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Matthew Stokes: GOP should listen to Saban, avoid complacency

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

In the middle of a political maelstrom, it has almost been easy to overlook the fact that college football is a third of the way through the season.  

A curious story developed last week when the student section at Bryant-Denny stadium only party filled for an early morning game against Louisiana-Lafayette.  Coach Nick Saban was not pleased, going so far as to call out the students for failure to attend. Saban’s not wrong – students get coveted tickets at a tremendous discount, taking up space that many everyday fans would be happy to acquire.

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Yet Saban is not altogether right.  It wasn’t that long ago that SEC cupcake games were only aired via pay per view, meaning you either went to the game or paid the cable company an extra fifty dollars to watch it.  It also meant that the game was in the evening, with cooler temperatures and less sun. Not to mention Alabama was playing a very weak team last week, and when you combine all those things, an awful lot of fans, including students, are happy to watch the game from the comforts of home.  It is not so much that Nick Saban, or any other college coach in a similar situation, is wrong. It is just that there are shifts at work that are redefining what it means to be a sports fan in our day and age.

So it is with politics.  Despite national polling that shows Republicans and Democrats in much more heated contests, Republican polling in Alabama is still very, very strong.  Kay Ivey in particular is riding a wave of good economic news, including the recent groundbreaking on the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer. Democrats are failing to gain much traction in state despite a slate of young and energetic candidates.  The easy reply is simply that this is a Republican state, and of course the Democrats aren’t gaining traction. That’s true enough, and as I prefer Republicans to Democrats, I don’t mind all that much – for now. The problem over the long haul is that Republicans are coasting by on today’s good economic news and a bunch of cultural signifiers that are not guaranteed to last forever.  

Republicans in Alabama have strong winds behind them, but those winds will eventually fade.  In the meantime, the party has to plan for the time when it cannot make a self-evident case to Alabama voters.  It has to put forth actual ideas and vision for the state’s future. It must engage its opposition in a healthy, respectful way.  It cannot assume the support of voters. It must take the opposition seriously, and that means doing more than caricaturing Democratic arguments as merely “socialist.”  I realize that self-professed socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get a lot of support nationally, including from homegrown figures like Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin.  Nevertheless, no serious Democrat in Alabama is traversing the state arguing in favor of socialism.

I don’t mean to praise Democrats too much, but I do think there is a certain vitality and thoughtfulness at work among some of their younger members.  In Birmingham, there are a number of nonprofits doing incredible work in education among underserved communities, and most of their participants certainly lean to the left.  I know a lot of Republicans, young and old, also do important charity work. The concern is that much of the GOP is campaigning under the idea that the status quo is good, and if we trust in it, our state will continue to smoothly down the tracks.  Yet politics does not run on autopilot. The better analogy is to a garden that is given a fair amount of room to grow on its own, but is nevertheless pruned and cultivated, perhaps slowly but intentionally over time. Alabama Republicans have done well in many respects, but we are approaching a time when the garden needs to be managed.

I disagree with Walt Maddox and his Democratic colleagues on practically everything, but he’s smart enough to let us all know how intends to operate.  (It’s also true that his magic solution for everything revolves around gambling revenue, which is woefully inconsistent). In time, Republicans have to make their solutions and messaging clear and succinct.  This is a small state, and despite a leftward tilt to the state’s media, there are plenty of opportunities to do this. Voters will not always respond to self-evident claims of success and prosperity. Alabama is not a bad place by any means, but we can do so much better  – in education, infrastructure, and public health. There are numerous conservative policy proposals out there, and it is incumbent upon the state GOP to stop antagonizing liberals and start making a case for competent conservative governance.

Nick Saban is right that fans may not always have it so good, and they ought to enjoy it while they can. Saban should also realize that college football fandom has changed, and coaches and administrators ought to respond accordingly.

Alabama Republicans are enjoying a watermark right now, and of course they should enjoy it. At the same time, voters may not always be so amenable. Now is the time for Republicans to abandon snark and sarcasm and instead to seriously engage both their opponents and voters with ideas and vision that can lead Alabama in the years to come.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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