The Alabamafication of America

The 2016 presidential election looked, more than anything else, like an Alabama election. Donald Trump’s relentless appeals to populist conservative ideas echo decades-long trends in the South. The current worries about Trump’s irresponsible governing style are similar to concerns Alabama commentators have been expressing about their often-demagogic leaders since before the 1940s.

…Leaders in all three branches of Alabama’s government are either under investigation or have been recently removed from office. After using his position to obtain over $1.1 million in financial favors, Mike Hubbard, the former speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, was convicted of 12 felony corruption charges in July 2016. …The Hubbard trial was full of fireworks, including testimony from former Governor Bob Riley, but ended in a sentence of only four years in prison.

Governor Robert Bentley, a man who ran his 2010 campaign on family values, divorced his wife of 50 years after allegedly having an affair with his powerful chief advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. …Bentley could be prosecuted for abuse of power—as governor, he ordered a state law enforcement helicopter to retrieve his wallet, which he had left by accident at his ex-wife’s house in Tuscaloosa on his way to the beach.

…In 2016, Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was removed from the bench for ethics violations after he ordered the state’s probate judges to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. …Moore was previously removed from the same office in 2003, after erecting a stone monument of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Judicial Building and ignoring a court order to have it removed.

~Using conservative populism to disregard the law~
…Alabama’s traditionalistic culture, a hierarchical system where citizens fall in line with authority and accept “an elite class entitled to power.” This results in low rates of citizen participation.

~Reckless abuse of loopholes~
The writers of the 1901 Alabama constitution did not want poor whites or black voters to control their own counties or lives, so they required even the most minor changes to local law—such as salary increases for local officials—to be passed as an amendment to the constitution. To this day, only a few areas in Alabama have been granted home rule, and they still face challenges in Montgomery. When Birmingham tried to raise the minimum wage, they were struck down by the state legislature.

~Removing as many civil rights as possible~
The root of Alabama’s unusually toxic political climate dates back to the anti-populist movement orchestrated by plantation owners and industrialists which culminated in the Constitution of 1901.

…Wealthy “Bourbon” Democrats, worried about labor insurrections, called for a new constitutional convention to cement their interests and power. While the suppression of the black vote figured largest in convention (John B. Knox, president of the convention, opened by saying: “And what is it that we do want to do? Why, it is, within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State”), the suppression of the white populist vote was important as well.

According to Flynt, the Constitution’s poll taxes, as well as literacy and residency requirements, targeted the poor, uneducated, and transient population. The results were a success for the rich and white—between 1900 and 1903, the 181,000 registered black voters declined to under 5,000. By the 1940s, 600,000 whites and 520,000 blacks were disenfranchised by some provision of the constitution.

The Alabamafication of America | Harvard Political Review



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