Opinion Politics

Cash & Candor: A Return to Decency

In a new series, Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMP by way of the Arkansas Delta, where he spent the last two years calling balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald.

Doug Jones’ upset victory in Alabama on Tuesday was huge – or, rather, “yuuge.” And for multiple reasons.

The most obvious reason being that Jones is the first Democrat elected to an Alabama senate seat in 25 years. To age myself, I was just a year old then. And that Democrat was barely even a Democrat. He switched parties and continues to hold the seat. Yep, it was Sen. Richard Shelby.

As I watched the results come in Tuesday night, my reaction was not unlike Jones’: “What the hell just happened?” But after the initial shock wore off, something else jumped out at me that may have an even greater implication on the state of political play: those darned write-in voters.

Those 22,777 voters, accounting for a measly 1.7 percent of the total vote, chose neither the liberal Jones nor the abhorrent Roy Moore. In doing so, they essentially secured Jones’ victory, flipping 12 counties from red to blue in the process.

I’m all but certain these voters were conservatives. Because of their pride, they couldn’t vote for a Democrat. Because of their conscience, they couldn’t vote for a racist, homophobic child molester.

And we don’t necessarily have to relitigate all the claims against Moore to understand why he was a disaster of a candidate. Can you think of another politician banned from their local mall for preying on teens? Me neither. And regardless of whether or not you believe his accusers – I do – the cowboy hat-wearing judge was removed from office twice for ethical violations.

Details aside, the 22,777 voters who chose to follow their moral compass and write in a candidate they knew couldn’t win were the real winners of Tuesday’s special election. (I wonder how many votes Nick Saban got?) They rejected the archetype that Southerners are backwards, uneducated and/or intolerant. And more importantly, to me, they proved the disease of political tribalism isn’t terminal.

They chose to do what was right rather than what was expected of them, as conservatives. And I suppose that took some courage, given that more than 649,000 of their conservative peers were perfectly content putting a hate-filled, sexual deviant in the Senate, just so long as he isn’t a no-good, stinkin’ liberal. Far too many conservatives in Alabama, and across the country, were willing to give Moore a pass simply because he had an “R” beside his name. If that isn’t a terrifying testament to the thralls of political tribalism, I don’t want to know what is.

And it’s not just the Republicans. How many Democrats, in the late 1990s, were willing to bury their heads in the sand when allegations were levied at President Bill Clinton? Probably as many conservatives doing the same thing today with allegations against President Trump.

As previously alluded, I’m a little green compared to some. When it comes to political convention, most of what I think I know has been learned, rather than experienced. But I’m no novice, either. And despite my limited participation, I have seen high-minded conversation turn downright primitive over the smallest partisan detail.

Once upon a time, a Democrat was allowed to entertain a conservative notion or two. Likewise, there were once Republicans willing to publically admit to being friends with a liberal. And, brace yourself: politicians even managed to meet in the middle, from time to time.

Of late, that kind of behavior would be considered political suicide. Moderates have been shown the door. Level-headed legislators willing to speak up about the lunacy within their own parties are run out of office. See: Jeff Flake, Bob Corker.

This defection from moderate thinking has seen to it that everyone near the middle is sorted into two, distinct political tribes. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, as long as you’re a team player. The great “sorting out” is taking place across Arkansas, too.

Thanks to the University of Arkansas’ Dr. Janine Parry and the Arkansas Poll, we have a pretty clear ideological picture of where our state stands in each of the last 18 years. And during that span of time, a good number of self-identified independents have been sucked into one camp or the other. According to Parry, that sorting out is the result of our highly polarized political environment. And in our case, they fell more commonly to the right.

But the Arkansas Poll only deals with traditional political issues – guns, abortion, pot, etc. Partisan bias is creeping its way into nonpolitical aspects of life like Roy Moore creeps into a Forever 21. Recent studies have shown political prejudices to have more influence on behavior than race or gender. The personal has become the political.

In an experiment conducted by distinguished political scientist Shanto Iyengar, participants were asked to award imaginary scholarships to students they had never met. The experiment found participants were much more likely to award a scholarship to a student of the same political party, regardless of their GPA or achievements.

Partisanship, Iyengar found, was as powerful as any force in American life. It didn’t matter who you were or what you’d done, but what team you were on. Anyone unwilling to show blind dedication to the team, regardless of circumstance, is labeled an obstructionist.

But I’ve got news for you, folks: politics doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. No one party has a monopoly on common sense. And regardless of what’s said on the internet, talk radio or cable TV, we’re all on the same team.

On Tuesday, 22,777 Alabama voters rose above political tribalism. With an election year approaching, let’s follow their lead and put character above party, wisdom over imprudence and caution over disregard. Returning to decency would be a good place to start.

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