“It’s very tempting for politicians to build up some political capital and say, ‘Yeah, you’re scared and I’m here to rescue you.’ But it really doesn’t work so well for thoughtful problem-solving.”
With this comment, State Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, articulated a political strategy that Alabama politicians have perfected. Indeed, they are so good at it that they sometimes pay a price.
For years, the dominant strategy of Alabama politicians has been to exacerbate the fears of those they represent. Because there is no “off” switch for public fears, they have trouble reversing course.
Immigration is a case in point. Undocumented immigrants have been vilified by state politicians. They are sometimes stereotyped as drug dealers and felons, even though a much lower percentage commit felonies than do Alabama citizens. A classic example came from U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville.
“In Madison County, we’ve had more people killed or murdered by illegal aliens than we’ve lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined,” Brooks said in 2011. It was a frightening statement, designed to inflame. He did not mention the Madison County death toll in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at the time: two. A single DUI in Madison County, allegedly caused by an undocumented immigrant, had surpassed that number. Nor did he mention that Madison County citizens cause far more DUI deaths.
Nationally, the GOP recognizes immigration reform is necessary. The 2012 election demonstrated bashing a sizable portion of the electorate is not a pathway to political success. After years of convincing their constituents that immigrants — especially Latinos — are a menacing threat, Alabama politicians cannot reverse course.
Politicians from Alabama also have spent years ginning up fears of the federal deficit. No question, it’s a problem. It’s also a cyclical one; deficits always go up in times of war and recession and then recede. Indeed, deficit spending is a valuable tool in a depressed economy. The deficit is a concern that demands attention, but not an imminent threat.
Alabama politicians worked up a public panic over the deficit, but forgot that deficits can be attacked in two ways: by reducing expenditures and by increasing revenue. Now they are in the awkward situation of arguing debt is the greatest peril the nation faces, except for the peril of closing tax loopholes for wealthy corporations. Their well-heeled contributors, attached to those loopholes, need them to cool it on the deficit rhetoric. It’s too late, because they invested too much time generating the fear that got them elected.
Gov. Robert Bentley used fear to build political capital by campaigning on the threat of federal programs, especially the Affordable Care Act. It is increasingly clear that Medicaid expansion under the ACA would not just save lives and benefit more than 300,000 of his constituents, but would boost the state’s economy. Many of his contributors recognize Medicaid expansion is essential to their own businesses and the state, but Bentley is stuck.
His effectiveness at portraying all aspects of the ACA as evil jammed him in a political corner.
As Ball recognized, the temptation to use fear to create political capital is great. As many Alabama politicians who succumbed to the temptation are discovering, it is easier to generate fear than to restore rationality.
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