From the post-Civil War era until recently, Arkansas was a one-party state dominated by Democrats. Even some Democrats recognized this as a problem, which is why they were receptive when Winthrop Rockefeller moved to Arkansas and began building the Republican Party. Case in point: a 1960 "Party for Two Parties" he hosted on Petit Jean Mountain drew 850 guests from both sides of the aisle.
It may be time for another one of those parties – this one benefiting the Democrats.
The past two election cycles have represented a historic shift in the Arkansas electorate. After the 2008 elections, the governor and five of the state’s six congressional representatives were Democrats, and the state Legislature was decidedly one-sided. Today, those numbers are reversed in Congress, and Republicans hold majorities of 21-14 in the state Senate and 51-48-1 in the House. The numbers would have been more lopsided had the GOP not run a few truly bad candidates in 2012 who lost races they should have won and embarrassed the entire party.
Hanging around the State Capitol or just reading the newspaper, it’s clear which party is more dynamic and inspired. House Republicans campaigned as a unit on what they called their SIMPLE plan, a collection of policy changes such as tax cuts and educational reforms, and then went to work trying to pass those ideas.
House Democrats had no such plan. In fact, they recently held a press conference to announce their priorities for the legislative session. The legislative session already was a month old.
After more than 140 years of one-party rule by Democrats, if the momentum continues, this will be a state dominated by Republicans. To keep that from happening, Democrats must give Arkansans a reason to vote for them. You don’t do that by waiting a month into the session to tell people what you want to do.
The problem for the state party is that its national representatives are out of step with Arkansans culturally on social issues such as gun rights and gay marriage. The traditional state party response has been to draw a distinction between itself and the national party. ("I’m an Arkansas Democrat.") But that’s no longer working. If you’re not really a Democrat, then why say you are?
So now the party is drifting, unsure what to do next and trying to survive until President Obama, who is unpopular here, is out of office. That’s not a strategy, either.
There’s nothing Arkansas Democrats can do about their national party’s stance on social issues except hope it reverses course, which won’t happen, or wait for Arkansans’ cultural values to shift, which might. After all, almost half the voters said yes to legalizing medical marijuana four months ago. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.
The Democratic brand does have one advantage, however: The party is still seen, rightly or wrongly, as the party of the little guy. That’s a strength to which it should play if it wants to compete, because there are a lot of little guys out there.
It’s a little bit of a cliche, but Democrats should emulate Bill Clinton (as an officeholder). He championed traditional Democratic concepts such as justice and fairness but sought creative ways to do so and was willing to borrow Republican ideas. Democrats could find a receptive audience by focusing on issues characterized by government assistance but NOT giveaways, such as expanding educational access and extending health care options to the working poor.
However, on those issues the state Republicans have been the party of ideas while state Democrats too often follow their national party’s lead and defend the status quo. Republicans are the ones talking about expanding charter school options and letting the federal government purchase health insurance for those working poor instead of enrolling them in Medicaid. Whether or not those ideas are right or wrong certainly can be debated, but Republicans clearly are thinking harder and more creatively.
Unless you make your living as a Republican or Democrat, you shouldn’t want one side simply to win. What’s needed is an environment where different ideas flower and where healthy debate occurs.
For that to happen, there needs to be more than one party. In fact, there needs to be more than two. But that’s another column.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org