By far the biggest story in Birmingham these days is the University of Alabama's quest for a national championship in college football. The Crimson Tide meets the University of Texas on Thursday night in Pasadena, California, in the BCS national championship game.
How big is the story in Birmingham? Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson could be caught living, breathing, and having lunch together at a downtown eatery--and I'm not sure it would make page one. After all, Coach Nick Saban might have a bout of acid indigestion that would require wall-to-wall coverage.
Having grown up in the Midwest, I'm not a fan of either Alabama or its cross-state rival, Auburn University. But I am a sports fan--as evidenced by my previous life as a sportswriter--so I keep up with the big-game coverage. And a major side story in Alabama's blessed season caused me to ponder this question: Why isn't the South a bastion of liberalism in the United States?
That might seem like a ridiculous question to ask about a region that has become known for its staunch conservatism and blood-red political leanings. But consider an undercurrent that ran through almost every story about Alabama running back Mark Ingram and the recent announcement that he had received the 2009 Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football.
The University of Alabama is a bona fide football factory, one of the nation's most storied programs, but Mark Ingram was the first Crimson Tider to win the sport's best-known individual award. Almost every story written about Ingram and the trophy noted that UA fans long have taken a peculiar pride in the fact that no Tide player ever had won the Heisman. After all, iconic coach Paul "Bear" Bryant had preached the value of team play, of submerging the self for the betterment of the larger whole.
It's pretty much undisputed that college football is more popular in the South than in any other region of the country. And across the South, fans applaud the Bryant credo of putting team before self.
College football is not the only activity where Southerners believe strongly in communal activity, where putting the group ahead of the individual is valued.
Surveys consistently show that support for the military and organized religion are particularly strong in the South. And what is at the heart of religious activities and military duties? A willingness to put individual goals and desires second to the greater good.
At the heart of most major religions is the so-called "Golden Rule," the notion that you are to treat your brother or sister as you would like to be treated. In other words, a truly religious individual is called to think seriously about how his actions affect others.
As for the military, men and women in uniform have similar attire and hairstyles for a reason. It's a sign that you must check your individuality at the door.
Which of our political philosophies emphasizes communities over individuals, the greater good over selfish desires? Why, it's liberalism, of course.
So why do white Southerners--the ones who proclaim their love of church, the military, and college football (not necessarily in that order)--consistently vote conservative? You know about conservatism, that doctrine that extols the virtues of the "rugged individual."
Southerners surely don't vote conservative because they care about the needs of investors, managers, bankers, and corporate titans--the "rugged individuals" who benefit most from conservative policies.
We can only conclude that white Southerners, the ones drawn to communal, team-first activities, vote against their own interests and beliefs because of fears about race. The Republican Party, home to modern conservatism, has expertly played the race-based fear card for 40-plus years now.
Southerners are hardly alone in falling for it. Great swatches of the Midwest, Southwest, and Mountain West also have succumbed to it.
Here's the ironic thing: Southerners tend to proclaim their patriotism more than folks from other regions. And the most patriotic action many Southerners could take would be to vote in a liberal or progressive fashion. After all, progressive thinking leads to strong college-football teams, and it would lead to a healthier, stronger, more united America--the very thing Southerners seem to want.
Here's the sad thing: A liberal/progressive revolution needs to sweep this country. And the South, based on the "we, not me" activities it clearly adores, is the perfect place to launch it. But we let our race-based fears hold us back.
As you watch two major Southern universities battle for the national championship of college football on Thursday night, you might keep this thought in mind: Inside the heart of most Southern conservatives--at least the ones who love football, church, and the military--is a liberal, dying to get out. And our country would be a much better place if Southerners would take their passion for "we first" activities and apply it to politics.