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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ill Fares the Land of Kansas

Frequently over the years, but especially since Thomas Frank's bestseller What's the Matter with Kansas came out, my adopted state has been written off by various secular and liberal writers across the United States as zealous backwater, a place run by religious fundamentalists and fanatics that have purposely chosen to keep Kansas impoverished and unenlightened for the sake of protecting doctrinal purity. Despite my sympathy for Frank's politics, I never liked his thesis, nor those of many others who have repeated it: it's condescending and reductive take on the people who live here, one that fails to respect their own actual reasons for voting the way they do. But as of this morning, I have to give Frank & Co. some credit: they got the bit about zealotry and doctrinal purity right--only not exactly in the way they might have assumed.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback came into office with the explicit intention of pushing our state's moderate conservative status quo in some extreme directions. He wasn't alone in doing this; he had our congressional delegation on his side, and the Kansas House of Representatives, and powerful interest groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce--given the weakness of the state Democratic party, really only the Kansas Senate, which remained in the hands of moderate Republicans, stood in his way. Ultimately, though, that didn't slow him down much. The Tea Party-motivated conservative caucus mostly fawned when Browback's team brought supply-side guru Arthur Laffer to town, selling his (completely discredited) gospel of how an abandonment by government of public responsibilities will result in a surging, libertarian economic paradise. Our governor, piggy-backing on Laffer's ideas, pressed forward with an extreme plan to lower income taxes, gut or privatize social services, and radically change the relationship between Kansas citizens and the state they have built. He didn't get everything he wanted--he failed (for now) in his push to move the developmentally disabled off the state's Medicaid program and into the hands of private insurers, for example--but he got enough, signing into law yesterday massive tax cuts (which he and state house had outmaneuvered the senate into passing) that will reduce state revenues by nearly $4 billion over the next five years. Given that Kansas is prohibited by its state constitution from producing anything but a balanced budget, and given the political reality that Brownback and his devoted co-religionists will make any further change income taxes next to impossible, this means only one of two things: devastating further cuts to education and social service funding (the local school district here in Wichita will likely lose over $100 million alone), or property tax increases to desperately attempt to contain the hemorrhaging. Probably we'll get both.

Just what kind of gospel is it that holds to a frankly mad idea that will likely result in our state government, under pressure from public schools and state courts, raiding essential highway funds and watching its credit ratings tumble as we potentially head towards California-level fiscal dysfunction? Could it be called a "conservative" ideology? I suppose if you define a word as meaning whatever you want it to mean, you could call it that. But of course, it isn't, not really: "conservatism," if it means anything, should mean prudence, and preserving that which has been accomplished. And Brownback's drive to break down and cut back and privatize the operations of the state, all to make possible enormous business-friendly giveaways (and which will have minimal to almost non-existent benefits for the working poor), is hardly prudent. So what is it? My own local congressional representative, Republican Mike Pompeo, perhaps unintentionally clarified this religion when he described his ideology as a "leave-us-alone conservatism." That desire to be left alone leads in the direction of remaining socially and fiscally untouched, unrecruited, unobligated--what Tony Judt called, in his last book before he passed away, "The Cult of the Private." In the face of a state government which has demonstrated again and again a near-fanatical devotion to a gospel of individualism, independence, austerity, privatization, market triumphalism, and self-help, I can't do better than to just quote from Judt here: 

The reduction of "society" to a thin membrane of interactions between private individuals is presented as the ambition of libertarians and free marketeers....Governments that are too weak or discredited to act through their citizens are more likely to seek their ends by other means: by exhorting, cajoling, threatening, and ultimately coercing people to obey them. The loss of social purpose articulated through public services actually increases the unrestrained powers of the over-mighty state.

There is nothing mysterious about this process: it was described by Edmund Burke in his critique of the French Revolution. Any society, he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, which destroys the fabric of its state, must soon be "disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality." By eviscerating public services and reducing them to network of farmed-out private providers, we have begun to dismantle the fabric of the state. As for the dust and powder of individuality: it resembles nothing so much as Hobbes's war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poo, and more than a little nasty (Ill Fares the Land, pp. 118-119).

