The Alabama Republican Party may be days away from destroying its brand.
The party consolidated power at an unprecedented rate following the 2010 election cycle, holding every statewide office and supermajorities in both houses of the legislature. Those gains have trickled down to the local level, where Republicans continue to chip away the final vestiges of the once-powerful Democratic stranglehold on the South.
But intra-party squabbles have suddenly left the once laser-focused Alabama GOP struggling to find a unified agenda, much less an identity, as the Legislature prepares for one final attempt to pass a balanced budget before the clock runs out at midnight on October 1st.
Many Republicans around the state have watched in horror as the “campaign conservatives” they put in office in 2010 and 2014 have cast aside their promises of limited government and reform in favor of tax hikes and the status quo.
The Republican Party spent decades building its brand as the party that would not raise your taxes. In a matter of months, many GOP leaders in Montgomery have shed their anti-tax orthodoxy, finding it more expedient to get along without the constraints of something so meaningless as a promise to voters.
The explanations for why Republican lawmakers have arrived at this moment are numerous and complex, ranging from clandestine power struggles and legal disputes to genuine differences of opinion and simple ignorance.
But almost all of the reasons Republicans are on the verge of hiking Alabamians’ taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars comes down to the existence of a reality distortion field I like to call The Montgomery Bubble.
This invisible membrane encompasses the state government bureaucracy, including the area surrounding South Union Street, which divides the state’s legislative and executive branches.
It is part reason-blocker, part echo chamber and part shield from the outside world.
The longer an individual stays inside of it, the more its effects are evident to the outside world, but the less the individual realizes it. And it is the only explanation for what is currently taking place in Alabama’s capital city.
Residents of The Bubble exhibit an insatiable desire to protect their piece of The Bubble fiefdom, leading them to take irrational steps that reasonable people would otherwise reject offhand.
Executive branch agencies, for instance, protect their budgets by trying to scare people who live outside of The Bubble.
This year, one agency struck fear into senior citizens by telling them their services would disappear if taxes are not raised. Another department promised public parks would be shuttered. Another said they would make it as hard as possible to get a driver’s license.
Some state agency heads and employees have been inside The Bubble so long they shudder to think about an existence outside of it. As a result, their ability to reason — to find ways to be more efficient, streamlined and productive — is suppressed.
Some legislators want to protect their turf inside The Bubble, too. They take ownership of their budget, pet project or line item. It becomes theirs, and human nature compels people to protect what is theirs.
Even though the facts show that Alabama’s state government has grown 21 percent faster than the rate of inflation over the past two decades, The Bubble inhibits some legislators’ basic reasoning, leading them to continue insisting there is “nothing left to cut.”
Certain voices inside The Bubble are louder than others.
Republican legislative leaders have a megaphone that makes their demands reverberate. The voices screaming the loudest in the ears of legislators, particularly members of the House, are those of their leadership pressuring them to fall in line.
Because rank and file lawmakers do not have any policy staff, they are often forced to rely on whatever information is made available by their leaders. As a result, there are some genuinely well-meaning politicians in Montgomery who have been made to believe tax hikes are necessary. “We’ve got to govern” has become shorthand for “We’ve got to maintain the status quo.”
Lobbyists and special interest groups add to the noise. This is particularly true for lobbyists who represent state agencies. Yes, your tax dollars are paying lobbyists to lobby for more of your tax dollars.
Unfortunately there are very few people advocating for your wallet, your job and your business.
According to the Alabama Ethics Commission’s list of registered lobbyists, there are four times more lobbyists in Montgomery than there are legislators. While these voices speak on behalf of divergent interests, the one message they tend to amplify in unison is “THINGS MUST STAY THE SAME!”
SHIELD FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD
Unlike federal politicians, the citizen-legislators in Montgomery spend most of the year in their districts. But unlike in D.C., there are not press and watchdog groups eyeballing every vote, committee meeting and public hearing. And the handful who are watching are generally supportive of growing the size of state government. So once they enter The Bubble, many legislators are more or less shielded from the outside world.
The entire process is meant to minimize external input and maximize internal pressure. This is how supposedly conservative legislators end up making decisions that befuddle their constituents back home.
SAVING THE REPUBLICAN BRAND
If you want some people to love you, you’ve got to accept that others are going to hate you.
Brand strategists often illustrate this by pointing to Nike’s controversial 1996 Olympics ad campaign. “You don’t win silver, you lose gold,” Nike declared, drawing criticism from some people who said they were being unnecessarily brash. But Nike’s brand is about winning, and winners flocked to Nike’s brand in droves.
Alabama’s conservative electorate has been attracted to the Republican Party’s brand of limited government, less regulation, lower taxes and family values. Multiple pillars of the party’s brand are currently being eroded.
Republicans have it made in Alabama. Simply governing like a conservative doesn’t get you beat in the Yellowhammer State, it gets you applauded, loved — and for the ambitious politicians (redundant, I know), it just might get you promoted.
Republicans are going to have to accept that their anti-tax brand is never going to be popular inside The Montgomery Bubble. But they should also remember that the vast majority of us out here in the real world will love it. And we’re the ones who decide if they get to go back.