At the end of the Great Recession, one official “communicator” referred to the national economy as beginning to show “green shoots” that might indicate the start of a recovery. It now appears we have green shoots in Kansas that might be early signs of recovery in our civic society. Thanksgiving seems like a good time to point them out.
National political coverage highlights extreme partisanship. Contemporary partisans hold such allegiance to their political party that aversion among devoted Republicans and Democrats to any kind of social interaction — even to the point of opposing intermarriage between children reared in opposing political tribes — is becoming common. The past weeks have brought us party officials condemning the criminal, immoral or highly suspect behaviors of colleagues while at the same time declaring support for the accused because of shared party identity.
In exercising partisan legislative authority, Sen. Mitch McConnell has said the Republican agenda will pass with only Republican votes, if necessary. Now congressional Republicans plan to adopt a Brownbackian style tax-reduction bill relying on Republican votes alone. To add further inflammatory partisanship, the Senate appears ready to enfold repeal of key aspects of the Affordable Care Act in this tax measure.
What do green shoots of civic recovery in Kansas have to do with these concerns about the national political scene? Back in 1922, Emporia’s own William Allen White wrote, “When anything is going to happen in this country, it happens first in Kansas.” The contemporary fever of hyper-partisanship in Kansas has existed for decades. Hyper-partisanship in just the Republican Party has strengthened since the rise of pro-life activism in the 1970s.
Most recently, Gov. Sam Brownback instigated the conservative legislative purge that drove out senior Republican moderates like former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris. A more thoroughly right-wing and compliant Legislature passed steep income/profit tax reductions and severe consumption tax increases that all Kansans have experienced and most have come to dislike.
After the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions and the 2014 re-election of Brownback, new voices and old began to coalesce around falling revenue and skimpier public services. In spite of decades of evidence to suggest partisans never waver, these critics began the process of exposing and criticizing hyper-partisanship — its policy prescriptions and programs. Groups, many aligned with purged Republican moderates, the small but not powerless Kansas Democratic Party, some non-partisan like the Mainstream Coalition, Women for Kansas, the Kansas League of Women Voters, the Kansas Health Institute, and four former Kansas governors — Carlin, Hayden, Graves and Sebelius — worked to inform Kansans about the harms that ideologically devout conservatives had committed.
The efforts to inform were carried out with seriousness, minimal drama and with the support of evidence debunking an impending economic boom. With resignations, primary defeats and ultimately the outcome of the 2016 general election, approximately 40 conservative legislators were replaced. In doing so, moderate Republicans and Democrats have for the moment at least upset the conservative legislative majorities. Voters learned, decided and then received increased civility and productivity in the 2017 legislative session.
Is it likely the nation can and will learn from the Kansas experience of this decade? Our congressional delegation’s praise of the tax cut bills currently being debated might make a reader skeptical, but other public voices have called upon Kansans to recount their experience. Interests that normally would not be expected to “look a gift horse in the mouth” are in fact saying “thanks, but no thanks.”
Perhaps the green shoots of rationality and compromise are working now to penetrate the public mind as they did in Kansas. That would be a moment of national joy at Thanksgiving time.
Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.