The Duality of the Southern Thing
“They don’t care about us.” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from many of my Alabama relatives over the years. That liberals, leftists, or Democrats of all stripes don’t care about “us.” Us poor people, us trailer-park people, us unemployed people. The people I grew up with feel they are different from the rest of the country. White working-class Southerners recognize how they are perceived by those who don’t live in the South or know poverty. Being looked down upon is a powerful factor in American politics—hard for a political scientist to quantify, but if you’re from the South you know what it feels like. You may not try to conceal your accent but you’ve probably thought about it.
I grew up in Northwest Alabama, in Russellville, the seat of Franklin County. With around 9,800 inhabitants in a giant footprint of rural neighborhoods, my town still felt microscopic, insular, and so far removed from the “real” world that a visit to Florence, AL, was a trip to the big city. The manufacturing plants in our area shut down in the nineties, and nearly 35 percent of the people in my town live below the poverty line. Russellville has a fast-growing Latino population, now more than a third of its population by some estimates. That’s not the stereotypical white South, yet the walking stereotypes were there: the Klan rallied in front of my house, near the courthouse, in 2006 to protest “illegals,” with a cross burning out in Vina, Alabama, shortly after.
Today Doug Jones puts his hand on a Bible and takes the Senate seat that Roy Moore still seems to believe is rightfully his.
That’s my Alabama: a lot of hard-working people trying to get by while publicity-seeking retrogrades live to embarrass the rest of us. This manifested in last month’s special election for the U.S. Senate, as the perfectly sane candidate Doug Jones stood up against the evangelical zealot and defender of the Old South, Roy Moore. The fact that Jones eked out a victory—and today puts his hand on a Bible and takes the seat that Moore still seems to believe is rightfully his—does not mean the balance has shifted in Alabama yet. For me, a very liberal Southerner, the Jones victory has me thinking about how priorities need to be realigned by national progressives and by the Democratic Party if the South is ever going to be pulled away from the Republicans’ chokehold.
In September, Roy Moore answered a constituent’s question about when he thought America was last “great” by making the appalling claim: “I think it was great at the time when families were united—even though we had slavery—they cared for one another.” Such horseshit cannot be taken as a symbol of working-class consciousness, but it does give insight into how some Southerners mythologize themselves based on their social status. In Dorothy Allison’s 1995 memoir Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, she claims, “‘I was born trash in a land where the people all believe themselves natural aristocrats. Ask any white Southerner. They’ll take you back two generations, say, ‘Yeah we had a plantation.’ The hell we did.” Allison, a working-class writer from Greenville, South Carolina, repudiates the historical “lost cause” ideology ascribed to the South. Alternately, Moore is a quintessential lost causer pining for an antebellum South that never existed. Dorothy Allison, the “cross-eyed, working-class lesbian addicted to violence, language, and hope,” recognizes the lunacy of this sentiment.
Within a single day of the Jones triumph, two remarkable things happened. First, Mr. William Mathis, a peanut farmer who lost his daughter to suicide, had a moment in the national spotlight after his protest at Roy Moore’s rally was captured by reporters. Wearing a worn-in ball cap, Mathis spoke in his strong Southern accent about Moore’s hypocrisy. He was invited to The Ellen Show and explained his motivation: his daughter was a lesbian, and he faulted Moore and the GOP for fostering an innately hypocritical homophobic climate. Mathis might not be the kind of man who calls himself “progressive,” and yet his concerns will never be addressed by the Republican Party.
The second thing that happened complicates the first. How will Democrats appeal to those who might consider abandoning the Republican Party? After the election, I watched the familiar criticisms come in as Jones began to walk this tricky path. Onlookers who never listened to a single Doug Jones speech—who thought of him only as “the other guy,” or the not-a-pedophile candidate—were quick to suspect him of being a moderate. In interviews after his victory, as in his campaign, Jones made it clear that he would not necessarily be a down-the-line partisan. When Jake Tapper asked what Jones might consider voting with the Republicans on, he cited an infrastructure bill coming up in the next year. And when asked about Trump’s sexual harassment history, Jones declined to join Democrats who were calling for Trump to resign, which, if nothing else, suggests an effort to focus on goals within the realm of possibility.
