Alabama Governor Bob Riley is a very conservative Republican who is now fighting tooth-and-nail to rise taxes, increase school spending, and make the tax system more progressive. Currently, the effective tax rate on Alabama’s poorest citizens is about 10 percent of income; on the richest, it is less than 4 percent. Gov. Riley has decided that this is not What Jesus Would Do.
I think there are three crucial reasons why people on the left of center (the Civil Rights organizations, liberal Democrats, MoveOn, and others) should be rushing to Alabama and making a hero out of Gov. Riley:
- His proposal will lose without organized support on the left, butit could win with such support. Current polls show that Riley is getting only 27 percent support in households that earn less than $30,000, and only 44 percent of African Americans support the reforms. Poor people and people of color in Alabama are suspicious of government and especially of a Republican governor—understandably so. But they could be persuaded that the Riley plan is directly and powerfully in their interests. Imagine the effect, for example, of a Bill Clinton endorsement on Black radio stations.
- Changing Alabama’s tax code matters. There are 4.49 million souls in that state. Their tax code is deeply unfair, and their schools are terrible because of under-funding. The difference between passage and defeat for the Riley proposal is much more important than, say, the difference between a Schwartzenegger or a Davis victory in California.
- There is a potential to form a new coalition including African Americans, liberals, and some white evangelical Christians. There is no reason that white evangelicals should favor libertarian economic policies. Typically, their parents voted for FDR, and they should vote for equitable taxation. People like Gov. Riley are driven by principle. Their principles are wrong, in my opinion, when they consider such matters as whether the Ten Commandments should be engraved on huge boulders in courthouses. But they are principled people, and they could be persuaded to move left on economic matters. As Gov. Riley says,”According to our Christian ethics, we’re supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor. It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 an income tax.”
So why aren’t the liberal national organizations running ads in Alabama?
My hunch is: they don’t want a Republican to get a “win,” and they’re not paying attention to a Southern state because they live on the East and West Coasts and wrote off Dixie long ago. If
I’m right, shame on them.
[Discussing this topic with colleagues today, I learned that Peter Beinart makes a very similar argument in an article entitled “Eyes on the Prize” in the New Republic (08/29/03). His article is very good, although it only chastises the civil rights organizations. I would think that other liberal groups are equally remiss.]