Buck the Alabama Republic, Part 1

Will Tucker

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series.

POINT CLEAR – We live in a state that restricts local democracy.

In Alabama, residents don’t see the everyday benefits of home rule, if they even know what that means. They can’t. The 1901 Alabama State Constitution concentrates most power in Alabama in Montgomery, takes away power from local government—the most responsive level—and gives it to our representatives in the capital city. The state level of Alabama government operates in a way that effectively lets people who have no vested interest in a local project make the choices for its creation and implementation. Just check your next state level ballot for evidence—chances are you’ll be asked to vote on a politician’s pet project in a county you don’t even call home. As far as problems with the 1901 Constitution go, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Essentially, we don’t have true, receptive democracy in Alabama. We have a republic, and we see the drawbacks of that every time a corporation like, say, Vulcan Mining wants to set up a quarry in your back yard. The company lobbies a few Montgomery suits, swings some money around, and the proverbial “little guys”—neighbors, hard-working, grassroots-level Alabamians—usually come out with the short end of the deal. That’s exactly why we need nonprofit groups like the David Mathews Center for Civic Life.

The Mathews Center promotes local democratic interaction, and seeks to teach not only the “little guys,” but everyone to participate in fair and frank communication to reach real solutions to real problems. At conferences like this week’s Connecting the Dots Conference here in Point Clear, the Center teaches conflict resolution skills and preaches the gospel of something called deliberative democracy—the term for real, community discussions that lack the puffery and positioning of political talks.

In the instance of Alabama’s lack of local democratic power, as citizens, we have two options for solving the problem. In both, we should look to deliberative democracy advocates like the David Mathews Center for guidance. “People who organize these projects we call deliberative democracy,” said Matt Leighninger, executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and a speaker at the conference, “they’re doing it in order to give people more power over some of the issues and problems they face.”

That’s something we have to take advantage of while assessing our options.

As our first option, we can hold a constitutional convention, scrap the 1901 document, lock our politicians in a room without any special interests allowed, and not let them out until they produce a viable and modern constitution. But how long will that take? Too long. Attempts at a convention have already failed once, in the beginning of Bob Riley’s first term. While we shouldn’t abandon this at all, we should definitely seek an option we could employ for the time being, until the much-needed reform becomes possible.

So, as our second option, we can simply and legally bypass our dysfunctional state government. We can exercise our first amendment right to assembly and take part in deliberative democracy. Forget political wheeling and dealing in Montgomery—if a problem arises in a locality, we need to form groups made up of real citizens, of all points of view, and put real democracy in action.

Deliberative democracy in each locality in Alabama can solve the problems our centralized power structure causes. If our politicians get too bogged down by special interests in Montgomery, we won’t need them anymore. If we’re required to pass a local measure through Montgomery that could just as easily be accomplished by an informal agreement among neighbors, we’ll simply choose the latter and buck the system—legally.

We simply need to find the right way to put deliberative democracy into action—a realization we’re closer to than we may know.

William J. Tucker is a freshman majoring in international relations. His column runs on Fridays.