Rings true to me

>> Wednesday, December 16, 2009

From a reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog:

I'm a New York native who's lived in Alabama for close to five years now. Here's what Northerners miss: The South is an aristocracy, and the key to understanding Alabama is that it was founded -- and to some degree remains -- as a state at war with a good portion of its residents. If you live outside the region, you can get a vague sense of that, but living here really brings it home.

Slavery and segregation have both died away, but the state is still run by a relatively small number of lawyers, businessmen and lobbyists located in Montgomery. The fiendishly awful 1901 Constitution centralizes all power in the state capitol, making local control almost nonexistent. To get permission to, say, spray for mosquitoes in a county, you have to amend the constitution in a statewide vote. This is not an exaggeration. The small clique of folks in the capitol city dictate tax, education and business policy for the whole state, and if you're not part of that clique -- even if you're the mayor of a major city -- you're not going to have a say in how the state is run.

They prefer it that way, and always have. Alabama was founded as a slave state, and the founders of this state were slaveholders who bent the government to keep their unjust system going and protect themselves from insurrection. After an interlude in Reconstruction, the elites took over again and started systematically locking blacks and poor whites out of Montgomery for fear their state would be taken over. The folks who wrote the 1901 Constitution were landholders in the middle part of the state who wanted to hold the black population under the lash and industrialists in northern Alabama who wanted to keep their (mostly white) workers in line. Both groups shared a fearful memory of the 1890s, when the Populist Party and its humane agenda came within a stolen election or two of taking control of the state. Alabama never had a Huey Long-type governor to smash the old boys' network, and this bunker mentality has persisted through most of this state's sad history.

So if you wonder why Alabama politicians are always looking for the "other," the one to blame for all their homemade problems, look no further than the history of this state. The people who run Alabama are only concerned with protecting their power. They're brazen about it, and care about their voters only inasmuch as they can convince them their frustrations are less about the system and more about liberals or immigrants.

Try to make a trip to Montgomery during the next legislative session, which starts in January and ends in April. You'll get about three feet off the elevators before you see the hallways choked with lobbyists trying to sell (or dictate) policy to elected officials. An actual constituent would have a hard time making their way through the crush to see their representative. That's Alabama, and that's the best way to understand it.

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