Poor But Proud: Twenty Years Later
Auburn History Professor Wayne Flynt Answers the Central Political Question of Our Time
by Glynn Wilson
AUBURN, Ala. — In a state where intellectuals are generally scorned as “elitists” — or as former governor and presidential candidate George Wallace liked to call them for his own opportunistic political reasons, “pointy-headed liberals” — retired Auburn History professor Wayne Flynt is one expert who is widely known around Alabama. He is someone who people seem to listen to, at least those who pay attention.
Since moving back to my home state and city a few years ago after many years of chasing a journalism career and then an academic career elsewhere, and struggling to figure out what’s wrong with this place, a key question comes up over and over again in conversation. No one seem to have a simple, satisfying answer.
Why do working class people in the South so frequently vote against their own economic self-interest?
As a historian and author, Dr. Flynt tackled this question in great detail a little more than 20 years ago in a book called Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites.
Due to the sweep in state elections by the Republican Party in 2010, and in the wake of labor events from Wisconsin to Birmingham, I recently visited Dr. Flynt at his church, the First Baptist Church of Auburn, and conducted an interview captured on video. We talked for nearly an hour.
In answering the question a little more than 20 years after his book came out, Flynt said some things you will never see reported by any newspaper or television news station in Alabama, because economic imperatives prevent total candor with readers and viewers.
Why do poor people and the working middle class vote for Republicans who are obviously anti-worker and anti-labor and who are clearly bought and paid for by big corporations and their lobbyists?
Since World War II, and especially since the cultural wars of the 1960s, social “wedge” issues related to race and religion now play a more important role in voting habits than pragmatic economic concerns.
“It’s partly because preachers tell them that the Democratic Party is a godless party,” Flynt said. “It’s party because the Democratic Party is made up of a large number of African-Americans, and working class whites just won’t vote that way.”
If you go back and take a look at the history before the 1960s, Dr. Flynt said, you won’t find much discussion in families of such social wedge issues as birth control, abortion, prayer in the schools, obscenity in the media, gay rights, etc.
“Now what you get, after the 1960s, is the promotion of (social-wedge issues) as an alternative agenda,” Dr. Flynt said. “That is one of the major things that divided the labor movement. Now you don’t just have ethnicity and race. You have all these culture war issues that make it even more difficult to bring workers together, just on behalf of the quality of life that they’re going to have and their kids are going to have. They are not going to be much affected by these other issues.”
After the culture wars of the ’60s, Dr. Flynt said, “Unfortunately, there is a division, not along class lines, which had been the case before.”
But even in churches, he said, people are “polarized,” not around theology. “They are being polarized by culture war issues.”
So people like former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, a.k.a. the “Ten Commandments Judge,” who is now talking about running for president even though he can’t even win a Republican primary for governor in Alabama, argue that the “real issue” is abortion, and the solution is posting the Ten Commandments in public places such as courts and schools. As if, Dr. Flynt said with a wry smile, “suddenly, everything is going to be good in America. All our problems are going to be solved. There will be no more illegitimacy, no more divorce, everything’s going to be fine.”
“Well, obviously, posting the Ten Commandments is not going to make that happen,” Dr. Flynt said. “Prayer in the public schools is not going to make that happen.”
Dr. Flynt, a Baptist who understands the history of that protestant denomination’s role in promoting an American principle calling for a separation of church and state, puts the issue simply.
“If you are a truck diver, a plumber, an electrician or a steel worker and you live in Alabama, you say, ‘Well, I think my religion is the way everybody ought to think,” Dr. Flynt said. But, “let that same guy move to Salt Lake City, Utah (where the majority is Mormon) or New Jersey or Connecticut (where the majority is Catholic) or Dearborn, Michigan, (where the majority is Muslim), and he won’t think so highly of the idea that the majority of people ought to impose their religious values on the minority.”
Dr. Flynt says the political problem working people face is what he calls “hard support” for Republican and conservative politics, “from an awful lot of traditional power elites and lobbyist groups in Alabama (like ALFA, the old Farmers Bureau, now an insurance company), and individual voters.
“They don’t want to pay taxes. They don’t care about public schools,” he said. “They particularly don’t want to pay for black kids in public schools. They are not going to subsidize schools in Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery and Mobile, in the inner-city. And they are certainly not going to support schools in the Black Belt, where virtually all the kids are black.”
“Well, this is absolutely suicidal,” Dr. Flynt said. “Because white people are not having children. People of color are having children.”
Already, he said, 54 percent of the kids in public schools are on programs for free and reduced-priced meals. By about the year 2017, a majority of kids in public schools will be children of color. Nationally, they already are: US Census Shows Whites No Longer Have Majority of Babies.
“If you don’t educate them you’ve got no future in this state,” Dr. Flynt said. “You might as well move to Connecticut or Washington State or somewhere else. There is no future in the global economy for Alabama if you are not going to support the schools.”
Another part of the problem is what Dr. Flynt calls, “soft support” for Republican policies, generally from people who don’t like taxes of any kind, especially personal income taxes and corporate taxes. “They don’t like government,” he acknowledges.
While those in the extractive industries such as timber and mining want, especially in South Alabama, are not the same, however, as what more modern corporate leaders in North Alabama want. It doesn’t take much of an education to be a pulp wood worker or a coal miner, Flynt said. But for the modern auto factory manager, who needs skilled workers to run computerized robotics, they want “policy change,” including more accountability in education and better schools.
