Today’s guest columnist is Ryan Hankins.
I don’t think Paul Ricœur, the French philosopher, ever visited Alabama.
It’s his loss. Had he come to the Yellowhammer State, he could have seen remarkable examples of his most famous philosophical idea– the hermeneutic of suspicion. Or more simply, an approach to life grounded in suspicion, to assume there is always some hidden meaning or ulterior motive at work.
This inherent suspicion has long been a fact of life in Alabama. You see it in our mistrust of outsiders. You see it our mistrust of those in other parts of the state. As I was told when I moved to Alabama twenty-plus years ago, “We don’t cooperate around here. It’s in the water.”
At PARCA, we see in the form of people asking us, in so many words, to help prove how their communities are cheated by the community next door, or by the rest of the state.
Perhaps more than any other state, Alabama seeks to live up to its motto: We dare defend our rights. We perpetually fear someone is out to take away those rights. We fear we are paying the price, literally or otherwise, for benefits that flow elsewhere. We fear cooperating because we fear someone is trying to take advantage of us.
We distrust each other, and we certainly distrust government.
Voter frustration with the federal government, while perhaps at a high, is nothing new. Distrust of state government is on the rise.
A PARCA public opinion poll released this spring found that 61% of Alabamians say people like them have no say in what the government in Montgomery does – the second-highest percentage reported since we began asking the question in 2007. The highest, 63%, was in 2017.
The real surprise is who is frustrated. While 58% of Democrats say people like them have no say in what the government in Montgomery does, 66% of Republicans say the same thing.
Let me repeat that:: In a state where Republicans control all three branches of state government and a supermajority in the legislature, two-thirds of Republicans say they have no say in state government.
I suggest this says more about the people of Alabama than who happens to be in state government at the moment. If you think the government is out to get you, who comprises the government doesn’t matter.
And yet, amazingly enough, there are hints that this baseline of suspicion is beginning to crack.
The opposite of suspicion is not blind faith, but openness to something new. The new neighbors can become friends. The next town over is not the enemy. Working together might be in our best interest.
Local and regional leaders are recognizing they must find ways to work together. Those of us living in the Birmingham area now see this with surprising regularity–how regional collaboration has worked itself into almost every public conversation and the regular announcements of new ways for governments to partner.
The mayors of Jefferson County’s myriad of municipalities are now meeting monthly, supporting collaborative efforts like a push to repair light fixtures on the region’s interstates, a joint education effort against human trafficking, and collective preparations to host The World Games.
The Birmingham region is not unique.
Cooperation is on the rise in the Shoals, where two counties and four cities are finding ways to build on the region’s natural and cultural assets and address broadband deficits.
And in the Wiregrass, where economic and workforce leaders are collaborating to grow the region’s economy.
And along the coast, where Mobile and Baldwin counties are creating a cohesive economic and political strategy.
And there are likely more.
It is true that cooperation, in and of itself, will not improve life for Alabamians. A vibrant economy, an outstanding education system, meaningful work–these and their ilk are what will improve life for Alabamians. I am convinced that cooperation–cooperation between people, between neighbors, between governments, and–dare I say it, political parties–can improve all of these. Continued zero-sum competition is a dead end.
This new spirit of cooperation is emerging at just the right time.
More than $10 billion in COVID stimulus money is flowing into Alabama and most of it to local governments and schools. Local leaders have the mandate to spend this money and the opportunity to spend it well.
Alabama continues to trail the nation in almost every critical measure of public life. If Alabamians genuinely believe the most local solutions are the best, we have a unique opportunity to put that theory to the test.
As residents, we have the opportunity to get in the trenches to support and expect local leaders to make hard decisions. These are our neighbors and friends, charged with finding solutions to counter learning loss, reenergizing local economies, and making strategic investments in our people’s health.
The space program. The TVA. Scientific research. Universities. Advanced manufacturing. Smart, strategic, bold action by government at all levels transformed Alabama in the 20th century.
Are we willing to believe it can happen in the 21st century, too?
Ryan Hankins is Executive Director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. He has lived in Alabama since 2001.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.