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Alabama Machiavelli                                  

A Review by Jo Freeman

Stealth Reconstruction: An Untold Story of Racial Politics in Recent Southern History
by Glen Browder with Artemesia Stanberry
Published by New South Books: Montgomery, AL; ©2010, paperback, 351 pp.

In the three decades after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, blacks became an important part of the Alabama electorate but still had to work through white elected officials to get what they wanted. Glen Browder was one of those officials.

Born and raised in South Carolina, he got his Ph.D. from Emory University in 1971 and joined the political science faculty at Jacksonville State University in northeast Alabama. He soon crossed the line from political science professor to practical politician, working as a pollster and campaign consultant and then running for office himself.

Browder served in the Alabama house for four years (1982 - 1986) and as Secretary of State for two. After winning a seat in the US House in a special election in 1989 he was re-elected three times. His career as an elected official ended when he chose to run for the US Senate in 1996 and lost. He returned to Jacksonville to teach political science.

To get and stay elected, Browder practiced what he calls "stealth" politics – his term for "quiet, practical, biracial politics" that didn’t antagonize the white majority in his districts. His state legislative district was 93 percent white; when he ran state-wide the Alabama electorate was 74 percent white; the voters in his congressional district were 73 percent white. This could describe many northern districts but in the South the races are polarized (or were during the late 20th Century) far more severely than elsewhere. Appealing to one often alienates voters in the other.

The theme of Browder’s book is how to get and stay elected in a majority-white district with a substantial black vote. Embedded in thick blankets of political science and embellished with conversations and interviews with other "stealth" politicians, this book is his story. It relies heavily on the "Browder collection" – the boxes of his personal and political papers that he donated to JSU.

The story is fleshed out with accounts and comments from several Alabama political actors of that era, black and white. All were players in Alabama politics but not all were elected officials. Browder also did an "unscientific, exploratory survey" of 13 former Members of Congress from Southern states. To help him put all this together, he enlisted the aid of Artemesia Stanberry, a former Congressional aide and currently a political science professor at North Carolina State University.

Using his own career as a case study, Browder says that his public pronouncements emphasized civic issues, political reform and traditional values while barely mentioning anything that was race related. He kept his campaign for black votes under the radar, while listening to the leaders of various black communities (especially black churches) and taking care of those who needed his help. He also hired a lot of black staff and campaign workers.

Browder believes that "stealth politics ... contributed to the evolving civil rights struggle and helped reconstruct Southern politics through the end of the century." Even with the leverage given them by the VRA, African-Americans weren’t elected to the Alabama legislature until 1970 (Fred Gray – one of Browder’s interviewees – and Thomas Reed). Not until 1992, when redistricting finally created a majority-black Congressional district from black belt counties, was an Alabama African-American elected to Congress. (Earl Hilliard, who was defeated in 2002 by Artur Davis, the second post-VRA Alabama African-American to go to Congress).

However, Browder believes that the need for this type of politics has passed, as Southern racial attitudes have moderated and Southern politics has become more like the rest of the country. He argues that in the 21st Century campaigns are becoming openly biracial and politicians less progressive. As though to emphasize this point, Artur Davis voted against Obama’s healthcare bill in 2009 and is now running for Governor, while his white opponent in the Democratic primary supported it (but didn’t vote for it because he isn’t in Congress).

Although "stealth" is not a term found in classroom political science, the style and strategy Browder describes are not new. It was best articulated by that founder of modern political science, Niccoló Machiavelli.

Machiavelli was a high-level bureaucrat in the Florentine Republic, not an elected official in a democracy, but he did write about how to get and keep political power. (Though he didn’t have time to write about it until he lost power in one of the many coups and counter-coups that plagued the Republic). His basic advice was to appear to do one thing while obscuring the fact that you are really doing something else. That’s a pretty good description of stealth politics.

©2010 Jo Freeman for SeniorWomen.com

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