Back in 2004, Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? elevated the state as the textbook case of how the Republican party has been able to leverage a platform of conservative social values to sway the electorate to vote against its economic interests. Railing against abortion, affirmative action, big government, elitism, political correctness, and the like, Republicans surfed the wave of voters’ cultural outrage to election victories and then performed the bait-and-switch.
As Frank tells the story, these officials, instead of delivering on these platforms, engaged in unbridled deregulation and tax cuts, gutting the public sphere on which people depended, such as the educational system, and concentrating wealth in a fewer and fewer hands at the people’s expense.
In 2018, Kansas voters suddenly got “woke,” deciding they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. They elected Democrats Laura Kelly as Governor and Sharice Davids to the House of Representatives.
They felt the reality of Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s Kansas, where it became apparent that, lo and behold, massive tax cuts did not pay for themselves, much less increase state revenues, but rather resulted in severe austerity conditions. For example, the school year was shortened due to revenue shortfalls attributable to his criminally huge corporate tax cuts, exposing that these Republican fiscal and tax policies were not benefiting the economic health of the state or creating a higher quality of life. Brownback’s cuts to education were so egregious that they were deemed unconstitutional by the state’s supreme court. Bobby Jindal wreaked similar havoc in Louisiana back in 2016, granting massive tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations, leaving the state in economic chaos and facing massive cuts to education and basic social services. Republican Governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner followed the same playbook, razing the state’s public sphere in the name of restoring economic health by lowering taxes and destroying unions.
As I wrote back then, voters paying attention should have seen what the GOP had in store for them should a Republican win the presidency in 2016. And Trump has indeed realized this vision, lavishing exorbitant tax cuts to the wealthiest among us and to corporations, resulting in the accelerating deterioration of the economy as well as gutting the public sphere. His budget cut proposals as well as the policies of his Education Secretary Betsy Devos continue to assault funding for public education, making quality public education, including higher education, more expensive and less accessible.
Both Davids and Kelly campaigned strongly on the need to support public education in the wake of Brownback’s devastation of public schools. The people responded.
Democrat Andy Beshear just recently defeated always-Trumper incumbent Governor Matt Bevin largely, by many accounts, because of his support for teachers and public education, while Bevin ran on a platform that refused to increase education budgets while he also outright slandered and insulted teachers.
These models of Democrats flipping staunchly red states blue need to be heeded on the national stage by those seeking the Democratic nomination to run for president.
Let’s remember what happened in Kansas in particular.
Remember that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez supported Davids’ opponent Brent Welder in the Democratic primary because he championed Medicare-for-All while Davids did not.
Davids, a graduate of Cornell Law School, instead emphasized the importance of the quality public education she received and the accessibility of a quality community college that helped her fulfill her dreams. Her platform, while simply stated, promised transformation of great magnitude people understood because they had seen and experienced the conditions of a vibrant and meaningful public sphere that supported their lives and to which all fairly contributed to make possible. And they had seen it taken away from them to provide tax cuts for the wealthy.
So, conservative Kansas voters elected a Native American lesbian candidate to the House of Representatives.
Kelly, similarly, had a record of trumpeting the value of the public sphere and of public service. In addition to other offices, she had been director of the Kansas Recreation and Park Association for 19 years, an honest-to-God real-life Leslie Knope committed to public service and to a public sphere—parks, schools, services—that make people’s lives better and which we all pay for and share.
A recent study showed that the vast majority of Americans do not realize that states have engaged in a substantial disinvestment in public education, particularly public higher education. In real dollars, states collectively cut spending on higher education by 16 percent between 2008 and 2017, with 8 students cutting funding by 30 percent or more. These cuts account for the extra-inflationary rise in tuitions at state institutions, putting greater burdens on students and families and ballooning student loan debts.
Based on election results in Kentucky and Kansas, those seeking the democratic candidacy for president might be well-served to tell this story about an issue the vast majority of Americans care about.
The sounds of Trump’s silence on public education have been audible to the point of being deafening. Indeed, when in 2018 teachers from West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Colorado effectively engaged in mass strikes the likes of which our nation has not witnessed since the 1930s, Trump said not a word to acknowledge or in any way address both the lagging teacher salaries in those states or the woefully low levels of funding for public education which was also a major impetus behind the teachers’ mass actions. This year has witnessed massive teachers’ strikes, already, in Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland for similar reasons.
Trump’s proposed budget for 2020, however, loudly announced his administration’s objective to undermine public education, especially public higher education, calling for a deep and brutal cut of 7.1 billion dollars.
The budget will not be enacted but nonetheless reveals Trump’s priorities and overall thinking about what constitutes effective and responsible fiscal behavior, in terms of what we spend and don’t, what we view as investment, and how best to grow the economy.
Kentucky and Kansas show voters in red states don’t share these priorities.
Democrats need to listen.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.