Follow the Money

Article excerpt

The image of Alabama and its politics--from dogs and hoses in Birmingham, to George Wallace standing in the doorway of the university in Tuscaloosa, to a Gadsden judge who insists on hanging the Ten Commandments in his courtroom--is negative, primitive, and redneck. But it is far too facile to view Alabama politics as something of an aberration. One could argue that Alabama is not behind at all, but rather that it has always been ahead of the curve in its politics, and that what you see in Alabama today you'll see across America tomorrow.

Ronald Reagan was not the first to say we needed to get government off our backs, nor was Bill Clinton original when he announced that the era of big government was over. George Wallace was there first.

In a sense, Wallace created two political games--one for the voters and one for the players. The Wallace message--anti-government, anti-taxes, anti-minority--has given the Republican Party its voice, both in the South and across the nation. Add to it the Christian and pro-family themes, and it is easy to see why voters--white voters--buy in. Republicans of the 1990s sound a lot like Wallace of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Alabama Democrats have yet to find their voice. But they're trying. Recently, a few Democratic state legislators moved quickly to enact strict anti-abortion legislation. The Alabama Democratic Party chair consistently uses a "faith and values" theme to describe his party, which in fact used paid advertising--a "Faith and Values" tabloid circulated in newspapers the weekend before the 1996 presidential election--to give each of the major Democratic candidates an opportunity to explain how important religion was in their lives. Throughout the 1996 campaign, Roger Bedford, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, spoke of religious commitment and prayer. He was beaten soundly by the Republican, Jeff Beauregard Sessions.

While the term "Republican Lite" is not specific to Alabama, Democratic candidates there have implicitly made this argument: "I'm kinda like a Republican; I'm just nicer about it." So far, voters are not persuaded. Republicans are winning the big ones.

The voter game is largely symbolic and devoid of substance. The second game, the player game, is about money. While political scientists continue to debate realignment or dealignment, the truth is Alabama is a "no party" state, a place where parties have never been anything more than vehicles of convenience. To understand how politics is actually played in Alabama, or for that matter throughout the nation, take a look at interest groups.

Historically, the real action in southern politics focused on the Democratic primary. In fact, the idea that winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election became something of a cliche. Nonetheless, it was true. Since the party could not openly support or campaign for one Democrat over another, candidates placed heavy emphasis on the power of key groups to finance campaigns and mobilize rank-and-file members. Acting as though they were themselves miniparties, interest groups put up candidates and tried to get them elected. They held their own conventions, endorsed candidates, raised money, and got out the vote. Their leaders became important power brokers inside the Democratic Party.

Fundamentally, interest group support is more about money than it is about politics. Groups seek public policy decisions that either increase funding for their programs or increase personal wealth for their members. Educators want more money for schools and teacher salaries, business owners and farmers want preferential tax policy and state contracts, trial lawyers want to continue to reap the benefits of large jury verdicts.

Alabama is no different from any other state in that its winners and stakeholders are not the citizens; rather, they are the people that Big Jim Folsom used to call the "Big Mules. …