The Black Belt’s Revenge

(This was co-written by Douglas and Bryan.)

It came down to turnout, much as it always does.

1.3 million people voted in Alabama tonight, a turnout of over 50% in an off-year election. Black voters especially overperformed, turning their hands against Roy Moore, a man who said the last time America was great was before the Civil War (and an sexual predator to boot…seems like revanchist politics and predatory behavior is co-morbid). This has resulted in making Doug Jones, a prosecutor previously best known for successfully prosecuting Klan murderers, Senator from Alabama.

When Moore was last on the ballot, in 2012, he very narrowly defeated Bob Vance, Jr. to retake his seat as Chief Justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court. The Black Belt, named as much for the Black people who had been enslaved on plantations before the Civil War as much as the rich soil those plantations were situated on, was a wall across the state that ultimately broke Roy Moore’s dream of becoming Senator. The county-by-county turnout of that 2012 election largely matches the pattern seen in tonight’s election, with three exceptions: Lee County (home of Auburn University) and Talladega County went from supporting Moore in 2012 to opposing him, and Pike County ended up doing the opposite.

Other major communities in Alabama also turned out in force: Tuscaloosa went for Senator-elect Jones by seventeen points. Huntsville did much the same. Montgomery, Mobile, and Birmingham all went for Jones, and it was turnout in those communities that put Moore away tonight, now hopefully for good.

But the structural and ideological problems that the Democratic Party faces in the South cannot be overlooked.

Doug Jones ran a campaign that, in a normal election, would have resulted in a landslide defeat. His paeans to bipartisanship and reducing the deficit missed the mark amongst a Black population that is amongst the poorest in the nation — Wilcox County, Alabama has the fourth-lowest median household income in the country, with Sumter County not far behind in tenth place — and his refusal to make his biography a larger part of his campaign narrative until the end of the campaign nearly cost him the election. His attempts to connect with Black voters was….well….let’s just say he did not get the best advice on his mailers.

And then there’s the Alabama Democratic Party, rated as the most dysfunctional state party in the country by CQ Roll Call in 2014. The rare national investment into electing Jones as the state’s next United States Senator aside, decades of disinvestment in places like Alabama have left state and local party organizations with no resources and suffering from a lack of leadership. At one point during a bad bout of party infighting, Joe Reed — the chair of the Black-led Alabama Democratic Conference who holds the real power in the party — threatened to table a motion that would take away representation on the State Democratic Executive Committee from any county where President Obama won less than 40 percent of the vote.

The reason for this? A motion that would have placed representatives from the Alabama College Democrats, Alabama Young Democrats, Stonewall Democrats, and the Alabama Federation of Democratic Women amongst other constituency groups on the state party’s steering committee. So committed were the people who have power in the party to hold on to it that they would have erased representation on the party’s decision-making body for 42 of the state’s 67 counties in order to keep the status quo.

(Reed’s threat was not carried through, as the motion to expand representation on the state party’s steering committee was dropped.)

But what a rebuke to the party’s leadership this election was, as counties with large state universities — save for Pike County, the home of Troy University — almost universally broke for Doug Jones. This is to say nothing of the counties that contain the state’s HBCUs; one such county, Talladega, flipped from supporting Moore in 2012 to Doug Jones in 2017. It is safe to say that without the votes of young people — and young people of color in particular — we would be waking up tomorrow morning wondering what to do about U.S. Senator-elect Roy Moore.

Relying on the far right to produce candidates that provoke something akin to an immune response against them in the Black parts of the electorate ain’t a sustainable strategy. The Republican Party will not always run Chief Justice Child Molester for high office, and you will need to have a more substantive message to keep people waiting in deliberately created long lines at polling places. This is what all the criticism from the left of Jones (and of Northam and Ossoff before them) has been about: building the kind of enduring structures necessary to readjust the politics of the South.

Without a concerted effort to build (or rebuild) a grassroots alternative to the un-Reconstructed horror of Roy Moore and the rest of the right in Alabama, this victory, a hybrid borne from the marriage of a uniquely vile candidate and the response to the national trend set by a staggeringly unpopular President, will be as sterile as a mule.

The next three years ain’t gonna be great for Alabama, much as the next three years ain’t going to be great for America, but tonight was a great night for Alabama.