Dr. Flynt is not just an arms-length academic social scientist. Since he retired, he also calls himself an activist, and mostly gets involved in working with faith-based groups that aid the poor. He has been quoted as saying we cannot wait for top-down leadership to solve our problems. Solutions must come from the grass-roots up.
“If you wait for leadership groups to solve your problems, you will wait ’till hell freezes over,” he said. “We’ve just seen by what happened in Wisconsin what the real agenda is: To make the United States like Alabama was in the middle of the 19th century.”
People in Wisconsin were even talking about the so-called “Southern policy” toward economic development. “Of course above all else it is anti-union,” he said. Basically it means: “Keep unions out (and) stop regulation of business.”
He said people tend to support state-funded incentives to use tax money to recruit industry, companies that will be exempt from paying taxes for 30 years, even though that means “they will not be supporting the kind of infrastructure you need to build a modern state.”
“To me,” he said, “if that is the proper strategy for Wisconsin to follow, you would have thought that in 100 years, Alabama would be way, way beyond where Wisconsin is right now. If that’s the most appropriate strategy, why aren’t we the most prosperous, best educated place in America? Because Lord knows, we pursued that strategy longer and harder than any other region in the United States.”
One of the problems that results from decades of conservative voting by poor people and the working middle class is a corruption of the court system, which now slants in favor of corporations even at the highest level, the United States Supreme Court, because Republican presidents appoint conservative judges. In last year’s ruling in Citizens United vs. the FEC, the court reversed 100 years of American law. There have been limits on corporate contributions for that long, but not anymore. The high court removed those limits on First Amendment free speech grounds, but also talked about the role of unions in countering corporate influence on politics and government.
What that decision did, Dr. Flynt acknowledged, “was to load the political culture of the United States aganist working class people, because corporations have huge amounts of money and their leadership just decide how it’s going to be spent.”
“Unions,” on the other hand, he said, “have small and declining amounts of money to invest in politics, and they are going to be simply overwhelmed by what happens.”
After researching this history and watching the politics go bad over the years, does Dr. Flynt have some hope for turning things around in the future?
“I do,” he says. “At the heart of it is education.”
“Unions are going to have to educate their members better,” he said. “They are going to have to say, ‘We respect your religious views, we respect your cultural views. There are an awful lot of union leaders who agree with you.
“But that’s not going to help us very much in terms of keeping your job … or making sure your son can follow you into this profession. We are going to have to work on a separate set of issues that are about politics and economics,” he said. “And we are going to have to let these other issues be sorted out in other places besides American politics’.”
“If we don’t,” he said, “you may elect people who really agree with you on these culture war issues, but they’re not going to agree with you in terms of the quality of your life or your work.”
Dr. Flynt also has some hope for the next election cycle.
“I think you are going to see a lot of elections turn around in 2012 in places like Wisconsin and Ohio, where finally, apathetic voters discover that all those battles that were so painfully won by your mother and father, your grandmother and grandfather, are going to be taken away if you just apathetically sit there on your rear-end and don’t get out and register and vote. If you don’t get out there and organize, it’s going to be gone.”
He said the same thing is happening with younger African-American voters, who are beginning to understand that just because their forefathers like Martin Luther King Jr. won those battles for civil rights doesn’t mean they will stay won.
“Assuming that because these battles were won once, we don’t ever have to do anything more,” he said, “well that’s a fatal mistake.”
Part of the problem, too, Flynt acknowledges, is the national and local media in Alabama and other Southern states, where organized labor and the plight of workers is never given a fair shake, in spite of all the generalized claims by the press of being “objective” or “fair and balanced.”
“It has been a very long time since you read anything in any media, print media, that basically treats labor fairly or favorably,” Dr. Flynt said.
“It’s not that I think labor is always right. I don’t. I think labor is sometimes totally wrong,” he said. “But I’d just like to read somebody who tells me what I consider to be a fair and balanced view of a labor position on something, and you simply don’t get that in the national media or the local media. Especially you don’t get it in the local media,” he said, laughing.
That’s been the case since the 1880s, he said.
Even though he is a bit old fashioned in the way he works and does not participate in social networking on Facebook and such, he acknowledges that part of the solution is building an alternative media online.
“Advertisers in the Birmingham paper, the Mobile paper and the Huntsville paper aren’t interested in covering working class union issues,” he said with a smile. “Nor do they cover international issues. It’s very parochial.”
So, he said: “What labor’s going to have to do is find a way to communicate with their members who are interested in the economic issues and the future of their jobs, and their kids’ jobs, and using that media in order to educate themselves, educate their members, tell their members, ‘Hey! Have you watched this? Cause you really need to watch this. Because this is where you’re going to learn an awful lot of stuff … about regulations, about jobs and about the future.
“And if you don’t watch this,” he said, “you are not going to have a very good life for very long.”
Retired Auburn History Professor Wayne Flynt (see video above)
Wayne Flynt is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University. He has won numerous teaching awards and been a Distinguished University Professor for many years. His research focuses on Southern culture, Alabama politics, Southern religion, education reform, and poverty. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Online Encyclopedia of Alabama.
Glynn Wilson is a veteran investigative reporter, freelance writer and Web Publisher whose work has appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and many other newspapers and magazines, including some of the best alternative weeklies in the country. Wilson is now spending most of his time building the alternative, independent, Watchdog Web Press. That includes building the economy to support it.
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© 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.