“I wonder … if this Don Quixote hasn't got the jump on all of us. I wonder if it isn't a curse to go through life wised up like you and me.”  

Clarissa Saunders from Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” 

Ah, the downhome taste of political sausage-making in Alabama, where the Iron Law of oligarchy is seasoned with just the right amount of backslapping, bullying, intimidation, Southern hospitality and charm to make for a truly savory dish!  

1819 News' Craig Monger recently lifted the lid on this backroom feast, revealing the blunt browbeating former State Rep. Connie Rowe (R-Jasper) gave freshman lawmakers in a recent closed-door meeting. Consider the meeting a sort of “unofficial” freshman orientation. Several newly-elected lawmakers described Rowe’s presentation on behalf of House leadership as explicitly designed to inform new members of how things are done and to coerce them into following the unwritten rules of Alabama politics. 

"It was communicated to us in no uncertain terms that we were just wheels in a machine," one freshman lawmaker said. 

To these freshmen legislators, I say: Wise up or be thought a fool! This ain’t a Frank Capra flick. And you ain’t Mr. Smith! 

You may feel the foolish urge to resist the political machine’s practical demands at first — you may even tell some of us in the press how the political sausage is being made (FYI, we would always love to know more). You may think the voters who sent you to Montgomery are your bosses. But if you wish to survive and thrive in Alabama politics, you’ll eventually wise up. 

The voters are formally the majority shareholders in Alabama, sure, but the “big mules” in upper-level management are the de facto wise guys who run the state’s business. And what’s management’s number one message to freshmen? Well, Connie Rowe should have just quoted the 2,500-year-old wisdom of Solon: “Learn to obey before you command.”  

Put differently, get in line and grow up!  

Tragically, maturity in politics too often means learning to rise above principle and becoming clear-eyed to certain practical considerations. Politically mature people understand evil is sometimes necessary. Politics requires morality to have some play in the joints. That’s the curse of being "wised up" and knowing that the secret to climbing the political ladder lies in abandoning pesky ideals, principles, and promises that once filled your politically innocent, immature heart. To the seasoned politician, stubbornly staying true to principles at the risk of losing power is the equivalent of Don Quixote tilting at windmills.  

Give it enough time though, freshmen, and you will find that political parties are fundamentally about serving power. Nothing more, nothing less. 

Political parties only stand on principles when they can be used as stepping stones — another practical foothold to maintain and wield power. With power as their primary motivation, the leadership class of any political party runs the risk of treating other people — even their fellow citizens, party members, and elected representatives — as mere means to their ends … disposable tools, step stools, and yes, “just wheels in a machine.”  

Politics, at bottom, is the art and science of administering force and fraud in a publicly legitimate way. That’s the secret recipe to all political sausage-making in Alabama and beyond. Some politicians simply know this better than others, quietly reserving their seat at the dinner table at the expense of unfortunate political idealists who then provide the meat at a very high price.  

Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter knows this. Former State Rep. Connie Rowe knows this. Gov. Kay Ivey surely knows this. Former U.S. Senator Richard Shelby likely knows this better than anyone in Alabama politics, as does his lovely and charming successor, Sen. Katie Britt. Rule of an elite few — oligarchy — is often inevitable. After all, there are only so many seats at any given table. As political machines grow and become more complex, they require leaders and decision-makers to maintain order and efficiency. And with leadership comes power, and often the temptation to consolidate that power and guard it jealously. 

Perhaps it's time someone rearranged the seating chart. Perhaps, Goat Hill needs a quixotic Mr. Smith more than ever. There will always be an elite, but let us hope for a feast that serves the people well, too. 

The choice is yours, freshmen legislators. Either wise up, stay in your lane, and do as the machine tells you — your career may depend on it! — or dare to be foolish enough to believe you can effectively challenge how Alabama's political sausage is made.  

If you do challenge the status quo and fight for what you believe to be right, many wise and powerful men will undoubtedly think you a fool. They’ll try to convince the people you’re a fool and a dirty cheat, too. But in the end, only someone willing to be thought a fool can hope to lift the curse of being "wised up" to politics. 

As Saunders tells Mr. Smith in his moment of despair, “Odds against them didn't stop those men. They were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that.”

Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and is currently the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 9 am-12 noon. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback, please email newsandviews931@gmail.com.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com

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