As a rule, I have low expectations of those in political office – at every level. This country’s systems – at every level – have been biased from the outset toward the affluent, so that the pursuit of power, property, and profit frame public policy and public discourse.
That system of power often circumscribes and circumvents even the best efforts, intentions, and characters.
Nonetheless, a spirit of public interest has managed to survive for a long time, kindled by uneven bits and pieces of a democratic and practical commitment to the greater good – including in some part to those disadvantaged by the system and the very Earth itself.
The calculated withdrawal from that commitment to public good – and especially from the needs of marginalized people and the planet – traces most immediately back to the Reagan era 1980s, with specific roots in the would-be oligarchy’s opposition to 1860s-70s Reconstruction, 1900s Progressive Era, 1930s New Deal, and 1960s Great Society reformist public policies, as well as the broader enfranchisement represented by Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement.
(and, while embodying specific forms of progress, the reforms of those eras still never went far enough in inclusion and avoidance of harm to vulnerable people and the planet – but that’s a discussion for a different day)
Make no mistake – this autocratic neoliberalism is deliberate and it is comprehensive in its approach. And it has become much more efficient, skillfully manipulative, and technologically adept in its reach.
At a national level, what we witness in the current president is jaw-dropping in its awfulness, but it is an unsurprising outcome of the trajectory of this country since the Reagan era (and that trajectory has been advanced by both parties, though to different degrees. The Democratic party under both B. Clinton and Obama has also been actively complicit, though Republican abdication of public interest has been of an entire different magnitude. Both are problematic, but one is clearly worse).
It is wholesale capitulation to the mechanisms of concentrated private profit and ownership – at the expense of everything else, even human life, in a wholesale philosophy of commodification.
Trump is more unprincipled – and louder – in his manipulation of identity politics to secure his power, but he’s just an unvarnished, unrestrained, accelerated embodiment of that whole agenda.
On the state level, Alabama’s government has always leaned this way. Such tenets are obviously well-enshrined in the 1901 Constitution. But the Powers-that-Were-&-Are did a clever end run on us 2010-2012. Those forces now maintain an effective stranglehold on power in Montgomery, which ensures that Montgomery continues to have a stranglehold on the rest of the state. That Governor Ivey has maintained a mask ordinance in the actual public interest is a wholesale minor miracle.
And as for this city: those same forces of white-supremacy-entrenched, resource-extraction-based capitalism have also long held sway in Birmingham. But there has also been a long tradition of a public sector structured to at least ensure essential public spaces and institutions (libraries, neighborhood associations, public works, parks and rec, schools, and so on).
It also provided for a civil service sector to run that infrastructure. That essential sector provided economic mobility for those employed and a significant degree of economic stability for their extended networks. The positive effects permeated the entire community for decades.
Here, as elsewhere, that sector has been the subject of political patronage – and some folks ascend and others take a hit as the top of the municipal tickets change. But on the whole, it’s an infrastructure that provides meaningful services, often through longstanding relationships, to the whole of the city – not just those who can pay for perks and private delights and comforts.
And if properly directed, it’s a structure that could address issues of widespread poverty and the need for a scaffolding of affordable housing, public transit, food security, accessible healthcare, and quality education.
If properly directed.
Birmingham municipal leadership has ebbed and flowed in how well it engaged the public sector and the public platform to tend to the needs of ALL its people. That has been a matter of variable commitment, variable integrity, and variable competence at navigating through civic inertias, possibilities, and external constraints.
What’s going on now is an entirely different game.
Over the last couple of years, Birmingham has fallen fully into line with this orienting principle of neoliberal privatization that we see at work nationally and globally.
It is premised upon the dismantling of the public sector (other than increasingly militarized mechanisms of social control) in favor of privatization, which can be outright or through ‘public-private partnerships.’
While these forces have long been one part of the equation, the comparatively recent complete embrace represents a paradigm shift in local politics – and it will benefit the affluent, both of this city and of the surrounding suburbs, at the expense of poor and working-class folks (who in this city are overwhelming Black – this is a narrative of institutional white supremacy, regardless of who advances it).
The direction and intent has been clear for a while now, but the COVID era has offered opportunities to accelerate the process.
The current budget debacle has been a clear illustration. We will see more of such maneuvers in the weeks and months to come, I fear. Last night’s City Council meeting, which ultimately passed that budget, was raw theater for this manipulative power.
So – the combined forces of the Mayor’s office and a (at least) 5-person lockstep voting bloc of the City Council provides all that the Local Powers That Be need to move the agenda of neoliberal privatization on along full apace.
The current occupants of those offices are apparently willing to ride that heady mix of power’s endorsement and opportunity. It may continue to get them somewhere, especially if they are willing to resurrect ethics only for superficial viewing in campaign promises. Yet they should be aware that the system they’ve pledged into also regards them as disposable.
That this paradigm shift took hold by manipulating grassroots electoral methods and promises is a particular sin. When some of you pledged a vow of servant leadership, you certainly did not make clear who and whose interests you intended to serve.
Things will get complicated as we move on along. The 2021 local elections are already kicking in. Some of the critiques we are hearing now and in the time to come are motivated by the speaker’s own political ambitions and opportunism. Let us listen for that – and ask questions. There may be true and honest leaders – and we need those leaders with wisdom and integrity – mixed among those folks, but we will have to discern carefully. Nothing and no one is a given.
There will also continue to be people who genuinely believe in actual equity, care, and justice for people and the planet – enacted with skill and with a dedicated concern for civic and common good. There are people with real integrity speaking into this struggle. I do my best to count among that number. My own personal interests might be better served by being quiet, but the ethical imperatives of my faith compel me to speak out. This is pastoral work and this is a Christian commitment for me.
On the national level, the choices are pretty clear, if less than we might have hoped for.
Closer to home, we’ll have to keep paying attention, keep asking questions, keep making demands on the system that it be more genuinely accountable, equitable, and just in service of the public interest, and keep taking it to the streets when the interests of the commons are unheard and unheeded.
Let us never cease to ask the questions: “who benefits from this” “whom is this intended for?” “who may be harmed by this, whether it’s intentional or not?” And if the answer comes at the expense of marginalized people or the planet for the sake of the Affluent Class or the powers of patriarchy and white supremacy, we have to be ready to speak back and push back.
Many thanks to all who have worked so hard to create structures for participatory budgeting and people’s power, liberated from political manipulation. Your expertise, dedication, witness, and example are a great gift to us all – and it is my joy to journey with you in this work.