In the five minutes between coming to terms with the special election for Senate in Alabama being a long night and going upstairs to brush my teeth, Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma came in and shoved Doug Jones, the Democrat, over the top.
Goddamn. I mean, goddamn! I just want to come on down and hug all of you. Welcome back to Purple America, Alabama. We love you.
OK — without Wikipedia, can you name the last Senator elected as a Democrat from Alabama? If you said “Howell Heflin” you win. Heflin, who was first elected in 1978, and whose politics were remarkably similar to Trump Republicanism, was re-elected continuously until he retired in 1996. Similarly, Richard Shelby, Alabama’s current senior Senator, was also elected on the Democratic ticket in 1986. But roundabout the time when Heflin was thinking about retiring, Shelby put a little spit on his finger, stuck it in the wind, and decided to become a Republican.
So Doug Jones is the first Senator to be elected from Alabama from, as Howard Dean used to say, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” for a very long time, possibly since Hugo Black was elected in 1926. Yet Black, who became in some ways more liberal after his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1937, was also tainted by Ku Klux Klan membership, and by his opposition to civil rights. In contrast, Jones has a lifetime commitment to civil rights, prosecuted former Klansmen for their orchestration of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, and is a strong and unequivocal proponent of women’s right to all forms of reproductive choice.
I have a Ph.D., in history, and I know when history is speaking: it spoke last night. But please don’t get all excited about this being a turning point in and of itself. This slugfest of an election raises a number of questions about the path to a Purple America, and I want to sketch a few of them out.
- Like the victories in Virginia last month, winning this Senate race relied on boots on the ground, many of who were local Alabamians who went door to door. Some observers are starting to refer to this as “the Tom Perez strategy.” Secretary of Labor under Barack Obama, Perez was elected chair of the Democratic National Committee over the deep objections of the Sanders wing, and he seems to know what he is doing. If you have read Donna Brazile’s account of the 2016 election, the news there was not that the DNC was in the bag for Hillary Clinton, but that the Clinton campaign’s data-driven strategy sapped energy from the infrastructure and organization needed to run a successful national campaign. You need both, and in particular, you need to get people to the polls in sufficient numbers — a job that is best done in person and by a true grassroots effort, supported by outside money (see John Lawrence’s analysis in our Letters section). Bussing New Yorkers to Alabama to knock on doors is simply not as effective as mobilizing Alabamians to talk to their neighbors.
- And by the way? Acting as though Alabama is still living in the nineteenth century is not a terrific way to connect to progressives or conservatives in the state, whether you are on social media or a national network. This insulting attitude towards Red State America was graphically underlined in the MSNBC coverage last night, which made an effort to bring in local reporters to cover the story (thus betraying the reality that MSNBC doesn’t actually employ a reporter who can competently cover the South) but allowed hosts like Chris Hayes to insinuate that southerners are generally comfortable with candidates like Moore. When one reporter described the voting margin with the phrase “tight as a tick” — a phrase that doesn’t require much regional literacy to parse — Hayes insisted on a full explanation of the phrase, thus conveying the impression that the guest was a hick who didn’t belong on the show in the first place. Just because you have read J.D. Vance doesn’t mean you are an expert on white southerners, or that you get to treat them all like hillbillies.
- The NAACP is perhaps one of the most relevant progressive political organizations in the South: check out this description of their strategy in organizer Al Giordano’s Twitter feed. If you are a Republican or a Democrat who cares about civil rights, you need to support their work now. And no, your Democratic Socialists of America (often known by the older acronym of DSOC) membership is really not enough of a credential in red states. This became particularly graphic in the run up to yesterday’s election when “Alex”, a DSA organizer from Northern Alabama characterized a vote for Jones as a vote for “a weak-kneed white blob in a suit to go work on Capitol Hill for some unknown corporate donor.” She declared that she would not be voting. Thanks Alex!
- Similarly, social media utterances that take the heroic effort by African-American voters, who defied turnout hopes by 5%, as an opportunity to disparage white voters who overwhelmingly voted for Moore, also miss the point. Jones would not have won without the 25% of white voters who also cast their ballots for him. And he wouldn’t have won without a crucial 1% of voters who wrote in another candidate entirely. OK, maybe voting for University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban does not seem entirely sane to you, but if you felt you could not vote for Jones because he supported abortion, it was a really good way to keep a man who sexually molested teenage girls from being elected. Lesson? Crapping on white people in an undifferentiated way is not only unseemly, but ragingly counterproductive and — when done by other white people living in progressive enclaves — smug.
- In another Purple Wednesday I do want to return to the role that abortion and contraception play in modern politics. For now, let me note that numerous journalists argued that had Jones not supported abortion rights, his victory over Moore would have been a walk in the park. He did not equivocate on this, and I admire it. On the other hand, it graphically underlines the point that an anti-abortion position is non-negotiable for many white voters who might not otherwise endorse a culture war candidate. How do Democrats begin to discuss this without undermining what many of us believe to be a core civil rights issue?
Finally, what does this say about the run to 2018? The inference that Moore was undermined just enough by Trump’s growing unpopularity seems clear. A state that the President won by almost 30 points is now almost evenly split in its support for him, and it is possible that Trump’s last minute push did far more harm than good, given his support for Luther Strange in the primary and his — can we say it? — pussyfooting around on the Moore’s candidacy because of his own vulnerability on the sexual assault front.
But there’s more to it than that, and this is what we need to examine as we chart the path to Election 2018. As early results were coming in last night, commenters not only noted that Moore was running behind his own numbers in solidly red counties, he was running well below Trump’s numbers too. Why? Here’s one analysis by the Washington Examiner‘s Ryan Girdusky, a longtime Trump watcher and supporter. Girdusky partly blames a Republican Congress that is pushing its own muddled and donor-driven agenda, and not the one Trump promised his base. He also looks askance at the President’s out of control Twitter feed. “Trump’s first year in office has been far more successful than the prophets of doom predicted throughout 2016,” he summed it up yesterday morning. “Yet and still, the president’s unpopularity is almost entirely driven by himself. The good news is he has the power to change that, the bad news is it’s up to him and him alone.”
Yes. In the meantime, take another look at last night’s electoral map. I mean — Alabama, goddamn!
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.