Joe Rogers: Trying to make sense of Alabama
Conjoined as a territory before birth as states, near mirror images on the map, the Dixie twins Mississippi and Alabama have much in common.
Among other things, each has a Civil War-torn past that of course is not past; dismal economic, health and public education statistics; and a rancorous college football rivalry.
Politically, each is reliably red, with Alabama even redder in the past three presidential elections, perhaps partly due to its even whiter population (66% to Mississippi’s 57%).
The deepest I can trace my Rogers roots is to Wilcox County, Ala. I grew up practically on the state doorstep. Mobile was the closest city of any size, and its television stations provided my early exposure to news and entertainment. I played my first high school football game in Alabama (and dutifully lost badly).
Yet when my column ran online in Alabama newspapers a little while back, I felt as if I’d landed on a hostile planet.
I don’t get Alabama.
Howell Raines, a native, does. In a recent article in The New York Times, he described a state political affinity for “eye-catching clowns,” including the man he deemed the latest, the Republican Senate candidate, Roy Moore.
Raines is a former executive editor of The Times and my (favorite) former boss there. I enlisted him to help me understand the two states’ divide. After all, we had our Ross Barnett to their George Wallace, peas in a racist pod. Cliff Finch could clown with the best. Why do things there seem so … different, to put it mildly?
“The key thing is Alabama has never had a William Winter or even a Bill Waller,” Raines said. “Both states do like oppositional candidates, but Alabama has never gone for advocates of vigorous change.”
He views Mississippians as less confrontational in their politics, if only relatively so.
“I hesitate to suggest this, and I may be splitting hairs, but I think Alabama politics are more anger-driven and combative,” he said. “Mississippians seem relatively calm except in regard, historically, to a violent attitude on race.”
In his Times article, Raines referred to “the Alabama inferiority complex.”
“Alabama’s attitude is paradoxical,” he told me. “A great many Alabamians exist in a defensive crouch, convinced that they are unfairly looked down upon yet defiantly unwilling to quit electing extreme personalities they know in their hearts are the main reason they are looked down upon.”
Mississippians have their own inferiority complex, as well. But Raines reckoned it less severe.
“I sense that Mississippians are somewhat comforted by a sense that their blue bloods are more genteel than their Alabama counterparts – the Grove, veneration of Faulkner, and the certainty that ‘Absalom, Absalom’ is a more important book than ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
Raines sees opportunity in the Senate election on Dec. 12, which pits Moore against the Democrat Doug Jones.
“Since before the Civil War, the state has been addicted to theatrical defiance, extreme oratory and damning self-parody,” he said. “This election is the best chance the state has had to redeem its reputation since 1972, when Wallace defeated the progressive Albert Brewer in the most overtly racist campaign seen in the modern South.”
“I have a hunch that the accusations about the 14-year-old will cause enough suburban Republican soccer moms to vote for Jones to push him over to a narrow win, even if their yellow-dog Republican husbands stick with Moore or don’t vote,” Raines said.
I hope he’s right. And not just for Alabama’s sake.