Kansas: Restoring faith and love for democracy
Governor Laura Kelly. - Mark Reinstein/Zuma Press/TNS

I have been skeptical of those claiming that a backlash is brewing after the US Supreme Court struck down Roe. It’s not that I believe people aren’t mad about losing legal protection of their right to privacy and freedom. It’s that I believe in the wowzer power of the human mind to convince itself that terrible things aren’t so terrible.

Recent polling seemed to validate my skepticism. While some said people were more likely to see the coming midterms as a referendum on abortion rights, others said the economy was more important (inflation, the price of gas, food, etc.). Other polls suggested people had lost so much faith in democracy that they might not vote.

Where is the backlash I have heard so much about?

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A silly loss of faith

I still think I’m right about polling. It can’t accurately capture public opinion in the middle of regime change – as one political order disintegrates and reintegrates to become a new political order. I think we have been in a period of transition since at least 2010.

That’s why last night’s referendum in Kansas is so important.

Suddenly, lost faith in democracy feels premature, even silly.

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More than two-thirds of voters in Kansas said no to a proposal to change the state constitution in order to let state legislators pass laws severely restricting or even outright banning abortion. Tuesday’s vote ensures that Kansas will be a sanctuary for (limited) abortion rights in a midwestern sea of state restrictions or bans.

A vote is so much better than a poll. It is concrete. It is indisputable. It is conclusive. It’s an expression of the will of a democratic people. In this case, it was the will of the residents of a conservative state in which Republican voters outnumber Democratic voters two to one.

The way, the truth and the life

A look in the weeds offers more reason for hope.

First, Kansas referendums don’t usually turn out votes as general elections do. But according to the AP, turnout last night was “within reach” of 50 percent. Fifty-two percent is normal for state generals.

Second, voter registration “surged” after the Supreme Court’s ruling, according to Scott Schwab, the Kansas secretary of state. That surge was, moreover, “heavily Democratic,” according to USA Today. A stunning 70 percent of new voter registration was among women.

Third, these Democratic women powered the no-vote in the state’s suburbs even though these same suburbs went to Donald Trump in 2020. “Suburbs of Wichita and Topeka heavily voted no,” USA Today reported. “In Franklin County, where Trump won with 68 percent of the vote, 56 percent voted to uphold the right to an abortion.”

For those of us worried about the future of democracy, especially the will of a democratic people to take their destinies into their own hands, last night’s results are about as good as any of us can expect.

White women, conservative or liberal, seem to be mad as hell. They’re not going to take it anymore. Plus, they know which party is going to protect them and their rights. It’s not the party of a former president whom they had previously and overwhelmingly supported.

Above all, they know democracy is how to get what they want.

Regime change?

Even though these women are registering as Democrats, and even though they know which party is going to protect them and their rights, last night’s referendum offered a curious, ironic feature.

An insistence that voting down the referendum wasn’t partisan.

A spokeswoman for Kansas for Constitutional Freedom, a bipartisan coalition, said the issue is one of commonsense. “I think that most Kansans don't necessarily see this issue as partisan,” Ashley All said.

“I know that that is kind of the frame we all tend to put on it, but that is actually not the way most people think about it,” she said. “So we really have tried to make sure that we speak to a broad audience.”

That’s important for a couple of reasons.

On the one hand, abortion may be emerging as a true wedge issue that Democrats can use to pry Republican voters across the country away from their party just enough to support Democratic midterm candidates who will in turn vote to codify Roe into federal statute.

On the other hand, abortion may be emerging as a truly reasonable issue released from the burdens of partisanship – an uncontroversial issue on account of a majority wanting it to be settled – such that it drags the Democratic Party into that sweet, sweet middle of politics.

Abortion could be to our political order what civil rights (Black rights) was to the previous political order – a catalyst for change.

White women, rethinking

“Conservatism” didn’t rise from the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s failed bid for the presidency. It rose from the triumphs of the civil rights movement and its backing by the Congress and the Supreme Court.

The political order launched by Ronald Reagan’s election, and consolidated by Bill Clinton’s, was the result of a white-power backlash against decades of advancement in individual liberty – advancements that rightwing politics has labored to reverse.

Voters of the kind who live in the suburbs of Wichita and Topeka were satisfied with a conservative political order that punched down as long as it didn’t change in ways considered fundamental since Roe.

But now that rightwing politics has achieved what it set out to – now that it is advancing toward the criminalization of other individual freedoms that had been settled, like when you can have kids, who you can marry and even which books you can read – such moderate voters (ie, white women) seem to be rethinking their commitments.

I hope they continue rethinking.

Politics of love

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It could be that Kansans voted against this referendum because it was easy to. It wasn’t attached to a candidate, thus freeing voters from having to explain their votes.

But even so, last night was important.

It reminded us to keep the faith – democratic faith.

We the people have the power. We the people have the power, no matter how dark things seem. (The GOP knows this, by the way. That’s why they work so hard to rig the rules of democracy without seeming to have worked so hard to rig the rules of democracy.)

We often get bogged down in the details of politics. Gerrymandering. Campaign fundraising. The press corps’ status quo bias. Polling that shows that Americans have lost faith in democracy. And so on.

When we do, we forget why we’re fighting.

We fight not so much to stop the authoritarian collectivism that’s creeping across the republic, though there’s no choice but to fight.

We fight out of love. Democracy is love – if we love, too.

The news from Kansas suggests we are relearning how.

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