If you want to understand the waves of populism, conservatism and progressive protest that have been roiling the country in recent months, Arkansas is a good place to start.
Despite its reputation as a quiet, rural state, Arkansas has a history of conflicting and complex politics. It is a state steeped in populism, but also the birthplace of progressive politicians who went on to become national leaders. It’s in the midst of its third year of a Republican-dominated government, yet it’s among the few Southern states to have raised its minimum wage.
This year, however, the Arkansas state Legislature at times appeared at war with the poor, advocates say. Legislators proposed tighter rules for Medicaid; cut unemployment benefits; and even tried to demand that lottery winners pay back public benefits, such as welfare, after hitting the jackpot, they point out.
The conservative Republican Party is now firmly in control of the House, Senate and governor’s office. Yet within this conservative-led session were hints of progressivism. Legislators embraced modest reforms to the state’s notorious criminal justice system and rejected an ambitious plan to expand support for private schools.
Unlike its neighbors in the Deep South, Arkansas had already accepted expanded Medicaid funds to cover its poor residents under the Affordable Care Act.
Finally, this year the state separated the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee holidays, which respectively honor the civil rights icon and the Confederate Army general. They had previously been celebrated on the same day.
Welcome to Arkansas, a state with such a long history of both progressive and conservative populism that its official motto translates as The People Rule.
Even as Arkansas moved rightward in recent years, it didn’t fit into the political mold of the states in the neighboring Deep South. The state is more like five states than one, with a strong strain of libertarianism running throughout, says Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
The Ozarks are like Idaho; Little Rock is a decidedly urban center; northeastern Arkansas, with its retiree communities, feels like the Midwest; the southwest resembles Texas or Oklahoma; and the southern Delta harkens back to the Deep South, according to Kopsky.
Arkansas is “politically written off as a red Southern state,” says Mireya Reith, head of the Arkansas United Community Coalition. “I think our politics are a lot more complicated than that, not as easily defined by partisan” labels.
One common reality in all five regions of the state is poverty, from the lean-to shacks with newspapers as window panes in the Delta to deep pockets of urban poverty in Little Rock’s South End. Nearly 1 in 5 residents live below the federal poverty line.
“It is hard to ignore it. Yet, it gets ignored,” Dee Ann Newell, head of Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, observes of the poverty that plagues the state.
With slightly fewer than 3 million residents, Arkansas is also a small and intimate state, where personal relationships can matter as much as political allegiances when it comes to crafting public policy.
An undocumented resident, for example, can get a meeting with a mayor, legislator, or even the governor, Reith says, even though those officials may not agree with what they hear.
“Where we have had success is where we have local constituents who have built relationships with their lawmaker,” Kopsky observes.
For grassroots activists, success in 2017 has often been defined by what didn’t happen in the statehouse rather than what did, Kopsky adds.
“Sometimes, in these kinds of environments, just holding the line is a pretty big victory,” Kopsky says.
Holding the line this year meant defeating two bills that targeted local governments and public institutions that adopted sanctuary status, a policy under which local law enforcement officials generally do not cooperate with U.S. immigration agents. Nationwide, municipalities are becoming sanctuary cities.
Under one Arkansas bill, a municipality could have lost state funds if it became a sanctuary city or town, according to Reith. Another measure threatened state funding for college campuses taking a similar step. Both bills were defeated.
Activists also defeated legislation that echoed North Carolina’s controversial bathroom bill, which required people to use public restrooms that matched the gender on their birth certificates, the Arkansas Times reported.
Despite these defensive wins, today Arkansas is clearly a conservative-led state that embraced the brand of politics President Donald Trump championed to victory in November. The president won 60 percent of the voters in the state.
That polarizing victory has since generated an unprecedented level of civic engagement, Arkansas Public Policy Panel’s Kopsky notes, with residents heading to public meetings and candidates already announcing plans to run for office in 2018.
“The rallies we have been having for progressive causes have been much larger than I have ever seen,” says Kyle Leyenberger, communications coordinator for the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
A Battlefield in the Nation’s Education Reform Wars
Perhaps the best window into Arkansas’s politics and policies is its battle over education reform.
Dating back to the dramatic integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, few issues have dominated the state’s public policy arena like education. In recent years, education has emerged as a battleground in the national debate over the expansion of charter schools and school vouchers. In Arkansas, the battle is well underway.
This year, an ambitious bill intended to create savings accounts that parents could then use to pay private school tuition stalled, the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network reported. At the same time, charter school supporters won passage of other measures, including the right of first refusal to buy underutilized public school buildings, according to the news network.
These debates are playing out in a state that lacks an overall education vision to guide discussions and decisions, an absence that stands as one of the biggest obstacles to reforming public education, according to Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliott.
“We are kind of doing education bit by bit,” observes Elliott, who spent three decades as a high school teacher. There is “a real pulling apart…when we really need to be pulling together.”
The state Legislature meets every other year, and education promises to be a top issue once again during the next legislative session in 2019.
Small Steps Toward Criminal Justice Reform
In April, Arkansas made national headlines because of its plans to execute eight prisoners in 11 days. That attention highlighted a state prison system that ranks as the fourth-fastest growing in the country, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and faces questions of profound racial inequity.
Today, 43 percent of those incarcerated in the state are Black, even though Black residents make up only 16 percent of the state’s overall population, Elliott adds.
At the same time, the state did take some steps this year to improve its criminal justice system. Acting on recommendations from a statewide task force, the Legislature passed a pilot program that will create three crisis centers to divert some mentally ill residents from incarceration to mental health treatment, easing overcrowding in prisons and offering more humane treatment, according to the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
The state also banned life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders under the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act.
Even as legislators made these changes, however, they rejected a plan that called for a racial impact statement to be conducted on any changes in criminal justice laws.
This mixed record is nothing new to the state’s longtime grassroots advocates, who have tracked the contrarian nature of Arkansas politics for decades. But several said they draw hope from a political wind that has been building since last November, when Donald Trump was elected the nation’s 45th president.
Increasingly, Arkansas residents are heading to town halls, city council sessions and school board meetings around the state, asking questions and raising their voices.
“They realize their values are really at stake and their voices can make a difference,” Kopsky says.
Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News. He has worked as a journalist at Bloomberg News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Congressional Quarterly. He has covered social policy for more than 20 years.