Howell Raines is a legendary figure in journalism, an Alabama native who joined The New York Times in 1978 and was executive editor of the paper from 2001 to 2003. He has also published a novel, two memoirs, and an unforgettable oral history of the civil-rights movement, My Soul Is Rested. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: A lot of people everywhere are now saying, “Thank you, Alabama!”
Howell Raines: It took us years to throw off the dead hand of George Wallace. It feels good to me—a native son who has criticized the state, but always loved her—to see national gratitude raining down on Alabama.
JW: How much credit do you give Doug Jones for winning, as opposed to Roy Moore losing because he was such a terrible candidate?
HR: I don’t think Doug Jones could have won without having run an almost perfect campaign. I don’t think Doug Jones could have won without being the kind of Alabamian that Alabama voters are comfortable with. He’s the son of industrial Birmingham. He’s a Klan prosecutor. He’s a man of firm principle, but he has the humility and cultural finesse that is required of a progressive candidate to succeed in Alabama. In some degree, Doug Jones is the man we’ve been waiting for. I hope this is the doorway to a long future for him.
JW: The exit polls show that the white evangelicals voted for Roy Moore, whites without college degrees voted for him, rural whites voted for him. The Republican Party stuck with Roy Moore, despite his being the worst candidate in memory.
HR: They were conflicted. The Alabama Republican Party is like the National Republican Party: It’s torn by class conflict, between blue-collar Republicans and blue-blood Republicans. The massive white vote for Roy Moore was the old Wallace-bloc vote, rural people, blue-collar folk, traditional anti-corporate populists, and, most importantly, people with a deeply ingrained cultural conservatism, a deep commitment to religion, and a deep reflexive racism. The people at Roy Moore rallies made me feel sad, because these are the Alabamians who have been repeatedly misled for generations on the race issue. They exist with very poor jobs and poor medical care, and yet they can’t make the connection between their state in life and the bad people they put in office.
On the other side, you had the Alabama that’s struggling to be born. It is more diverse, one-quarter black, an increasing number of Asian-Americans, many of them working in the sciences in Birmingham, a growing Hispanic population, and a demographically changed white upper middle class. That’s the key. The suburbs of Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, and Huntsville put Doug Jones in office. These are people, despite Alabama’s rustic image, who are highly educated. Many of them work in the sciences or in technical fields. They have the same cultural profile as their counterparts nationally, probably on everything except religion. That was the swing factor. Those suburban Republicans, particularly young, married women with families, read Roy Moore correctly. The women defecting from the Republican party that many of their husbands voted for, are the reason Doug Jones won.