Friday, October 08, 2021

When Kansas Republicans Become Libertarians, Sort Of

[An article of mine in Current magazine, which is an updated approach to a column that originally ran in the Wichita Eagle and which I expanded upon here.]

President Biden’s September announcement that either COVID-19 vaccinations or regular COVID testing would be mandated of all federal workers, as well as all who work for businesses that employ 100 people or more, was, it goes without saying, divisive. That divisiveness, though, is not entirely widespread. According to the latest polls, Biden’s actions are supported or at least unopposed by two-thirds of the American people, and despite many predictions about protests and resignations, the data suggests that vaccination-reluctant Americans are coming around. So the opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandate in reality seems to be fairly localized.

Take the Republicans in my own state of Kansas, among whom opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandates really is widespread. Not only did the leadership of the Kansas GOP immediately unify around a condemnation of Biden, but one of our U.S. senators was the first to introduce legislation to strip Biden of the financial power to enact his order, a proposal that was defeated on a party-line vote. This fact might align with those who assume the opposition to Biden is entirely a matter of party polarization, and surely it mostly is. But looking at the claims made by Kansas Republicans brings up arguments over ideas as well—although exploring those ideas is a frustrating endeavor.

The language employed by Derek Schmidt, Kansas’s Republican attorney general, is perhaps the best guide to this strange debate. Schmidt, who is planning a 2022 challenge to Kansas’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, was quick to join with other Republican leaders in threatening to fight the Biden vaccination mandate all the way to the Supreme Court. While doing so he made his principles clear: “Receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice” that should not be subject to a “government decree.” 

There are many ways in which Schmidt’s formulation is directly aimed at Governor Kelly, who has fought with the Republican majority in the Kansas legislature over mask mandates and school closures for the past eighteen months. Such language will likely be central to his gubernatorial campaign. But at the same time, it presents some Kansas-specific intellectual confusion.

This because in 2022, in addition to voting for a governor, Kansans will vote on the “Value Them Both” amendment, a proposed anti-abortion amendment to Kansas’s constitution. Schmidt is closely tied to the proposed amendment since it is a response to a Kansas State Supreme Court case wherein the Kansas attorney general defended a state law that outlawed a particular second-trimester abortion procedure. The state lost on a 6-1 ruling, with the court declaring that the language of Kansas’s constitution supports the right of a woman to choose to access abortion services, an interpretation Schmidt has regularly condemned. In a recent interview he repeated his condemnation, and strongly connected his support for the amendment to his campaign to return “pro-life” values to Kansas. So far, that’s consistent enough.

But when the interview turned to the public health fights of the past year and a half, Schmidt explicitly affirmed the formulation of “choice” employed in the very same Kansas Supreme Court decision he insists needs to be overturned. He repeatedly emphasized that the choice to get vaccinated is an “individual decision for individual citizens, not for the government,” and that “people ought to be entrusted with” the right to choose what is medically best for themselves. Schmidt concluded: “People do have a right . . . well actually the Kansas Supreme Court in a different context calls it a ‘right to bodily integrity.’ . . . I don’t mean to conflate the two debates [but] . . . it is quite a thing for the government to order a needle to be stuck in someone’s arm.”

The interviewer pushed back at this point, observing that a woman’s choice to make use of abortion services is an even more personal decision, involving an even more intimate question about one’s “bodily integrity,” with government restrictions that may force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term presumably being “quite a thing” as well. Schmidt’s response: “There is, of course, a difference . . . At least in the view of those of us on the pro-life side, there are two persons’ interests who have to be accounted for in the abortion context. That is not so, or at least less so, in the vaccination context.”

Two points come to mind about all of this. First, if Schmidt sincerely believes that vaccinations should be treated as a matter of personal choice due to the “right to bodily integrity,” such as is reflected in the very case he is seeking to invalidate, then he really should read that case again. Because the deciding majority did, in fact, touch upon the problem of the government sometimes requiring that needles be stuck in arms. The court concluded, while citing other decisions, that their interpretation of the Kansas constitution’s language regarding choice posed no threat to well-established precedents for state-mandated vaccinations so long as individual health exemptions are provided—which, as it happens, the Biden plan does.

Second, Schmidt’s reference to “two persons’ interests” in the case of abortion is also perplexing. What are we to make of someone who presumably holds to a deep belief in preserving unborn life but then looks at the question of vaccinations, hears the clear evidence showing the threat that remaining unvaccinated poses to the lives and livelihoods of millions of others, sees the death that refusing vaccination is bringing into hospitals every day, and still insists that not being required to put a needle in your arm is the more defensible position?

There are ways in which Schmidt’s employ of this particular “pro-choice” formulation could be made more intellectually interesting, even if not coherent. Perhaps one could ask if he in fact denies the life-threatening character of COVID-19, or wonder if he’s going to go full libertarian and attack vaccinations against childhood diseases as well. At the same time, one might be forgiven for suspecting that treating Schmidt’s language as worthy of intellectual engagement simply plays into a cynical, situational game. Maybe in his circle it’s all just political messaging, all the way down. Americans like the idea of choice, and so when one political party advances policies that require restrictions as a matter of public health, wave the banner of choice and oppose them; it’ll resonate with the American people! As for the accusation of inconsistency, well, that can be dismissed as a persnickety concern that won’t get any play on social media anyway.

Those of us who maintain any kind of civic hope must constantly be on guard against such crude reductionisms. Ideas matter, and bad ideas, if exposed, should be noted for what they are. Being as clear and as consistent as possible in our language, and being open about whatever inconsistencies they involve, is essential to doing so; this is a point as old as Orwell. But talking with my students here in Kansas, I recognize I’m in an increasingly marginal position.

COVID-19 hasn’t been alone in bringing stresses to American political discourse that have confused the ideological positions that have long defined our major parties; Trump, of course, has been a primary player as well. But whether we blame Trump or the pandemic or both for our disorientation, it is sad that in the midst of our present crisis principled disagreements over matters of great import—personal liberties and public health—have been hard to find. American democracy requires parties that can advance such arguments honestly. Playing games with them—as too many leaders of the Kansas Republican party are doing today—simply invites further cynicism about the place of ideas in politics, at a time when more cynicism is the last thing we need.

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