Society Magazine

Hoping to Take Home Rule Seriously

Posted on the 10 April 2022 by Russellarbenfox
Hoping to Take Home Rule SeriouslyMany Kansas Republicans likely guffawed in disbelief when Governor Laura Kelly recently insisted "I am a major local-control advocate" and that she was opposed to "usurping" the power of local governments. The stereotype of Democrats as always favoring centralized government programs, with Republicans always fighting to keep government small and local, is deeply entrenched in our national political discourse, and it's an image which the Kansas Republican party fully intends to make use of this election year. The language of the state GOP, which dominated much of the spring legislative special session, presents Kelly’s emergency orders during the pandemic as examples of one-size-fits-all overreach, thus building on this stereotype expertly.

The truth, of course, as always, is more complex. And here in Kansas, that complexity--the product of trends in platform development and political socialization rooted in constitutional disputes over federal versus state power going back to the civil rights movement and before--is inextricable from the fact that the localities which the "small government" rhetoric of Kansas Republicans seems most often focused upon are the spacious, rural, and increasingly empty ones which cover most of the state's territory. Whereas to allow the local governments of Kansas’s few growing cities and urban areas to take care of themselves, by contrast, is often seen as a threat. When Kansas Senator John Doll (R-Garden City) recently commented “I think we [in the legislature] just do so many things to curb the power of the municipal,” his frustration was justified.

This session included two major examples of this dynamic. First, a bill to prevent Kansas cities and counties from banning, limiting, or even taxing plastic bags. This bill, which doesn't quite have enough support in the legislature to overturn a veto by Governor Kelly, emerged mostly in reaction to, not any actual local regulations, but rather just the successful environmental activism here in Wichita which led to the creation of a task force to explore and make recommendations regarding such regulations. Second, a bill to prevent Kansas cities and counties from issuing municipal IDs to undocumented residents so as to provide them with some protection from federal immigration enforcement. This bill, which does appear to have enough support to overcome an executive veto, and which rushed through the Kansas Senate with barely any debate at the urging of Attorney General (and all-but-officially the Republican candidate for governor this November) Derek Schmidt, emerged mostly in response to the passage of a local ordinance in Wyandotte County, which itself was the result of five years of conversations and negotiations driven by concerns over the public health and safety needs of many of the county's diverse, long-time, yet often unregistered residents. With both bills sitting on Governor Kelly's desk she thus finds herself in the position of potentially being able to use her veto pen to defend of local democracy, at least a little bit.

(Also, it's worth noting that these two examples are not alone, though they are the most prominent. There was also a bill, which the governor allowed to become law without her signature, that restricts the ability of cities or counties to impose limits upon individual citizens' use of natural gas, a bill which emerged in part when the city of Lawrence committed to switching entirely to green energy by 2035, and there remains a bill in committee that would prevent local government entities, including school districts and college and university boards, from responding to pandemic concerns by imposing mask mandates; that bill has strong support in the Republican caucus, and might yet come up for a vote at any time.)

Now anyone who has spent time watching the patterns of Kansas politics through the frame of the rural/urban divide, and how that plays out in shaping the electoral interests of legislators, can’t find this surprising. Over the past decade and a half, there have been many similar conflicts, with most Republican legislators consistently rebuffing the concerns democratically voiced in Kansas’s (very slowly, but nonetheless surely) liberalizing urban areas. There have been state laws which overturned city efforts to keep their insurance costs low by preserving gun-free zones in municipal buildings, and state decisions which have blocked city efforts to lower or eliminate the criminal penalties attached to medical or recreational marijuana use.

Federalism has always been, and always will be, a messy area of American politics, and extending the subsidiarity idea supposedly implicit to the federal principle further down the ladder, to the municipal level, obliges us to think hard about a host of theoretical, demographic, legal, and socio-economic matters relevant to what we really mean when we talk of "democratic sovereignty." After all, calls for “small government” or “local control” are often more self-interestedly instrumental rather than morally principled, and state legislatures dominated by Democrats don’t necessarily have a better record when it comes to respecting municipal democracy (as Eric Levits notes, "progressives are wont to frame popular democracy as morally sacrosanct even as we carefully guard our preferred exemptions from it"--though he argues, reasonably enough, that such inconsistencies don't reflect a foundational problem with democracy so much as a recognition that, practically speaking the "myriad obstacles" to true popular democracy in the United States require constant work-arounds). Still overall, the "populist" (or, specifically, anti-intellectual elite) character of much contemporary Republican rhetoric, while it does potentially have a localized, small-d democratic aspect to it, so consistently overlaps with a general anti-liberal, anti-urban, and anti-majoritarian position that it's easy to conclude that American conservatism today has, in Alex Pareene's words, "no philosophical commitment to localism," but rather "an instrumental attachment to federalism, and to the state form of subgovernment," because it is "the form best suited to maintain, at the local level, the dominance of the suburban and rural over the urban, and, at the national level, the dominance of geography over people."

Given all of that, why expect the Republican-dominated Kansas legislature, or the mostly Republican Kansas electorate in general to take more seriously sincere efforts by the citizens in Kansas's cities to govern themselves? Partly, perhaps, because Kansas has a literal “Home Rule” provision written into its state constitution, thereby is formally--if not necessarily effectively or coherently, as debates here in Wichita over popular protection of historical buildings demonstrates--committed to recognizing the self-governance of Kansas's towns and cities. Also, perhaps one could hope for some recognition of the value of allowing localities the liberty to govern themselves as many Kansas Republicans have felt driven toward (or have chosen to present themselves as pursuing for partisan reasons) an arguably more pluralistic, libertarian, "pro-choice" line--not regarding abortion, of course, but definitely when it comes to matters of public health and therefore, at least potentially, other policy concerns as well. The link between libertarianism and localism isn't a necessary one, of course, even assuming that either ideological position is rooted in actual beliefs. (The fact that Lawrence passed an ordinance motivated by concerns pretty much identical to Wyandotte’s with no reaction from the legislature--at least not initially--suggests that the Kansas Republican opposition to local urban governance is more a matter of political timing than legal interpretation.) Still, it's something that we left-leaning urban localists (there are some of us!) in this majority Republican state can hope for, at least.

Truthfully, there's probably no chance of Kansas losing its historically rural reputation and character, and the deep attachment to voting Republican which has come along with it, any time in my lifetime. But the fact remains that the state’s continued economic development, given that a revolution in the direction of autarkic agrarianism and anarcho-socialism is highly unlikely, is and will overwhelmingly in the hands of those urban parts of the state where the population is growing and connections to the actually existing nationalized and globalized economies of late capitalism are being maintained. There is just no getting around that plain fact. Hence, the local governments in those places, in particular, need a free (or at least a freerer) hand to respond to the interests and beliefs of their citizens, thereby enabling-- and, in fact, inducing--them to be that much more committed to our shared home. To treat urban Kansans’ efforts on behalf of public health, environmental stewardship, and civic life in the places they live with dismissive inconsistency, whether for sincerely state-centric ideological reasons or (more probably) for self-interested partisan ones, is no way to keep Kansas’s sunflower blooming.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog