As regulars of this blog know, I grew up in south-central Nebraska. Over the last fifteen years of my life, I have resided outside of my home state, and have been viewing political developments there with increasing worry. Thomas Frank's flawed masterpiece, What's the Matter with Kansas? tried to explain conservatism's appeal to working-class whites in areas that were once politically progressive. To understand what has changed within political conservatism, I think my home state provides the perfect case study.
Nebraska has long been a bastion of conservatism, both politically and socially. When the Cornhuskers won their national titles, they did it with a running offense that was a throwback to the olden days of football. Growing up, the most subtle dig you could make at something or someone was that it/he/she was "different." My love of indie rock in high school didn't make me cool, it made me the subject of mockery. In terms of politics, Nebraska has gone for Republicans in every single presidential election since LBJ's landslide in 1964.
Despite the Cornhusker state's conservative ethos, it has not been, until recently, dominated by radical conservative ideology. It has been a state with a robust public sphere, including well-funded schools, low tuition at state universities, plentiful state parks, and the best damn interstate rest areas in the nation. (No joke!) Democrats used to be elected to major offices, including Ben Nelson as both governor and senator, Bob Kerry as governor and senator, Jim Exon as senator for almost twenty years, and Ed Zorinsky for two terms, all within my lifetime. The state's conservatism was based in more traditional sources, not in free-market worship or anti-tax hysteria.
That has changed. Last year, the state's Republicans nominated a Tea Party-backed candidate, Deb Fischer, who is now in Washington. The other current senator, Mike Johanns, a popular former governor and relatively moderate conservative, has just announced that he won't run in 2014. He has been willing to compromise with the Democrats, and has been critical of the far-Right fringe, who now has the power to prevent his reelection. I would not be surprised if another Tea Party-style Republican ends up with the nomination.
As far as the governor's mansion is concerned, the race to succeed Dave Heineman was thrown open when the current lieutenant governor was caught using his state-issued cell phone to have sexy time with multiple mistresses. The first new candidate to step forward, Charlie Janssen, is the author of a voter ID bill and has pushed for Arizona-style racial profiling laws. He spouts off terms like "individual liberty" in his campaign pronouncements despite his desire to suppress the vote and use the police to harass Latinos. The man is so zealous in his hatreds that he wants a law to ban unborn children of undocumented immigrants from getting pre-natal care. ("Pro-life" indeed.) My state hardly has a sterling record when it comes to racism, but I never knew of Nebraska politicians who so nakedly used racist resentment to appeal to white voters. In sum, Janssen represents the kind of hard-Right conservatism Nebraskans used to let places like Texas and Mississippi practice.
Heineman, the current governor, has hardly been less zealous. In fact, he was so furious over the state legislature's override of his vetoing a bill restoring the aforementioned prenatal care that he campaigned against giving the low-paid unicameral reps a pay raise. He also recently proposed eliminating Nebraska's income tax while expanding its sales tax (including extending it to food), an insanely regressive move. Evidently that move has foundered, but in doing so, Heineman is attempting a full frontal assault on the state's traditional social contract in favor of the type of brutally regressive schemes favored in states like Texas and Florida.
My home state was always conservative, now it is becoming radical. I guess decades of Fox News, talk radio, and massive bales of money from outside organizations have worked. Every time I come home I am more and more shocked that the fundamental generosity and public-mindedness of my homeland has been replaced with hatred, resentment, fundamentalist religiosity, and laissez-faire orthodoxy. Nebraska's fate has been shared by large swaths of this country, and the fact that radicals now control so much of the country makes it that much harder for positive change to happen in this country.