In a July, 2017 article (How the Left Can Win in the South) that popped up in my Facebook feed, Paul Blest offers some basic principles to help progressives build power in the South. He starts off by describing the struggles of the Bernie Sanders campaign during the 2016 democratic primary in which Hillary Clinton received twice as many votes as Sanders in the southern states.
Blest attributes Sanders’ failure to an inability to address racial issues (despite his own record of support for and activism in the civil rights movement of the 1960s) as well as not having the all-important personal contacts that the Clintons had built up in Black churches and other institutions in the region over many years. With total name recognition Clinton had a huge advantage over Sanders with democratic constituencies that Sanders had no chance to overcome or even dent in the relatively short interval between the start of his campaign and the front-loaded southern primaries.
With the victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore for the open Senate seat formerly held by Jeff Sessions, there has been speculation about what that win might mean for progressive politics in the South going forward. Before getting too deep into that discussion, it is important to emphasize that Moore was a singularly awful candidate. Exit polls suggest that an electorally significant number of republicans could not bring themselves to vote for him, either writing in someone else or just staying home. Various commentators have suggested that were Luther Strange or another “normal’ republican in the race, he would have defeated Jones in a landslide. Such a candidate almost certainly would have won, but not with anywhere near the numbers that Trump racked up against Clinton in the presidential election.
I say this because there were other important dynamics in this race. The key one was the turnout of Black voters and the organizing that made it possible. Up until the weekend before the vote, there were articles in the national press saying that the African American turnout was a crucial factor in the vote and that it appeared that the Jones campaign was not getting the kind of traction it needed with these voters to overcome Moore’s huge advantage among whites. Either that belief was totally incorrect and effective organizing was happening throughout the campaign or the efforts of the Jones campaign had somehow managed to jell at the last moment. I think the answer may be a bit of both.
The crucial point going forward is that the African American community and other progressive constituencies in Alabama have now become activated. Grassroots organizations have made important progress and have established a foundation for a constant presence in Alabama and probably many other southern states in the years to come.
In other words, Black politics in Alabama and perhaps all politics in Alabama may have just entered a new era. And this is not even taking into account the likelihood that these successes occurred in the face of the voter suppression that was surely in operation throughout the state with more stringent voter ID laws and the closing of dozens of driver’s license bureaus in majority Black communities (where voter IDs and licenses are issued). With more people getting involved and organizing in their communities, the chances of overcoming those restrictions in the next couple of years may have increased substantially, meaning the progressive “wave” is just beginning.
So, while Doug Jones’s win was inspiring and important in terms of how it might change the dynamics within the US Senate, for Alabama the real victory was the emergence of an organized African American electoral force. This is not to say that Alabama is on the verge of becoming a battleground state in presidential elections. But it seems clear that there is significant space for progressives to make important inroads at the state and local levels.
In his article, Best talks about the potential for new cross-racial coalitions like those Jesse Jackson was able to activate in the 1990s and Reverend William Barber has been building, first in North Carolina and now nationally. If democrats and progressives get involved in this organizing, building from the ground up, emphasizing racial justice, and backing the needs of labor, small farmers, and other claims for economic justice, there may be significant potential to advance progressive politics in Alabama and other southern states. But the hard, on-the-ground work has to be done. Public relations campaigns by the DNC won’t move the needle even slightly.