Poor and working-class voters in Alabama could be rallied by the Democratic Party—but only when Southern poverty is no longer the punchline of a joke.
I grew up in a household where I was told that the worst thing I could become was a Republican. “Carpetbaggers,” we called them. “Fake Christians” who serve the rich. I still laughingly agree with those sentiments, but I recognize that Alabama has different needs than urban states. Infrastructure and military defense spending, due to Alabama’s five active military bases, are central issues for both conservatives and progressives in Alabama.
Maybe there’s a “third way” that holds hope for Democrats like Jones: to tap into authentic populism—not just the sense of grievance that Trump exploits, but a populism that offers real benefits to actual working people. Sarah Smarsh, a Kansas writer who covers issues concerning the working class, wrote an important analysis a full year before Trump’s election that holds up perfectly well today. She suggests the voters most wedded to Trump are middle- and upper-class, even as the American collective imagination sees a poorly educated rural voter as the Trump core. In the same vein, working-class Southerners aren’t a monolith, as 55 percent of African Americans live in the South.
Those of us who are rural-minded liberals are not so quick to look down on Alabama’s fears and frustrations. I had to leave for opportunity, as did my family, because we couldn’t make the job market work for us. When Fox News tells viewers that our dwindling rural jobs are due to “illegals,” and not big businesses outsourcing overseas I cringe, but I see how it taps into fears about how the racial makeup in rural towns is changing. I also struggle to rationalize that on my last trip to Alabama, I sat at a new yuppie bar with a patio full of LGBTQA+ people, rowdy women, DACA recipients, and people of color, all of us condemning the current administration. I can’t help but wonder how much our skewed Republican-dominated system has made us literally “disenfranchised,” believing our votes don’t matter despite efforts to find a political point of entry.
They mattered in December, though, when Alabama denied a Senate seat to an unworthy man. A block of white voters did turn out for Doug Jones, more strongly than in the 2012 presidential election, according to the Washington Post’s exit poll report. Fifteen percent of white voters cast their ballots for Obama in 2012, whereas 30 percent voted for Jones. Yes, there’s an element of racism there. I also must view that doubling as progress. Look: 23 percent of voters identified as liberal in this election, with 31 percent claiming to be moderate. That puts Alabama at 54 percent not conservative. That opens the door for Democratic Party support, a strengthened voting coalition for moderate Southerners, and the budding potential for flipping a state like Alabama purple if not blue in the coming decades. My age group, the eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-old voters, overwhelmingly voted for Doug Jones and made up 13 percent of votes. Based on the statistics for how many people ages eighteen-to-thirty-four live in Alabama, that is a decent turnout. It’s something to build on: poor and working-class voters in Alabama could foreseeably be rallied by the Democratic Party—but only when Southern poverty is no longer the punchline of a joke.
I’m trying to be radically pragmatic, and trying to recognize that until the Democratic Party learns to speak to the fears of the poor of all races we’ll continue to have apathy instead of outcry. At the same time, Senator Doug Jones would be foolish if he didn’t recognize that among those mythical “working-class voters” Democrats want to win is a huge bloc that already stood solidly behind him: about 98 percent of African American women cast their votes for Jones. He should make a habit of imagining a black woman every time he speaks of the working class.
But to hold on to his seat, maybe the thing he most needs to convey to all Alabama voters is that he represents a party that does not look down on them.
When Doug Jones won, I was sitting at my favorite bar in New Orleans. The bar erupted in Rammer Jammer, Roll Tides, and people were crying and cussing in a good way. We felt that we could claim our place for the first time in years because we finally did the right thing and were no longer the silenced voices from our homeland. We, progressives and populists and our general collection of misfits and malcontents, cannot take this victory for granted while leaving the impoverished and marginalized rural South to suffer.