Did anybody ever expect that Alabama---a historic bastion of slavery, segregation, and hardline conservatism in the Old South---might point the way to a New Day in Trumpian America? (Short answer: No, never.)
But in the recent special election, when Alabama narrowly elected Doug Jones, the U.S. prosecutor who convicted two Ku Klux Klansmen for a heinous racial crime, and rejected former state judge Roy Moore, espouser of hardest-line conservatism and alleged molester of young girls, Alabama did more than elect its first Democrat in 25 years to the U.S. Senate. Alabama, by its own free will and its vote, began to square itself with its dark history and took a step toward the light.
Well done, Alabama. You engineered your own reckoning and, doing so, struck a blow for sanity and decency (also here and here), at a time when sanity and decency are under assault by our very own President. The whole world was watching, as Birmingham’s mayor noted, wondering if the U.S. would further self-destruct in anger and chaos.
To be sure, the vote was breathtakingly close: Jones got around 50% of the vote, while Moore got around 48%, with write-ins comprising the balance (also here). Which means nearly half the state voted for an alleged child molester simply because he had an “R” after his name, Democrats being equated with evil.
But it also means that, in addition to a groundswell of African-Americans, suburban women, and young people voting for Jones (also here and here), a sufficient number of conservative Alabamans took themselves into Gethsemane for serious pondering (half of all state residents self-identify as evangelical) and decided to do right by their state and their country and forsake Moore, either by writing in another Republican name or staying home, thus helping the Democrat. As one evangelical quoted in the New York Times said of Moore, “He uses his faith as a cop-out.”
No matter how close, though, in a democracy all that’s needed to win is a simple majority. As Donald Trump himself tweeted, noting write-ins were a factor, “A win is a win.” (As of this posting, Moore has not conceded. Final count is to be certified between Dec. 27 and Jan. 3.)
For Alabama, this election, narrow as it is, means deep things. For one, as some observers note, with this vote Alabama comes out from behind the long shadow of its former segregationist governor George Wallace---again, just barely, but again, trending in the right direction. For another, this election is tacit acknowledgment of past racial crimes: After all, Doug Jones is the very face of a major civil rights victory---he convicted two former Klansmen for the bombing murder of four little African-American girls in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, enabling justice finally to be served 35 years after the crime. And, throughout the South, tensions over Confederate statues and flag, post-Charleston and Charlottesville, have reopened arguments over the Civil War---was it over slavery or states’ rights?
Jones referred to this dark history, of Alabama and the South, in his victory speech, characterizing this history indirectly and metaphorically as a “crossroads”:
“Alabama has been at a crossroads. We have been at a crossroads in the past. And unfortunately we have usually taken the wrong fork. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you took the right road.”
Contrast this courageous display with Moore’s campaign of racial resentment and what Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson called “Christian grievance”---the lament over the loss of white privilege couched in the language of the Bible.
Fittingly, it was African-Americans---whose ancestors suffered so terribly during slavery, with the reverberations continuing---who put Jones over the top. African-American women were key to getting their neighborhoods mobilized. A major get-out-the-black-vote effort was mounted by black leaders, including former President Barack Obama, Senator Cory Booker, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and basketball legend and native Alabaman Charles Barkley. Citing Moore as a white separatist, Barkley got real in his appeal: “I love Alabama, but at some point we got to draw a line in the sand and show we’re not a bunch of damn idiots.”
Moore aside, the big losers in this election were Donald Trump and his strategist and wingman Stephen Bannon. Another blow for sanity and decency. Both these nihilists endorsed Moore and campaigned for him (Trump across the state line in Florida). Alabama is this team’s second defeat in two months, following Virginia in November, which the Post called “a historic Republican wipeout.” Together, says the Post’s Robinson, these defeats show Trumpism to be “a paper tiger.”
Of course the big question is: Can Jones get re-elected in 2020, when presumably the Republicans will field a more suitable candidate than Moore, in a state that remains one of the reddest in the nation? Or---is this a crazy thought?---might Moore run again, campaigning for the seat that was “stolen” from him in ‘17? (Run, Roy, run!) No doubt there’ll be a strong conservative backlash to Jones’ election; much depends on sanity prevailing. And much depends on how the schism between the Republican establishment and Trumpism plays out: Trumpism brings out extremists.
And, may I respectfully add, much depends on a Reformation among evangelicals: While some abided by their conscience and forsook Moore, still a big majority of Alabama’s white evangelicals---varying from 80% to 81%---voted for the man accused of racial and religious bigotry, misogyny, and assaults on teenage girls. Some evangelical leaders are speaking of “tarnish” (also here).
For now, though, after a year of Trump’s insanity and indecency, we can enjoy some measure of sanity and decency again: In his victory speech Jones repeated his campaign theme---“This entire race has been about dignity and respect….about common courtesy and decency.” For now, after a year of Trump’s attacks on our democratic institutions, to the point where expert democracy-watchers raise alarms about its even working, voters not only turned out but exceeded expectations, with the African-American community especially energized. For now, after a year of Democrats anxious over the party’s lack of direction vis-à-vis Trumpism, Democrats, with a strong assist from the Indivisible organization, showed clarity and muscle, backing a stellar candidate and running a classic positive campaign---a model to be followed.
And, for now, when History’s darker forces seem arrayed against us, the people of one state with a particularly dark past undertook to right themselves with that past and, to a small but critical degree, achieved it---redemptive, history-defying action that inspires us all. As the Washington Post editorialized, “It is beyond heartening.”
As Doug Jones, new U.S. Senator, tweeted in victory: “Thank you ALABAMA!!”
For my pre-election post, “Republican ‘Values Voters’ Revealed as Serious Hypocrites,” see here.
Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.” In an earlier career in civil rights, she served as Equal Opportunity Officer for the City of San Diego.