I consider myself a center-left individual. Interestingly, I considered myself a center-right individual for many years. However, as the right moved further from the center, my self-identification had to move with it. As a center-left, white male over 40 in ruby-red Alabama I guess I am somewhat of an anomaly. I have always been a fan of self-examination, and this series is an attempt to decipher what factors, internal and external, make me believe and vote so differently from so many of my contemporaries.
Part IV: The End of the Line
By 2010, following the election and inauguration of Barack Obama, the “Tea Party” was in full effect. The Tea Party Movement, backed by the billionaire activists Koch Brothers, billed itself as a movement supporting small-government, low taxes, and the ever duplicitous “states’ rights” agenda…but race was never far below the Tea Party surface. One need only read the signs at a Tea Party protest to see the true, underlying ideology: depictions of President Obama with a monkey’s face, signs that read that a Kenyan village was “missing its idiot”, calls for deporting the new President, likenesses of the President hung in effigy, the birther movement (supported by future President Donald Trump), Facebook memes and YouTube videos depicting Michele Obama as transsexual or the President as Satan, and any number of overtly racist sentiments on display. One Fox News guest referred to the President as “rapper-in-chief”.
There should be little surprise that, according to a 2016 study by the University of Arkansas, residents of the eleven states of the Confederacy make up 56% of Tea Party members nationally.
Although I believed, and still do, that there are good and decent Republicans who are inclined to believe in traditional Republican core philosophies (lower federal spending, smaller federal government, free trade, etc), it was obvious that an underlying current of racial animus that began with Nixon’s “southern strategy”, ran through the “welfare queen” theme of the 1980s, and was bolstered by Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” and other racist ads had now extended into an irrational hatred of the country’s first black president in an alarmingly open way.
Having grown up exposed to brazen, unapologetic racism and having developed a determination to rid myself of it, I simply could not pretend that what I was seeing was anything other than what it was: An acceptance of openly racist attitudes and actions by many supporters of a major American political party.
Additionally, it was impossible to ignore that President Obama had successfully navigated the 2008-2009 recession, saved the American auto industry, instituted proper banking regulations to avoid another financial collapse, passed a health care law that allowed 30 million people previously without insurance to gain coverage, pushed the economy into a growth cycle, and begun to reduce the budget deficit without draconian cuts to programs people depend on. He had done this despite Mitch McConnell’s promise to obstruct every effort of his administration, and with a major American news network spreading propaganda and disinformation against him every broadcast day.
Following the 2012 reelection of President Obama, there was no longer any pretense of the Tea Party being about taxes or spending. The raw, ugly hatred of President Obama by those on the right was no longer covert or implied. Birtherism, phony social media pictures, and videos, and warnings about America losing its “European” (translation: white) identity became the ground on which the hard-right planted its flag. Donald Trump’s candidacy was not, as many initially argued, an outlier. His openly xenophobic, latently racist, culture-warrior, religious bigotry campaign to “take our country back” was a natural outgrowth of what the Republican Party had pushed as its priorities for over 40 years. Establishment Republicans had believed that they could promote these old demons to bind itself to white, working-class voters and still keep the openly racist element under wraps. They were wrong. In 2016, we all bore witness to the ugliness of white nationalism on full display within a major American political party. Those who were bothered by these developments were shouted down, run out of the party, or forced to acquiesce to the new realities. Far too many chose the latter.
So the question I am left with is…why are more of my fellow Alabamians not seeing the things I see? Or maybe a better question is…why are they not reacting in a similar way to the things we both see?
I believe that race and ethnicity cannot be ignored in the popularity of Trump-ism in the deep-south. We love demagogues, especially when they confirm our own biases. For example, the low-skilled labor industrial economy that supported much of the south following reconstruction is virtually gone. It is not the fault of Mexican immigrants. It is the result of the emergence of an international economy where transportation and time constraints are no longer obstacles. However, if you or your family or your community were adversely affected by these changes, Trump gave you a bogeyman to blame…the illegal immigrant. More importantly, Trump promised to wave a wand and turn back the clock. I heard people talk about the textile mills in Alabama reopening after Trump was elected. That’s a preposterous expectation, but it allows some to wallow in the denial of economic reality. The xenophobic, racist slant added by Trump (immigrants as rapists and gang members, etc) is just playing on long-standing southern prejudices against brown people. It worked like a charm.
Secondly, there is the fallacy of Trump as a “tough guy”. Trump loves to talk about the “weakness” of people stronger than him. Trump criticizes the “weakness” of generals, war heroes, and anyone else who generally commands respect from the public. He does this because of his own deep insecurities. It is total bluster, meaningless and frivolous, but it turns attention away from the fact that Trump himself is a five-deferment draft dodger, serial philanderer, and general scoundrel who has spent a lifetime reveling in his own moral depravity. We southerners have a tendency to gravitate to those who talk loudly about their own courage and toughness rather than those who show it through quiet service to their fellow man. In other words, some of us are more inclined to support Roy Moore than Atticus Finch.
Finally, there is the failure of our spiritual leaders to be consistent in their calls for moral leadership. In a recent conversation with a minister, I inquired about the infamous “go back where they came from” comment. I was told that it was an “unfortunate” thing to say, but “good thing my 401k is doing well”. The very people who have told us all of our lives that our adherence to the Greatest Commandment should be paramount to our lives have now decided that “neighbor” has a much more narrow definition than before. Of course, the red-herring of abortion and their own bigotry against the gay community is their publicly stated reasoning for abandoning any moral ground.
Ultimately, my vote is based on results. There is the practical reality that the Clinton presidency ended with a strong economy, a balanced budget resulting in a five trillion dollar surplus, and relative peace in the world. The Bush presidency ended in a Middle Eastern stalemate with thousands of deaths, a crumbling economy, and trillions in new debt. The Obama presidency ended by reducing unemployment from over 9% to less than 5% with a growing economy and a budget deficit that had shrunk to the lowest level since the ’90s, 30 million Americans gained health coverage that did not have it before, and once again there was relative peace in the world. Today, our deficit is once again back in the one trillion dollar range per year, and the Middle East is once again becoming a powder keg. We’ve seen this movie before, in every modern Republican administration. We should know how this will end.
The Democratic Party is far from perfect, and unlike the GOP, not all Democrats walk in lockstep with the national party on policy. Recent polling by CBS News shows that 64% of Democratic voters consider themselves conservative, moderate, or somewhat liberal while 31% consider themselves very liberal. In the Democratic Party, you will find a wide variety of thoughts on every issue from abortion, to taxation, to health care, to national security. Because of this diversity, it can be difficult to reach consensus, and you have ongoing disagreements on the philosophical direction of the national party. It is messy and imperfect, much like our country itself, and in that respect, I am right at home there.
I don’t know if I answered any of my own questions in this series, but the exercise of tying these variant life experiences together has been somewhat cathartic, so I thank you for reading and consideration. I am under no illusions about the current state of politics in Alabama, but I do believe there are signs of hope. Increasingly we see southern states becoming “purple”…North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, for example. As the voting population becomes younger and less inclined to bigotry and intolerance, this will be a strong trend. Of course, Democrats must manage our own diversity and provide a home for all of those who support equality and opportunity. I believe the nation will benefit from that…even if my southern brothers and sisters are a little slower getting there.
Jeremy Jeffcoat is an Alexander City resident and former candidate for Alabama House District 81.