So much distrust and suspicion in Alabama–Are we about to see a new day?

Ryan Hankins

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.

Alabama–We dare to defend our rights

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.

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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).

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8 thoughts on “So much distrust and suspicion in Alabama–Are we about to see a new day?”

  1. The reason most of us don’t trust elected officials is they are mostly petty, self-absorbed, little popinjays who only want the fame(?) of office and a chance to make money on the side – many with an axe to grind against some philosophy alien to their small minds.

    I suspect the state movements you described are regional or local business leaders who are trying to boost their area, since they know the elected officials don’t care unless it benefits them financially or a path toward “higher” office and mo’ power.

    Cynical? You betcha! I’m in my ’70s and been in this state far too long…

  2. I agree with you Karl, particularly about politicians and what people think about them. Service to citizens is less important to them than self service and corruption has damaged people trust.

    I have lived many places with very different outlooks, but never for 8o years have I allowed my self to become disconnected from everything Alabama: Harvard eight years, Copenhagen one, Knoxville nine, Washington five, Knoville 8, Tallahassee 32. People on all are much the same on that point of distrust and sense of need for protections. I have done no survey to prove it. The one exceptional thing is friendliness. So where did the widely known ‘Southern Hospitality’ go? But there is ‘birds of a feather. And of course the continuing awful race card. ‘Southern Hosptality has gone nowhere. Neither has competition. it has all of my life been there.

    I suggest reading ‘Alabama. the making of a State’ by Bridges. The history of politics in Alabama as portrayed by a former Director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History was very revealing to me. We have hidden much that has been deep and dark. So Welcome to Alabama Ryan! You are likely to help it be better.

  3. Mr. Hankins,

    There is certainly suspicion and distrust in Alabama, but I didn’t see evidence presented that it is greater than most other states. My impression is that suspicion and distrust is a nationwide problem.

  4. Thanks, Don. That was one of my main response points. It is just human habit that is hard to control and some do it better than others. Wrong? How? Even tried utopias failed on that front. Name one that succeded and lasted.

  5. Remove paranoia and proceed happily. That is my way to go. I am practicing it right now and it certainly is working very well thank you. You must be instinctively careful of course but you do not have to worry about that.

    You are completely right about what you said old friend, Durham!

    Being together in the same Boy Scout troop, we learned many good things and it looks like that could effect our being in agreement. ‘Safety First’ not ‘Fear first’! We were already learning not to fear sleeping together with Jim White and one other at Beeswax Creek Park on the Coosa River, surrounded by who knows what critters! Total delight for an outdoors man like me.

    I keep Winston Churchill in mind with this one: it help win World War 2. ‘Keep calm and carry on

    BTW anyone reading this is welcome to communucate with my email address above should you wish.

    I do have limited time while being full time Professor of Architecture.


    1. ABSOLUTELY, Christopher.

      There is no place or space on this planet where suspicion and fear do not exist. It is a natural human response arising from the basic need for self protection.. It is a driver of action, and causes us to protect ourselves. What is additionally important is the consideration of what it is that is being feared!. As for Alabama people, which ones? We must not ‘overgeneralize’ here. Who are they that fear advancement and why?
      We need to get to the underlying conditions. There are some people that are risk takers and there are the ‘risk-averse. The risk averse, are they not ones who have suffered? Did not Alabama, particularly its wealthy plantation owners not suffer from the results of the Civil War. Same for Mississippi as together these were the two wealthiest states in the country before, and continue to be full of poverty today. Compare what the British empire did when it got rid of slavery before USA did. They paid the people who were slave owners when their slaves were released. I would say the resulting risk factor was less strong when that was the method applied. Segregation, and such things tenant farmers were extensions of slavery. This has been handed down to generations, and is at the foundation of our race problem. Improvement to the citizen’s education, would strengthen the sense of self confidence that certainly helps tremendously. BTW, traveling around the country, Alabama’s new school buildings as to the quality of their design, can not be beaten by any others I have seen from Florida, to New England to the west coast and Canada as well. I have been there and seen. So what? Now is a reminder of the old ‘Now build me a church.’ story. Do it. Educate Alabama. You can be certain it surely would help.
      More Christophers would really help out. Thanks for that stimulation!
      And you keep going, Hankins. We are all headed for the ‘mother load’ source of masterful achievement. Just as Alabama did when it was discovered that its new cotton below its soil, mineral riches. There was not hesitation there.
      Without that, and an amazing response, Birmingham would only be a small country town today. So the other point here is to advise ceasing to focus on the negative only, That is always only half of the real story.

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