After leaving Alabama to live in Ohio, Texas and Georgia, Crumly said, she and her husband moved back to her home state several years ago to be with family. And while she remembered a climate of conservative values growing up in Bullock County in the 1950s and 1960s, she said she was shocked by how completely the Republican Party has taken over the state in recent years.
“We had a relative in the family who we called a religious nut, so we didn’t talk to him about religion,” said Crumly, who now lives in Oxford, and identifies herself as a Democrat. “But now, that’s how everybody is. They’re radical.”
It’s a frustrating development for Crumly, who said she felt more comfortable living in places where people tended to share her political ideology. But as frustrating as the situation may be, she said, at 65 she’s too old to move her life somewhere else.
“If we were younger we’d definitely think about leaving,” Crumly said.
She’s not alone in feeling that way. Recent research from the University of Virginia and the University of Southern California published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests Americans more than ever are choosing where to live based on politics.
Gene Howard, the chairman of the Calhoun County Republican Party, said the situation is a little more chicken-and-egg than it appears on the surface. According to Howard, most people from outside the South move to states like Alabama for economic reasons, whether to get a job, or to take advantage of a cheaper cost of living. Over time, those people who favored tax breaks for businesses and less government intrusion became the basis for the current Republican Party, he said.
“They laid the seed that became the conservative party here in Alabama,” Howard said. “But they didn’t initially move here because of politics.”
Glen Browder, a political science professor emeritus at Jacksonville State University, agrees with Howard. The former Democratic congressman who represented Alabama’s 3rd District, which includes Calhoun County, said a quick poll of most people who’ve moved to Alabama would probably indicate the reason they came to the state in the first place was to find a job. It’s the reason he moved here more than 40 years ago, he said.
But while Browder said folks don’t “vote with their feet” when they choose where to live, people do have a tendency to settle down where they are the most comfortable. That means if their politics line up with their neighbors, they’re more apt to stay right where they are.
Browder wrote about the phenomenon in his 2002 book “The Future of American Democracy,” in which he argues that by 2050, the United States will become “The American Federation” – a collection of geographic regions divided primarily by the dominant political beliefs of the people living there.
Within Alabama, though, there are still some blue holdouts in the mostly red state. According to the Secretary of State’s office, 15 Alabama counties voted for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential elections, including Jefferson and Montgomery counties and most of the Black Belt region. Browder said these outliers, though, have very little to do with outside migration.
“When people are moving to Alabama they aren’t thinking about moving to Birmingham or Dallas County because they’re part of blue America,” Browder said. “Those places just tend to be that way already because they have lots of African Americans, a university crowd and labor unions.”
Stephanie Engle found that to be true when she moved from northern Virginia to Talladega 18 months ago. The chairwoman of the Talladega County Democrats said she felt so isolated after moving to the small Alabama town that it wasn’t until she went to Birmingham to find more like-minded people that she began connecting with other Democrats in her own county.
“I can see why people would want to live where they’re more comfortable and share similar ideas,” Engle said. “But part of what made this country so great is because we were a melting pot of different ideas and beliefs and we were tolerant of others.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.