MONTGOMERY, Ala.—Gerald Johnson, a man with a Ph.D., an accurate eye and unstoppable hope, polls the state of Alabama almost daily. He does it for the powerful, 100,000-member Alabama Education Association. The A.E.A. spends a lot of its money and power in an effort to stop crafty, extreme political figures—known to use a strange combination of “hooray for me and screw the little guy” economics mixed with a cocktail of racial and social class conflict—from returning this state to the Middle Ages.
Dr. Johnson has a new poll, and its findings tell us something not only about the state, but also about the state of the nation.
He asked nearly 1,000 Alabamans last week if the country—for which the decent people of Alabama have sent more soldiers per capita to war and to the National Guard and Reserves than any other state—is on the right track. The people of Alabama say no.
Change is in the wind.
Roy Moore, who as the state’s chief judge made international news by rejecting a judicial order to remove a Ten Commandments statue from a court building, is now a Republican candidate for Governor. The poll shows he can’t win the June primary election. President George W. Bush? Alabama’s citizens wouldn’t vote for him again if they had the opportunity. The war in Iraq? Fifteen points in the poll separate those who say it’s worth it after three years and those who don’t. The don’ts are winning.
For nearly 40 years, Alabama has joined much of the rest of the nation in locking step and consistently saying yes to Republican Presidential candidates and damning with thunderous margins Democratic hopefuls. Alabama has elected a Republican as governor in four of the last five contests.
The people of Alabama are solid citizens, many of them descendants of emigrants who stopped here while traveling across the then-untrammeled and unabused southern tier of a land not yet called the United States.
They are also the great-grandchildren of slaves, and the children and now grandchildren of those who know how difficult it was for Rosa Parks to take the seat unassigned to her, starting the civil-rights revolution.
In this place where hard work and courtesy matter more than the opinions of elites or Ivy Leaguers, a move to the political center signals an end to the Bush era of phony symbolic politics.
The man or woman searching for work in Montgomery, the paper-plant worker in Mobile, the cotton-farm operator in the Tennessee Valley, the bank manager and the educator in Tuscaloosa—all of them used to believe that their sense of America was far different from those of the very foreign North. In fact, Northerners might as well have been living in Europe as far as many in Alabama were concerned. But that sentiment no longer is true.
Surprise, New York! Dr. Johnson’s poll tells you that the man from Mobile feels much the same way as the man walking along Madison Avenue. He’s figured out that the Lord is in His place. And that place isn’t the White House or the State House.
After almost two generations, we may have beaten the curse of 1968. It has taken 40 years to reunite America, to get past Richard Nixon’s divisive campaign of that year. It was Nixon who created the then-new Republican majority with a campaign focused on hatred of those who were opposed to the war in Vietnam, and just plain fear.
Nixon understood what moved America in the 1960’s. It was Nixon who had the answers for protesters, for urban riots, for flag burners. The answer was Nixon.
It was Nixon who made it possible for religion to replace race as a disqualifier. By opposing Nixon and supporting the Democratic Party, you became a heretic. You liked disorder. How dare you believe in freedom, or even dissent?
Now, the Bush-Rumsfeld gang have mismanaged this generation’s war, and they’ve become the new heretics. They have used the symbols of religion to smear the new unbelievers. Mr. Bush and company—the true descendants of Richard Nixon—don’t favor a fair tax system, public discussion of issues, controls on Presidential power. Or dissent. But the rest of us—or at least most of us—do.
If Americans have gone beyond the pain of another era, we have only one person to thank. And that is President George W. Bush. He has united most of us. He has shortened the distance between North and South, East and West. He has made us all a little closer. Bully for him.
By the way: The Johnson-A.E.A. poll shows that over 75 percent of those surveyed are regular churchgoers.
And that might be the best news of all.
Joe Conason will return to this space in two weeks.
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