Did Kansas turn away from its conservatism this year?
We know by now the fundamentals— an unlikely coalition of moderate Republicans, Democrats, and even traditional conservatives in the Kansas Legislature overrode Governor Brownback’s tax veto and shot down his “glide path to zero.” The bill restored a third tax income tax rate and ended the LLC loophole. We are not out of the woods: revenues are still skewed toward regressive sales taxes; the highway trust fund is severely compromised; and education funding awaits a court decision. Still, it was a momentous vote in a momentous year.
Why did conservative Kansas abandon Brownback’s experiment? The state is one of America’s “reddest,” having voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points. There is not a single Democrat representing Kansas in Congress now, and respondents to the benchmark Kansas Speaks poll consistently prefer either spending cuts alone or a mix of spending cuts and taxes, rather than tax increases alone, to solve budget problems. So, how did Democrats and moderate Republicans manage to pick up enough seats last year to shift state politics?
It is because conservative Kansas is a myth.
Public opinion scholars are quick to point out that Americans are not liberal, conservative, or moderate. Most Americans have no traditional political ideology. We answer poll questions based on information cues, such as where controversial political figures stand on the issue. For example, try referencing the Affordable Care Act instead of “Obamacare.” Before you know it, Republicans like Senator Jerry Moran get cold feet about repealing it. Stripped of the Obama connection, Moran must face the fact that ACA repeal would deny health coverage to thousands of Kansans.
Yet, the myth of conservative Kansas (and conservative red-state America in general) remains powerful. By myth, I do not mean an urban legend, as in the TV show Mythbusters. An authentic myth, or narrative, is a powerful story by which humans make sense of our place in the world: as taught by scholars like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. We all know the conservative myth by now—the American myth—anyone can make it if they try hard enough. All it takes is a strong foundation in family and traditional values, a willingness to work hard, and a refusal to take handouts. Government just gets in the way.
As the loyal opposition, we respond to this myth by throwing facts at it. Examples abound: Kansans receive more money from the federal government than we pay in taxes so that residents of Democratic-voting “donor states” like Connecticut are paying our bills. Rural America depends on generous farm subsidies. Taxpayer-funded military outlays support communities like Junction City and much of Wichita. Communities need strong public schools and good roads to thrive. Most entitlement spending in this country goes to middle-class senior citizens, not unemployed poor people in urban ghettos. In fact, most of the poor in this country are employed; they receive low wages, not welfare. Among the states, the divorce rate is high in conservative Oklahoma, low in liberal Massachusetts. On and on it goes: bending, but never breaking the myth.
This year, pragmatism won. Kansans are still rugged individualists, but public schools and roads simply must be funded. However, it will not take long for the all this talk of out-of-control spending, “big government,” and tax cuts to re-emerge. The myth is resilient because it is how we want to see ourselves: self-reliant and rugged, not interdependent and communitarian. The new tax bill and school funding formula did nothing to change that. Liberals and centrists may sometimes win with facts, but it is high time we offer powerful narratives –myths in the proper sense of the word – in response to those that are so heavily embedded in our culture.
Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science for Emporia State University.