they accomplish little and that the state is no better off for having them in office.
What the state needs are politicians who have a strategy for governing instead of a strategy for getting elected.
It’s unfortunate that candidates in Alabama who have a governing strategy are called the enemy by other candidates. And when that happens, you know which candidates win.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and op-ed/feature writer for The Star. His book, Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State, explores the theme of this essay in more detail. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.