State Sen. Vivian Figures stirred up a hornet's nest when she said that racism was a factor in Republicans gaining political dominance in Alabama since President Obama took office. But, of course, any public discussion of race and politics in Alabama -- or almost anywhere, for that matter -- is certain to stir strong feelings.
Race and politics cannot be separated in this state. It's been that way for a long, long time, and sadly, it's likely to continue to be that way for a long time to come.
But please note that I use the word "race," and not the word "racism." It is indisputable that race is a huge factor in the politics of Alabama and elsewhere. But how large a role racism plays in politics is to a great degree something that depends upon the eye of the beholder.
Figures, D-Mobile, is minority leader of the Alabama Senate and a former candidate for the U.S. Senate. Since Democrats no longer hold a statewide office in Alabama and only one of seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, Figures is one of a handful of top elected Democrats in the state. So when she speaks, even if she says she is speaking just her personal opinion, her words will be taken by many as representative of the state Democratic Party.
Figures told a gathering of Democrats that the election and re-election of President Obama caused a backlash by white Alabamians that allowed the state's Republican Party to gain a supermajority in the Alabama Legislature and take over control of every statewide elective office in Alabama.
Her attributing Republican political dominance in the state to racism drew a sharp response from state Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead, who called for an apology and said the party did not vote for its elected officials based on race. Figures, in turn, refused to apologize and stood by her remarks.
I'll leave it to Figures and Armistead and their fellow partisans to argue over how much racism plays a role in politics. But when Figures suggests that Republican dominance in the state was a result of a backlash to Obama, she is ignoring a political shift in Alabama that began decades before Obama reached national prominence.
That shift arguably first showed up in presidential election results in Alabama as far back as 1964, when Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater overwhelmingly carried Alabama even though he was trounced for president nationally. Alabama's own George Wallace, running under the American Independent Party label for president, carried the state in 1968. Democrat Jimmy Carter, Southern born and Southern bred, carried the state in 1976.
But in every election since then, Republican candidates for president have easily won in Alabama. Since 1964, the scorecard for president in Alabama would read Republicans 11, Democrats 1, independents 1. Since 1980, it would read Republicans 9, Democrats 0.
And if there was supposedly such a strong backlash to Obama as president, you would expect him to have captured a lower percentage of the vote in Alabama than his Democratic predecessors. But that's not the case in either 2008 or 2012. In both of those years, Obama polled 38 percent of the vote compared to John Kerry's 36.8 percent in 2004. (The modern-day record for worst performance by a Democrat running for president in Alabama goes to George McGovern in 1972, when he received just 25 percent of the vote.)
But it's not just in presidential politics that the shift from Democrat to Republican in Alabama can be found. Prior to 2012 when the changeover statewide became total, the GOP had been making steady inroads in state politics, with gains in both statewide and legislative offices. For instance, six of the past seven elections for governor have been won by Republicans.
Former U.S. Rep. Glen Browder of Alabama has a unique vantage point from which to view this political shift. First, he is a political scientist by profession. And he has served both in the Alabama Legislature and as secretary of state, Alabama's top election official. And while in Congress, he was a founding member of the Blue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats.
Browder declined to weigh in on the debate over racism brought on by Figures' remarks. (He didn't win four elections for Congress by accident.) But he did have this to say about the shift in politics in the state:
"Historically, all the way back to the days of slavery and extending beyond the civil rights movement, race has been 'the' driving force in Southern politics; and our warped party politics reflected the original sin of American history. However, race now is 'a' driving force, not 'the' driving force."
Other factors, he said, such as demographics, economics, religion and philosophy "now figure into our politics just as importantly or perhaps more importantly as racial considerations; and the black-white division inevitably plays out in our party politics (where whites ally mainly with the Republican Party and blacks ally overwhelmingly with the Democratic Party)."
"Actually, this is not simply an Alabama or Southern problem; it is the same 'game' as practiced in American politics -- although much more pronounced and problematic regionally than nationally. Inevitably, this is going to flare up as in the current debate."
Another respected political scientist, William H. Stewart (professor emeritus at the University of Alabama), said of the current debate: "I don't like the term 'racism' to be used too freely. Historically, blacks (when they have been able to participate) and whites have mostly been in different parties. In the beginning it was the GOP for blacks and the Democratic Party for whites. As blacks moved overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party, more whites felt uncomfortable in it -- not necessarily because of anti-black attitudes."
He said that values increasingly adopted by the national Democratic Party "were not those which conservative whites (a majority of the Alabama population) identified with."
"I definitely don't see this situation changing in the foreseeable future," Stewart said.
Like Browder, I'll stay out of the debate over racism (as opposed to race) in politics for now. But I will make this point: It's difficult to see how attributing so much in politics to racism is going to help Democrats in the state win back support from the state's white middle class. It seems to me that such a focus only serves to sharpen racial divisions, not overcome them.
Like the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Alabamians should hope for a day "when people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." When it comes to politics in Alabama, too many people -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- aren't there yet.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.