An important victory for democracy and for liberal values occurred in Alabama last week. But you could not be expected to know that.
Here's what happened: In 1998 Democratic challenger Don Siegelman defeated the increasingly embarrassing Republican governor of Alabama, Fob James, largely on the strength of a promise to make Alabama the 38th state to sponsor a lottery. As have other governors before him, Siegelman sold the lottery on the lure of free lunch: The gambling proceeds would provide money for education, without an increase in taxes. "The people of Alabama demand the right to vote on an education lottery," Gov.-elect Siegelman declared.
The resultant referendum was expected to result in approval for a lottery. But anti-lottery activists mounted a grass-roots campaign, arguing that it was morally wrong for the state to raise revenues through gambling that preyed on the poor. Although the gambling interests outspent the champions of the poor by 4 to 1, the anti-lottery campaign triumphed. On Oct. 12, to the immense surprise of Gov. Siegelman, the voters rejected a state lottery, by a solid margin.
No one questions whether state lotteries exploit and penalize the most vulnerable members of society. A lottery is the most regressive of taxes. As anyone knows who has watched the line of sad saps betting their paychecks, the poor spend a much higher (and much more desperately needed) percentage of their income gambling than do the rich. As anyone knows who has seen a state lottery commercial, the marketers aggressively target the poor, endlessly selling the nearly nonexistent chance that a $1 bet may be the ticket out of the bleak life.
Arguably, government should not exercise itself too extravagantly in the suppression of private gambling. The pursuit of self-destruction is for many people the pursuit of happiness. But for a government to actively encourage, and profit by, such self-destruction--for a government to engage in the gulling and the looting of the governed--is a profound betrayal of every liberal value there ever was.
The liberal social contract is a simple and great thing. If a people submit to governance, the governors will govern in the interests of the people. If a people submit to taxation, the taxers will spend the money to build and maintain an ordered society that protects the vulnerable and offers a decent life for the non-rich. This is the American promise: that a person who works and pays taxes may expect to live in a reasonably safe and sanitary environment in a reasonably functioning community with reasonably good public institutions.
In Alabama, as in many places, that contract has been broken for a long, long time. In particular, the public schools have failed; Alabama routinely ranks among the last of the states in student achievement. One thing the schools need is money. Siegelman could have chosen to raise that money through taxes. But Siegelman had suggested raising taxes once before, and it had helped cost him an election. No, no new taxes. Better to destroy the liberal social contract entirely. You want better schools but you don't want to pay for them? No problem, we'll get the poor folk to pay your freight.
After his lottery bid was defeated, Siegelman swore he would try again. "I didn't get my black belt in karate by being a wuss," he said. Really? Governor, you didn't have the courage to raise taxes to do the right thing by poor kids, so you bravely decided to rob their parents instead. Wuss.
But, happily, the good activists of Alabama decided to stiffen Gov. Siegelman's spine for him. "We simply believe that government should not fund itself with money from the people who can least afford it," said anti-lottery leader Michael Anderson.
What a splendid thought, and what a splendid victory. But, as mentioned, you may not have heard much about this victory. The forces of good government in Alabama, you see, were the armies of the church. Christian preachers led the drive against the lottery and organized the coalition that swept the state. So a great victory for liberal values was presented in the media, to the degree that it was presented at all, as a great victory for the dogmatists of the Christian Right.
In the new liberalism, and in the new Democratic Party, there is not a lot of concern for the old notions--clean government, protecting the poor, etc. There is a lot of concern that politically minded religious Christians pose a danger to liberal values. In Alabama, a Democratic governor stood strong for exploiting the poor, so the better-off wouldn't have to pay more taxes, for a service that government should have been providing in the first place. The preachers stood for stopping that. Who is the threat here?
Michael Kelly is the editor in chief of National Journal.