Brownback, Pompeo, and the rest of Kansas's emergent conservative Republican majority would, of course, deny this: they would insist that it is they who are truly supporting the traditional "conservative" cause of defending the communitarian, cooperative, and charitable power of churches, neighborhoods, and families by trying to get government off their backs. And admittedly, it is a little strange to see a social democrat like Judt quote Burke, the patron saint of traditional conservatives. But there is a real logic behind what he is doing. Our governor, and our congressional delegation, and all of Kansas today, is not (however much some might want it to be) the agrarian world of limited technology and established churches which Burke knew. We are--even here in Kansas!--a highly mobile and diverse place, deeply implicated in an economy of change and "creative destruction," as the economic Joseph Schumpeter put it (and as any Wichitan who has followed the ups and downs of the aerospace industry can tell you!). In such a world, people have democratically organized themselves to provide, through state institutions and taxation, social goods that, at one time--before modern hospitals, before the interstate highway system, before globalization and multiculturalism--churches and families provided to communities that were much more stable, local, homogenous, and limited than ours today.

In other words, in today's late capitalist world, the operations of the state are themselves the trusted forms of community support--and moreover, Judt feels at least, the only ones which are genuinely capable of dealing with our diverse and disparate lives. To attack the state, then, is not the way to conserve what is best about the state of Kansas; it is, rather a way to break it apart, to reduce even further those feelings of trust and attachment which still remain across our state. Look at it this way: if taxes and systems of common provision, which were once the shared reality of everyone from Topeka to Wichita to Dodge City, are to be seen wholly as an interference is the lives of individuals who prefer to be left alone, exactly what would be this "Kansas" thing that you claim to be trying to serve and conserve? Certainly it wouldn't be a state in the "traditional" sense--but then, the evidence points toward Brownback & Co.'s conservatism being anything but traditional conservatives. Business-friendly free-marketers perhaps, economic libertarians maybe...but not conservatives, not unless conservatism has suddenly come to mean the individualistic "take care of yourself" rather than the community-oriented "let's build something together."

To be sure, Judt's analysis of the culture- and community-conserving role of the state may seem perverse to many, and there are many ways in which his consideration of politics today doesn't fit Kansas at all. (For one thing, like many secularists, he assumes that religion can't truly bind people together in ways that serve diverse needs; he really ought to have read some Lew Daly on faith-based initiatives to gotten straight on this point.) And it is possible to read the business-besotted libertarianism of our governor as only the first step towards the revival of a genuine Jeffersonian localism--but that would assume that he and his supporters in the state government also have a plan to break up our large city centers, to wean our farmers off subsidies and diversify agriculture with a return to small and mid-sized farms, to reduce outward migration (and resist immigration), to restrict and reduce the size of corporations, to accept local limits upon our production and wealth, and to greatly democratize our politics and our economic policies. If I could actually believe that Brownback's aim was to generate a kind of localist revival here in Kansas, with real attention being paid to economic sovereignty and democratic participation and freeing us from the grips of global capitalism, I might look more kindly upon his efforts to starve the state. But given that this whole risky plan has been conveyed with promises of "growth" and "job creation," and has been identified from the very beginning as being in agreement with the agenda of interest groups very much in the pocket of powerful business corporations, all that seems unlikely. So even if you don't agree with the criticisms someone like Judt lodges against this oppose-the-state mentality (remember, as Governor Brownback himself commented as he signed the tax cut bill, his "faith" is in "people of Kansas"--not the government which, those people, you know, put him in charge of), the one thing you can't deny is that it's not any kind of conservatism at all. It is, instead, a rather intense, individualistic religious conviction. Pity Kansas for having unintentionally fulfilled Frank's warning, and given so much power to bunch of rather intense true believers.

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