We’ve all heard the famous saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It’s really more than just a saying; it’s a lesson from history that Alabama leaders have continued to repeat over and over again.
The conviction of House Speaker Mike Hubbard, the suspension and pending hearing of Chief Justice Roy More and the various investigations (from federal and state prosecutors, to the state legislature) of Gov. Robert Bentley are all symptoms of the abuse of absolute power.
Did these men break the law? Only a jury can decide that, as it did with Mike Hubbard. Did all three of them go beyond any reasonable definition of ethical behavior? I don’t think there’s any question about that.
I can point out the hypocrisy of Republican elected officials getting mired in so much corruption after sweeping into power only six years ago on a platform of cleaning up the corruption in Montgomery, but the truth is that corruption is not a partisan issue. There are, unfortunately, many examples of Democrats who also have gone to jail over corruption charges.
Whether it’s been corrupt Democrats or corrupt Republicans, the common denominator to the corruption has been one-party rule; absolute power in the hands of a supermajority, be it a Democratic supermajority or now the Republican supermajority.
Neither political party should have absolute power. Our system of government was meant to have checks-and-balances – the governor makes decisions but the legislature controls the money. If the legislature goes beyond the limits of the law, the courts can reel it back in.
The governor can veto the legislature, and all of these elected officials must be re-elected by the people.
But for all these checks-and-balances on our institutions, there is no check on political parties other than through elections. And in Alabama, we have always been a one-party state.
Party labels used to mean a lot more than they do these days. Nearly a third of voters now identify themselves as “independent” or supporting a third party. But most voters still, understandably, make assumptions about candidates based on their party labels, and most voters – even the independent ones – still tend to lean toward one party or the other.
The result is that most voters in Alabama consider themselves to be conservative. They vote Republican because they assume all Republicans are conservative and all Democrats are liberal, or that all Republicans share their values while all Democrats have a different set of values. But those assumptions are proving to be wrong.
How many of us assumed that Gov. Bentley would be capable of the things he’s accused of, or that the Republicans in the Alabama Legislature would support tax increases like they did last year while the Democrats are the ones who voted against those tax increases?
Right now, most voters are sick of politics and sick of being embarrassed by their elected leaders. It’s no wonder so many people have lost faith in our government and are looking for an “outsider” to shake things up.
But if we really want to shake things up, we have to change our pattern of putting all power in the hands of one group of people. We have to break the supermajorities, and that means we have to look beyond party labels and, yes, vote for both Democrats and Republicans from time to time.
If we elect new Republicans but continue to give them a supermajority, then those new Republicans will fall into the same pits that caught the people who came before them. And that statement would also be true if we elected only Democrats.
If we truly want to change the culture in Montgomery, then we have to break the supermajority. Otherwise, the only thing that will change is the names on the indictments.