I have done enough complaining about the politics of Alabama. To be sure, there is much to complain about: the Legislature is an oversized clown car, the state supreme court has apparently decided that nullification is a thing, elections are a joke, and the opposition to Republican rule in this state is decimated to the point that Alabama is probably the closest thing you will find in America to a one-party state. If you are someone who cares about the dignity and worth of other human beings, it is a tough place to live and engage in politics.
I hope to make a small dent in Republican hegemony in this state by reviving the Tuscaloosa organizing committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It sounds ridiculous, I know; how can I expect a state to embrace socialism when it will not even embrace the tepid centrism on offer from the Alabama Democratic Party?
The truth of the matter is that any organizing on the left in Alabama, or anywhere else in the South for that matter, is going to be a decades-long proposition. Democratic party units at the state and local level have atrophied to the point that they have taken on some of the characteristics of third parties: struggling in fundraising, being overly dependent on a big name to revive the party, and simply not competing in many districts and elections. Those structural issues tank the party long before we get to talking about ideology, an arena in which the Democratic Party in the South is nothing short of atrocious. This sets the political paradigm firmly on the right end of the political spectrum and ensures that progressive and leftist ideas are not only ignored, but openly derided. Changing the discussion and dislodging this accepted political filter is not something that can be done in an election cycle. It would be folly to even suggest it.
That is why I am going to begin the process towards changing the debate now. My vision is just that: mine. Being a socialist means that you are always strategizing around the formation of coalitions and thinking about how to include as many voices as possible in political decision making. The vision that I lay out here may not be the one that guides the DSA in Tuscaloosa. But I think that it is important to start discussing what a socialist vision for Alabama looks like and how we might put it into action.
My first semester as a doctoral student here at Alabama, there was a protest against HB56, the draconian immigration law that has done very little for Alabama or its economy. The group that was protesting never sent out an email, never put up flyers around campus, and generally failed in getting the word out about the action. This resulted in a disjointed looking protest where the leader was attempting to cajole other protesters into chanting slogans. The other protesters, however, simply smiled nervously as the engaged in half-hearted chants. I have always maintained that worst thing a demonstration can do is provoke eyerolling, because you have lost the ability to have any effect on the discussion once folks cease taking you seriously.
As a newly revived DSA organizing committee, I do not believe that we should jump out and engage in actions before we have built enthusiasm for a socialist vision in Tuscaloosa and Alabama. Instead, we should build camaraderie and community first through things like reading groups, discussion, and assessing what socialism looks like in Alabama.
Educating the masses
There are more socialists in the South than you might think. But politics is as much about social convention as it is about policies or ideology, and openly identifying as a socialist in the South comes with a lot of questions and assumptions. Some folks are like me, and get used to answering the questions and having the debates about socialism with anyone who wants to go at it. Most others just find it easier to say that they are “very liberal” and subsume their politics under the Democratic Party. The problem with the latter strategy is obvious: the Democratic Party in the South has never been interested in progressive ideas and it is doubtful that they are going to start now without a major intervention in their internal politics.
That is why the DSA must work to educate Alabama’s working class. Using meeting space for educational purposes, discussing outreach to oppressed communities, and bringing in speakers to discuss socialist struggles elsewhere in America and the world will go a long way towards building the sort of conditions that will make Alabama a state for all its people.
Socialism with soul
Religion is important to Alabamans of all stripes. A recent poll placed Alabama only behind Mississippi in determining the most religious states in the Union, and it only takes a cursory reading of the newspaper or the nightly news to see the influence that churches have in this state. For too long, conservative and right-wing forces have been able to have untrammeled access to the sympathies of Alabama church goers. But as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, let us remember that it was men and women of the cloth that led the fight for freedom and Black liberation all throughout the South. This is a case of past as prologue: socialists will simply not attain lasting victories (or victories at all) in the South without making the case for compatibility with The Word.
Building alliances with organizations like the Moral Monday movement and having those individual conversations in community are vital to the success of a socialist community organizing strategy in the Deep South.
Electoral coalition with the Alabama Democratic Party
The DSA is an organization that takes its electoral work seriously. That is understandable; we purportedly live in a democracy and policies are put into effect by the people we elect to represent us. However, the Alabama Democratic Party is beset by factionalism, a conservative ideology, and organizational dysfunction. It is run by individuals who are openly hostile to left-wing sentiments in the party. I firmly believe that the DSA in Alabama should throw its weight behind any coalition that would seek to defeat the current leadership of the party at the 2018 state primaries, where all 210 seats on the State Democratic Executive Committee will up for election. Until then, the DSA should act as a pressure point on Alabama politics from the left, and eschew any notion of an electoral coalition with the ADP as currently constructed.
A policy agenda that puts Alabama’s working class first
We are socialists, not liberals or centrists. It is right there in the name of our organization. We also believe in a true democracy, not the sham routine that we engage in every November. This means democracy in the workplace, democracy in public policy, democracy in education, and a real democracy at the ballot box. The last election that featured candidates of the left on the general election ballot was 1982, when the National Democratic Party (founded by Black Democrats as an alternative to the mainstream state party) and the Socialist Workers Party appeared on the statewide ballot. The Alabama Accountability Act is stretching an already underfunded public education system to its limits by diverting public money to the state’s private schools. And we have a Legislature that would like to solve the budget deficit with such innovative solutions as bringing back Yellow Mama so that we can fry people to death.
Meanwhile, the Governor is interfering in labor organizing efforts, women’s clinics are closing, and the state gives away billions of dollars in tax giveaways to multinational corporations. How is any of that right? How is any of that just? And how does any of that put working-class Alabamans first? It does not. So we must.
Obviously all this stuff will get worked out and evolve as the DSA starts to take shape and grow in Alabama. But we must not be afraid to be socialists and promulgate a vision of Alabama that treats all its citizens as comrades and partners in making this state a great place to live. We must not shy away from advocating for a redistribution of resources to the most vulnerable amongst us. Socialists are the living embodiment of those who do for “the least of these”, which is a charge that the Democratic and Republican parties in this state have failed repeatedly at fulfilling. And most of all, we must not be afraid of the state; we must work to turn the institutions of oppression into the machinery of equality and justice.
While the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of seeing the mountaintop, the Heart of Dixie has been in a deep valley of revanchism, reaction, and repression for a long time. Let us start the long climb out in the sunshine and gift the next generation with an Alabama they can be proud to call their own.