Society Magazine

Seven Theses on Kansas, "Popularism," and Value Them Both

Posted on the 03 August 2022 by Russellarbenfox
Seven Theses Kansas,

Well, my predictions from yesterday were wrong (mostly; I was still right about Kris Kobach getting the Republican Attorney General nomination). And while the image I used yesterday to reflect the diversity of the No campaign here in Wichita didn't unintentionally predict the final state-wide vote totals (59% voted No, not 75%), the fact is it was a lot closer than I or any other serious political observer here in Kansas that I'm aware of actually believed was possible. So what more is there to say.

Well, a few things, anyway:

1) Let me repeat what I just wrote: nobody I am aware of who as at all seriously engaged in following these campaigns--and I've talked to people at the Kansas Reflector, at Vox, at Newsweek, at ABC News and KAKE News locally, and many more places about all this--was predicting that in an August primary election, in a strongly Republican state, would result in a win for abortion rights by 10 points, much less nearly 20 points. As the very first election to take place anywhere in America after the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the ending of a national constitutional guarantee of at least limited access to abortion services, the size of the Value Them Both amendment's defeat is bound to create a lot of political noise.

2) Political noise...but maybe not immediate political changes. Political parties are mighty beasts, and different factions or interest groups that have put in years of work and money and organizational strategy in shaping their platforms, and thereby socializing and contributing to the further self-sorting of voters who look at those parties and platforms, aren't going to want to see them make an about-face after just one election. Here in Kansas, I would expect that Governor Kelly will express gratitude for the results, and then proceed to run her re-election campaign in with the same wonky focus on Medicaid expansion and other nuts-and-bolts issues that she's always preferred; similarly, I bet that Derek Schmidt will prefer to say as little as possible about the failed amendment, and run the same "Governor Kelly serves the radical left in Washington DC" ads that he's team has no doubt long since prepped, only with references to abortion very much cut back.

3) Why? Because Schmidt will know, as will leaders of the GOP's current super-majority in Topeka, that there is simply no honest way to parse these numbers without acknowledging that there were a good number of Republicans--including at least a small-but-nonetheless-meaningful slice of Kobach-supporting, low-propensity, normally-November-voting-only, self-identifying conservative Republicans!--who voted against the amendment. The majority of the Republicans in Topeka come from safe enough seats not to worry about alienating those Republicans who wandered off the anti-abortion reservation this particular election...but there are at least a few who will worry about them, and Schmidt, who needs to hold on to votes in the same urban counties which Kelly won in 2018, will worry about them as well.

4) So I suspect that the short-term consequences of this vote won't be especially visible. It's the medium-term consequences, the post-November 2022 consequences, which could potentially put some real force behind all the chatter which Value Them Both's defeat is generating. I could be wrong, of course; my track record suggests I probably will be. Maybe the Kansas GOP will immediately throw all their efforts behind voting to unseat state supreme court justices in November, and immediately start talking about taking another shot at amending the constitution, this time grudgingly including language about how the Kansas constitution does guarantee that there cannot be a total, no-exceptions-for-rape-or-incest-or-medical-emergency abortion ban. But I doubt it; rather, I think they're going to want to wait to see how this vote is reflected in other votes nationally, and how the overall abortion discourse continues to evolve.

5) After all, in the meantime there is probably going to be a small, perhaps invisible, but almost certainly nonetheless viscous, fracture within the Kansas GOP to deal with, all while the gubernatorial election is going on. Because there will be Republicans--the small-government, business-oriented, libertarian-inclined, individualistic Republicans from rural Kansas, the pragmatic folks that, before Brownback and Trump would have been considered the backbone of the party--that will have serious questions for why their party essentially out-sourced themselves to Kansas Catholic archdioceses for this election, and why they ended up (by driving all the cultural conservatives to the August voting booth) saddling themselves with a three-time loser like Kris Kobach as their attorney general candidate. That fracture doesn't exist in isolation, of course; the divide between the numerous micro-factions that make up the much-declined (but not extinct) moderate bloc of Republican voters and the even more numerous micro-factions that make up the dominant (but not completely unobstructed) conservative, Trumpist bloc of Republicans, has been a feature of Kansas politics for decades, and this internal fight will be folded into it. Will it push the party towards a new balance? Dion Lefler, who has watched Kansas politics as closely as anyone I know, thinks it might; we need to wait and see.

6) As we wait for the medium- and long-term consequences of a strongly Republican state voting in a way that actually reflects the existing polling data here in the state, as opposed to being led by party allegiance to support the much more extreme positions adopted by minority anti-abortion factions in their parties, to play themselves out, one note about "popularism." While there are many ways to make use of this wonky idea which has emerged among Democratic activists over the past couple of years, the basic idea is that Democrats hurt themselves when they allow their party to become associated with liberal or progressive or radical or socialist ideas that don't poll well, even if their purported consequences are ones voters clamor for. The question, as my old friend Damon Linker posed months ago, is whether the insights of popularism--that is, building campaigns around those ideas which poll well with ordinary voters, keeping the question of whether or not they are truly empowering or "populist" insofar as the interests of ordinary people are concerned as a secondary concern ("normie politics," as Freddie deBoer put it)--apply to Republicans as well. Noting the extreme abortion bans popping up through legislative action throughout the country in the wake of Roe's overturning, Damon wondered if Republicans are "governed by the principle that there are and can be no negative electoral consequences from moving too far to the antiliberal right on cultural issues." If so, then the defeat of Value Them Both might be seen as sign that some Republicans had had enough, or at least were content with what they had (abortion is already quite heavily regulated in Kansas), and didn't want to see the status quo disrupted, even if that meant challenging their own party's priorities in this primary election.

7) Finally, if nothing else, let's enjoy a couple of news cycles where people wonder how on earth an anti-abortion referendum could have lost in Kansas. The context is totally different, but I can’t help, as I look at the incredulity around me, but remember an exchange during the debate over the non-discrimination ordinance adopted here in Wichita by the city council last year. City ordinances to explicitly list and defend the rights of LGBTQ citizens had been pushed by many groups throughout Kansas for years, and Mayor Brandon Whipple made supporting such a priority. It passed by a 6-1 vote, but not before much argument on the council, some of it contentious, and two marathon open city council meetings that went on for hours, with dozens of people showing up to elaborate about how an NDO was an attack on religious freedom. At one of those meetings, a woman showed up and looked at the council (which ultimately, after many delays, voted for the ordinance by 6-1), shook her head, and said, in essence, “this isn’t the Kansas way, this isn’t the Wichita way, I don’t know who you people think you’re representing.” When she saw Mayor Whipple roll his eyes, she zeroed in on him, observing that her grandchildren deserved to grow up in a Christian world, "not Brandon Whipple’s world." I’ve never heard the conviction held by that shrinking-but-still powerful segment of Kansas voters that true “Kansas values” can’t possibly include abortion rights, LGBTQ protections, etc., expressed so pithily. Until today, that is.

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