The Spring 2017 Alabama Public Opinion Survey, conducted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), shows some disturbing conclusions about the political ideas in my home state. Hardest to swallow are two graphs on page 23, which explain that 63% of the people polled “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” that they “Have No Say in What the Government in Montgomery Does” and a whopping 69% “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” that “Officials in Montgomery Don’t Care What People Like Me Think.” The polling from 2007 through 2017 shows that roughly half to two-thirds of Alabamians feel that way consistently.
Likewise, a few pages ahead of those disconcerting line graphs, we see a bar graph that explains how 76.7% of Alabamians polled answered “Yes” when asked, “Do you think the level of school funding makes a difference in the quality of education?” (Somehow, 17.3% of respondents answered “No,” and I’d be curious about how they came to that conclusion.) About three-quarters of Alabamians, then, believe the old adage that “you get what you pay for” when it comes to our education system.
In these cases, I would alter that previous adage slightly to say, “You get who you vote for.” When voters elect politicians who they immediately (or already) disdain, the effects are so grossly counterproductive as to be nonsensical, and thus, we in Alabama, and in the wider Deep South, get to keep the widespread inadequacies that we want relief from.
This trend isn’t new and didn’t come from nowhere. Nearly twenty five years ago, the 1994 book Disconnected: Public Opinion and Alabama Politics by Patrick Cotter, James Glen Stovall, and Samuel H. Fisher III detailed the state’s habit of working against its own stated interests. In the final chapter, the authors make this assessment:
Thus rather than a close correspondence, there is actually a considerable disconnection between the character of Alabama’s public opinion and the character of the state’s policies. The state lags behind others not because of its public opinion but in spite of it. Alabama would be better off if it more closely followed the preferences and priorities of its citizens.
To date, we ordinary citizens have tried pointing fingers, we’ve tried blame, and we’ve made the names of our states’ and nation’s capitol cities synonymous with what we dislike and distrust. And certainly the problems may well lie with the politicians whose actions (or inactions) we lament. Yet, the problems are also ours, and until we own them, we can expect more of the same.
There’s another old adage, this one more vulgar, that says, “Don’t shit where you eat.” Even dogs understand that. Yet, some people don’t seem to. As crass as it may be, it’s still good advice, especially when it comes to facing down the historic social and political problems that exhaust generation after generation in Deep Southern states like Alabama. Just don’t shit where you eat.