Bertrand Russell, Alabama Politics, and Some Hope for November

Near the end of his “Introduction” in A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell made this assertion: “Social cohesion is a necessity, and mankind has never yet succeeded in enforcing cohesion by merely rational arguments.” Case and point: the state of Alabama, where good ideas about getting along with each other are replaced by an ever-evolving, us-and-them verbiage that undermines progress.

As a person with left-leaning ideals and moderate habits tempered by a decades-long immersion in working-class conservatism, and as a person with a strong preference for facts and critical thinking over fairytales and superstitions, I am looking toward the November elections with some measure of hope but also a deep concern about what will occur . . . again. This summer, during the primaries and runoffs, the same scare tactics and buzzword-based rhetoric whirled around our psyches, and now that the general election match-ups are set, the same people are asking publicly whether Democratic candidates stand a chance. However, it is clear that some people in Alabama have shown a desire for politics to feature new faces and ideas. Doug Jones’ victory over Roy Moore last December evidenced that. As did the defeats of political mainstays Alvin Holmes, John Knight, Johnny Ford, Gerald Dial, and Twinkle Cavanaugh in the June 2018 runoffs— three Democrats and two Republicans.

As we approach November, my publicly asked question is larger than this one election, larger than political party, and larger even than the urban legends that have turned Nancy Pelosi into the Wicked Witch of the West: do we in Alabama want to face what isn’t working and proceed from a rational decision to improve our lives here? To Betrand Russell’s point, I agree that social (and political) issues are seldom decided rationally. Yet, here are a few rational points to make anyway:

First, Alabamians consistently vote against our own interests. History shows us this very clearly. In recent times, the 1994 book Disconnected reported in detail on our counterproductive voting habits, and that trend has continued into the 2000s and 2010s. However, we don’t have to keep voting for leaders who implement policies inconsistent with our well-being. The “Republican Wave” of 2010 installed leaders who promised big results but who failed— utterly. Likewise, Alabama gave Donald Trump his highest approval rating in the nation last May, though now there are revelations that his tariffs and other policies will hurt our state. Yet, Alabama remains solidly “red.”

Second, our current habits allow candidates to campaign with partisan rhetoric, name-calling, and insinuations, rather than with well-articulated policy ideas. This strategy disallows Alabama voters from making good decisions, because candidates campaign not on what they will do in office, but on being the lesser of two evils on the ballot. This either-or scheme has perpetuated one-party politics: the Democratic “Solid South” for more than a century, followed by the current Republican-led super-majority.

Third, a proposal for a possible solution: Alabamians can change the politics in our state by doing two things: demanding to hear about policy proposals, then voting based on which proposal sounds better. Learning about and voting for candidates, rather than relying on party affiliation, might force prospective officeholders to define their positions and intentions for us to consider. Then, voters can enter their polling places and mark their ballots with a solid knowledge: Yes, I do want this person in this office.

One last word about voting: the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) reported in 2017 that about two-thirds of Alabamians don’t believe their voices are heard in Montgomery. They are probably correct, since about three-quarters of Alabama voters consistently don’t show up to the polls. However, there is a sensible solution to that conundrum: show up and vote. Furthermore, PARCA reported in 2018 that Alabamians’ number-one priority is improving education. Our education system consistently ranks among the worst in the nation, but there are ways to fix that, too: choose leaders who fund education properly and who create policies that work. Public education affects everyone in the state, because education is connected to every aspect of life: economic development, jobs, funding, public health, crime, prisons . . .  and moreover, it also informs the next generation of candidates and voters.

As nerdy and bookish as it may be, I came across that passage from Bertrand Russell while I’ve been re-reading his History lately. I read it in college – yes, I really did read it – though for most of the last twenty years, it has collected dust on a high shelf. But recently, as I browsed those shelves for something to peruse until classes start back and settled on that one, it has been a blessing to reacquaint myself, in the first two sections, with the those admirable ancient Greek thinkers who constantly questioned how governments should be run and how leaders should be chosen— a remarkable degree of critical inquiry that we seem to lack in modern Alabama, twenty five or more centuries later.

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