JSU Newswire
Jacksonville, Alabama

Culture of Populism:
Why most Alabamians prefer
the GOP’s brand
By Dr. Hardy Jackson
JSU Professor of History

Reprinted from the Birmingham News

Populism, that time-tested political ideology based on the idea that government should represent "the people" as opposed to "special interests," has never been so popular as it is this election year. But the parties and their candidates can't seem to agree which populism voters want.

At their recent convention Republicans gave us “big-tent populism,” invited everyone in, and to the strains of music that most delegates had only heard on the yardman’s radio they celebrated the scripted diversity of their party.

Meanwhile the Reform Party (or at least some of it) confirmed its allegiance to “nativist populism” by nominating Pat Buchanan, and the Green Party picked "consumer populist" Ralph Nader to carry its “big business is bad” banner.

Then came Al Gore and the Democrats with "help-the-little-guy populism," as they pledged to "fight" the "powerful interests" that threaten "working families."

So which populism will Alabamians choose? With textile jobs going overseas and plants closing, will we rally to Buchanan and protect our own? With our environment a mess, will we throw our lot with Nader and go after corporate polluters? Will we heed Gore's warning that a Republican administration would favor "the wealthy, the well connected and the powerful" (something most of us aren’t) and vote Democrat? Or will we join Bush in denouncing Gore for "sowing divisions and fomenting class warfare" and pick the GOP?

Everybody knows the answer. Unless Al Gore can pull off a political miracle, a majority of Alabama voters will cast their ballots for George W. Bush. In the process, they will confirm once again that Republican "cultural populism" is more important to them than the "economic populism" advocated by the Democrats. Understand that and you understand why so many Alabamians vote as they do.

It did not start out that way. Back at the beginning, it was the economy that concerned Alabama populists. Born out of the agricultural crisis of the late 19th century, populism promised to raise prices for what the farmer sold, regulate agencies the farmer used, and loosen credit the farmer needed. Believing that social and economic elites had been stealing the farmer's bounty, populist promised to give the producer a larger share of the profits and force middle-men merchants and bankers to accept less.

But as everyone knows, no economic agenda is purely economic, and the populism program was no exception. Because so many marginal farmers took part, authorities saw populism as a lower class movement, a "one-gallused rebellion" of poor blacks and poor whites trying to improve their lots. But that was not entirely the case. Here in Alabama (and in much of the South) many of the movement's members came from agriculture's middle-class. Though they had economic problems like those below them, their social and cultural values were decidedly bourgeois. These middle-class populists wanted government to promote policies that would favor farmers, and they were willing to form political alliances with blacks and landless whites to achieve that end. But they did not want a social revolution, especially one that improved the status of African-Americans. The people at the bottom were supposed to stay at the bottom -- economically better off, but socially static.

This attitude helps to explain why, in 1901, so many middle-class populists accepted the argument that society would be more stable and government would be more responsive to their needs, if African Americans and poor whites, some of populism's most important constituents, were taken out of the political system. It also helps to explain why, in 1901, many from populism's bourgeois base supported, or at least acquiesced to, the new constitution that made disfranchisement the law.

Once the constitution was ratified, Alabama populism, or what was left of it, lost its economic urgency. But the conviction that drove the movement, the belief that abroad on the land were sinister forces that would subvert the popular will if not opposed, was still there. And in the decades that followed this conviction found expression in nativism, racial bigotry, and religious fundamentalism. Just as economic populists had singled out economic elites to blame for the farmers’ plight, later Alabamians singled out foreigners, Catholics, Jews, and, of course, blacks to blame for whatever seemed to be wrong at the time. Occasionally someone, a pre-constitutional populist usually, also blamed Black Belt planters and Birmingham steel barons, but they were a voice crying in the wilderness. Voting Alabamians, middle-class Democrats mostly, agonized more over whether to support Catholic Al Smith or Republican Herbert Hoover, than they did over the influence agricultural and industrial “interests" had in the state.

The Great Depression briefly reversed this trend. Taking his cue from Franklin Roosevelt's attack on Republican "economic royalists" who prospered while others went without, Governor Bibb Graves denounced Alabama’s “Big Mules,” the rich and powerful who profited from the labor of others and gave little back in return. Other politicians joined the chorus, and economic populism returned to center stage. But rhetoric was one thing, reform was another, and during the 1930s Alabamians heard a lot of the former and got little of the latter. Why? Because middle-class Democrats saw their economic interests more closely aligned with those at the top of the economic heap than those at the bottom, so they weren’t about to threaten the top. And since those who had the most to gain from a populist economic program couldn't vote, there wasn’t anything they could do about it.

So by the time World War II had ended the Depression, the future of economic populism in Alabama seemed bleak. Then, as the war drew to a close, James E. Folsom appeared on the scene.

Presenting himself as "the little man's big friend," Folsom championed the cause of common folk, and conservatives found, to their surprise and horror, that now there were enough common folk to make a difference. During the previous decade Alabama's modest educational reforms had raised the literacy level of poor whites to where many could qualify to vote and war-time jobs had given them enough money to pay the poll tax. In 1946 this expanded electorate, which included a host of returning veterans, put "Big Jim" in the governor's mansion and told him to make good on his promises to the people. Occasionally he did. But in the end Folsom failed ­ failed because he did not realize, until it was too late, that racial populism had replaced economic populism as his constituency’s top priority.

Like everything else in white Alabama, populism had always contained a good dose of Negrophobia. So when the Supreme Court struck down school segregation and Washington began enforcing court orders, segregationist Alabamians quickly concluded that sinister federal forces were out to destroy the “southern way of life.” During the turbulent ‘50s, white Alabamians from all classes responded to racial populism with a unity and enthusiasm never displayed for populism's economic goals.

From time to time politicians still paid homage to economic populism. George Wallace, for example, went on and on about how he was for the little man, but everyone knew that Wallace's little man was always white. Yet even as Wallace was proving himself the master of racial populism, other populist strains that had been bubbling below started coming to the surface.

Deeply disturbed by court decisions on church-state relations and by the Democrats’ apparent ambivalence to their concern, conservative Christians ­ white, middle-class, Wallace Democrats for the most part ­ were beginning to explore political alternatives. Meanwhile Alabamians from all classes decried what they perceived to be a decline of patriotic spirit that occurred under Democratic administrations. Richard Nixon and his advisors picked up on these undercurrents and from them fashioned a “southern strategy.” Appealing to a cultural populism based on race, religion, and patriotism, in 1972 the Republicans carried deep Dixie. Jimmy Carter put Alabama back in the Democratic camp briefly, but four years later Ronald Reagan's campaign for “traditional American values,” returned Alabama to the Republican fold.

And that is where Alabama is likely to stay.

Although our people have had economic problems a-plenty, economic populism has never been very popular here because the people with the problems aren't the people with the votes. On the other hand, today the forces of cultural populism are stronger than ever among the white, middle-class, financially secure (for now), conservative Christians (or various combinations thereof) who are Alabama’s most dependable voters.

Unless Al Gore can convince Alabama's cultural populists that wealthy, well connected, and powerful Republicans are a greater threat to their way of life than the economic populist Democrats, Alabama's cultural populists will cast their votes for the GOP.

It won’t even be close.

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