By the end of the race, Democrat Doug Jones finally found his message. In one of the closing TV ads of his campaign, Jones promised: “I’ll never embarrass you.”
It’s a simple, but effective, message. It reminds me of Jimmy Carter’s post-Watergate promise that “I’ll never lie to you,” mixed with George W. Bush’s post-Clinton impeachment pledge to “restore honor and integrity” to the presidency. In both cases, these promises constituted the fundamental arguments for their candidacy. Both slogans demonstrated a strong contrast with the past, with each candidate promising to give the public what they were clamoring for.
And so it is in Alabama.
To some degree, the Alabama race for U.S. Senate is now a contest about… the state of Alabama. In more ways than one. The merits of the candidates and their policies have long since been eclipsed by a sort of identity politics where the state’s very reputation is on the ballot.
This message has become a drumbeat this last week. As BuzzFeed’s Alexis Levinson observed, “Each of [Jones’] surrogates—from Alabama or not—urged voters to take pride in their state, and show a skeptical country that they can defeat Roy Moore.”
“At some point, we gotta stop looking like idiots to the nation… at some point we got to draw a line in the sand, and say ‘We’re not a bunch of damn idiots,’” basketball star and Alabama native Charles Barkley said Monday night.
Barkley’s comments dovetail what Senator Cory Booker said in Birmingham this weekend: “Don’t let anybody talk about Alabama, talk down to Alabama… And please, I’m from Jersey. I definitely don’t want some people just singling out a few folks on the Jersey Shore TV show and thinking that’s my entire state.”
While Jones’ surrogates are focused more on turnout than persuasion, this is an appealing message resonates with some Republicans, too.
Take, for example, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who says he couldn’t vote for Moore, but instead wrote in the name of a “distinguished Republican candidate” on the ballot. Shelby recently told The Washington Post, “I think the image of anything matters… It’s not 1860. It’s not 1900. It’s not 1940. It’s not 1964 or 1965. It’s 2017. And Alabama in a lot of ways is on the cutting edge, on the cusp of a lot of good things.”
“We are the Deep South. We are part of the Confederacy. My great-grandfather was a captain in the Confederate army, but so was everybody else,” he continued. “It’s a part of who we are. Yet there is a future out there.”
Shelby represents a segment of Alabama Republicans who want to prove the negative stereotypes about the Deep South—that they’re a bunch of racist good ol’ boys trolling the malls for 14-year-olds—are wrong. They also want to move past the lingering legacy of Jim Crow and George Wallace.
To be sure, some of this is also about pecuniary interests—a Roy Moore win could negatively define their state and stifle economic growth. These folks wish Birmingham had followed the path of Atlanta, but some just want to be able to hold their heads up high. They resent the way that Southerners are portrayed in the media and want to change that old image. By rejecting Roy Moore, they hope to demonstrate to the rest of the country—to show us—that they are a decent and modern state that is open for business.
But every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and Moore has a compelling countermessage, too.
In the other corner, there are people who want to show us they won’t be intimidated—that they don’t cotton to outsiders shaming them and telling them what to do. “I’ll show you,” they might be thinking, as they pull the lever for Moore.
Jones wants a vote for Moore to be a vote that transitions Alabama from the past to the future. But do Alabamans even tacitly want to admit to a shameful past?
A vote for Moore is a vote of defiance and rebellion against liberal outsiders who want to wreck your way of life and upset everything. We shouldn’t underestimate the fun this is. There is a certain appeal to striking a blow to the establishment.
As Jerry Falwell, Jr., tweeted: “AL voters are too smart to let the media & Estab Repubs & Dems tell them how to vote. I hope the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd is alive/well in AL. ‘A southern man don’t need them around anyhow & Watergate does not bother me, does your conscience bother you, tell me true?’”
Falwell’s conscience doesn’t bother him. This election may hinge on whether that holds true for Alabama voters.
To some degree, casting a vote is always a form of virtue-signaling. And that’s probably truer in this case than in most. Both sides believe they have something to prove.
Will the real Alabama please stand up?