Alabama, spoofed on late-night TV as a backward backwater, has suddenly become the center of America's political universe. Tuesday's special election to fill Jeff Sessions's old Senate seat pits Republican Roy Moore — backed by President Trump and his former strategist Steve Bannon, despite accusations that Moore regularly trawled for teenage girls when he was in his 30s — against a vanilla Democrat, Doug Jones. Recent polls have shown the race all but tied. And pundits stand ready to pronounce what the results say about the future of both parties. But there are a few things about Alabama we should get straight before national media outlets hound voters on their way into the voting booths.
Whether it's Gregory Peck shooting a mad dog in the middle of a dirt street in the screen adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" or Reese Witherspoon muttering, "People need a passport to come down here" in the movie "Sweet Home Alabama," Hollywood hasn't done us any favors. From the outside, Alabama might look like a homogenous swath of live oaks, Spanish moss, white columns and sharecropper shacks. It's okay. Folks here have the same mistaken impressions of Mississippi.
But we're not so monolithic. James Carville supposedly said that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. Guess what? Alabama looks like that, too. The state's political divide is rural vs. urban, just like in the rest of the country. That was evident in the 2016 election results. Although Trump prevailed overall with a comfortable 63 percent of the vote, Hillary Clinton won Jefferson County, home to Birmingham, by more than seven points, and she won Montgomery County with nearly two-thirds of the vote.
The rest of the country is also more like Alabama than it may want to think. I've been warning for some time about the Alabamification of America — when facts and common sense take a back seat to partisan identity and nativist impulses. Trump won the election last year with 306 electoral votes. Only nine of those came from the Heart of Dixie.
This myth got a lot of airing around the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. Typical was a Vice piece declaring, "The head-crackings of Bloody Sunday were 50 years ago this weekend — enough time for a styrofoam cup to completely decompose — and Alabama is still a backwards place that too often doesn't learn from the present, let alone the past. The fight for civil liberties of all kinds in Alabama is still as vibrant as ever."
Like everywhere else, Alabama is changing, though perhaps a little more slowly — still, it's closer to 10 years behind than 50 or 60. If you turn back the nation's clock by a decade, you'll find political candidates, including Barack Obama, arguing that marriage is only between one man and one woman. The idea of gender-neutral public restrooms wasn't even on the table. America has moved left on social issues more quickly than many of us have taken the time to consider, and that's left a lot of people outside major urban centers with political whiplash, making them ripe for exploitation by culture issue candidates such as Moore.
Although racial divisions still haunt Alabama, there's been progress on that front, too. Consider that Jones is running in large part on his success in prosecuting two men responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four black girls in 1963. Winning statewide office remains an uphill battle for black candidates in Alabama, as it is for Democrats, but two of the state's four biggest cities have had black mayors, and we've sent black representatives to Congress. While Alabama made an ugly splash in 2011 with its "toughest in the nation" immigration laws, Birmingham recently declared itself a sanctuary city, thumbing its nose at the president's agenda.
The president of the University of Alabama Student Government Association echoed this common sentiment in a recent interview with the New York Times. "It seems like the only thing coming from Alabama is corruption or negativity; that is something I think people do internalize," Jared Hunter said. "And so it is nice when your football team is as dominant as we are." Jones, the Democratic Senate candidate, took heat for expressing a similar idea on the campaign trail: "Unless you're talking about college football, there's a little hesitancy to say, 'I'm from Alabama.' "
While the state might not always appreciate its artists and cultural figures, we've produced our share: great writers such as Harper Lee and Diane McWhorter, legal minds such as federal Judge Frank Johnson Jr., civil rights crusaders such as Fred Shuttlesworth and Rosa Parks, and hopeful and heartbroken musicians such as Jason Isbell. Alabama has proved herself quite a muse, giving people plenty to write about, rebel against or raise hell over. The state is a stewpot of primordial ooze. You might not want to put your fingers in there, but what comes out is the stuff of life.
"Steve Bannon and God spoke to me, and this morning when I went in I voted for Moore,'' Merlene Bohannon, 74, told reporters on the day of Alabama's GOP primary runoff. And when Moore defeated establishment Republican Luther Strange in that September contest, Bannon and his Breitbart machine were eager to claim that their support had been key. "Tuesday's result proved the enduring power and reach of Breitbart News," the site declared, adding that "Bannon, and Breitbart, are no longer just the most hated names inside the Beltway. Now, they are also the most feared."
While that support certainly helped Moore, he was ahead in the polls before Bannon got involved, and Alabama was already primed to reject Strange for reasons peculiar to the state's politics. Strange received his appointment to Sessions's old seat under highly suspect circumstances. As state attorney general, Strange and his office were investigating then-Gov. Robert Bentley for using state resources to cover up an affair. Strange did not recuse himself from that investigation when he solicited his appointment from Bentley. Whether a deal was cut or not, the appointment smelled, and Alabama lawmakers restarted an impeachment investigation that Strange had asked them to suspend. Ultimately, Bentley pleaded guilty to ethics charges and resigned from office. The GOP Senate primary was the first opportunity Alabama voters had to express their outrage with what many saw as a rigged deal.
Alabama doesn't take kindly to criticism from outsiders. After Neil Young wrote two songs taking Alabama to task for slavery and segregation, Lynyrd Skynyrd responded with the Southern anthem "Sweet Home Alabama," including the line: "Well, I hope Neil Young will remember: A Southern man don't need him around anyhow." Never mind that the band wasn't from Alabama — Alabamians cheered the attitude and have embraced the song as their own.
But don't believe for a moment that Alabamians don't care what other people think about them.
People who don't care are indifferent. Alabamians are defiant. The state's official motto is "We dare defend our rights," but those of us who've lived here our whole lives know the real motto: "We shall not be told."
Each "Saturday Night Live" sketch featuring Sessions and his possum, each Jimmy Kimmel prank, each op-ed browbeating — it might as well be a dare. If The Washington Post ran a banner headline tomorrow saying "Antifreeze is poison, don't drink it," a sizable number of Alabamians would be dead tomorrow.
This is not how people who don't care behave. Rather, it's like the awkward kid in junior high who gets spurned by the cool kids' lunch table clique. Acting out is the only thing left to do. It's the vain hope that by doing the opposite, maybe everyone else will turn out to be wrong, and we will be proved smarter than all those who think they're smarter than us. Only it seldom works out that way.
For unscrupulous politicians, that insecurity is a well that never runs dry. Moore has his bucket in hand, and he's dropping it down that well again.