That Kansas voted to protect abortion rights guaranteed in its state constitution didn’t surprise me, although I certainly never expected a landslide. The original Jayhawkers, after all, waged a guerilla war to prevent Missourians from bringing slavery into the Kansas territory — a violent dress rehearsal for the Civil War. A good deal of the state’s well-known conservatism is grounded in stiff-necked independence.
In the popular imagination, Kansas has always signified heartland values and rustic virtue. Superman grew up on a farm there, disguised as mild-mannered Clark Kent. As did Dorothy of “The Wizard of Oz,” a spunky young woman with an adventurous spirit. But cartoonish fictions have little to do with the real world. My favorite Kansas politician was always Sen. Bob Dole: war hero, Senate majority leader, 1996 GOP presidential nominee, and unmistakably his own man.
Pondering a photo of the then three living ex-presidents — Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon — Dole quipped, “There they are: see no evil, speak no evil ... and evil.”
Regardless of party, how can you not appreciate a politician like that? After the 2020 presidential election, Dole accepted Joe Biden’s victory and allowed as how he was “sort of Trumped out.”
So naturally, Trump skipped his 2021 funeral. All class, that guy.
Although nominally anti-abortion during most of his career, Dole was also a realist who was leery of single-issue zealots and political purity tests. Suffice it to say they aren’t making Republicans like him anymore.
All of that is a roundabout way of saying the Kansas result shouldn’t have astonished anybody. After all, the state currently has a Democratic governor, Laura Kelly. Another Democrat, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, was elected there in 2002 and reelected in 2006. Indeed, as Stuart Rothenberg points out in Roll Call, “Democrats have won four of the last eight gubernatorial contests in the state and six of the last 11.”
It follows that this blue state/red state business based strictly on presidential elections tells you relatively little about a place and its retail politics. More broadly, Justice Samuel Alito and a handful of religious zealots on the Supreme Court can argue that there’s no right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution, but they will never persuade a majority of Americans to believe it.
Specifically, how is it even the government’s affair to know who’s pregnant and who’s not? How is it yours? How is it anybody’s except the woman herself? Truly, it’s hard to imagine a more fundamental freedom than the decision of whether or not to give birth.
Women voters in Kansas appear to have felt this more keenly than men. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, some 33,000 new voters registered in Kansas in the weeks immediately following the court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, some 70% of them women. That’s a lot in a state with just under 2 million registered voters, enough to push the state’s abortion referendum into landslide territory: 59% to 41%.
What the Kansas vote mainly signified to me was bedrock Americanism: essentially, “You’re not the boss of me, and it’s none of your damn business.”
“For decades,” writes the New Yorker’s John Cassidy, “the Republican Party has largely owned and exploited the language of individual liberty and freedom, even as many of its policies have favored the rich and powerful -- from gunmakers to Big Pharma and Wall Street — over individual middle-class Americans.”
It’s time to call their bluff. Everywhere you look these days, politicians calling themselves “conservative” are banning books, pushing teachers around, threatening school boards and businesses, suppressing voting rights, attacking the freedom to love and marry, elevating gun rights over basic human rights, and doing their best to turn American women and girls into brood mares, knocked-up and locked up.
What they are is authoritarian. In a word, bullies.
Writing on Twitter, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut has some advice for Democrats up for election this fall. (He is not on the 2022 ballot.) “Run on personal freedom,” he urges. “Run on keeping the government out of your private life. Run on getting your rights back. This is where the energy is. This is where the 2022 election will be won.”
Polls show that the majority of likely voters are preoccupied with economic issues, inflation in particular. But the Kansas referendum resulted from right-wing activists seeking to impose a total ban on legal abortion: an intrusive effort to extend government control into citizens’ most intimate life decisions.
And voters there rejected it about as decisively as it’s possible to do. It appears that Americans -- and for what it’s worth, Kansans are overwhelmingly white and Christian -- have no wish to live in a judicially imposed theocracy and will turn out in droves to prevent it. Overall voting totals were extremely high for a primary contest, reflecting high motivation.
Perhaps Murphy’s optimism is mistaken. But it’s definitely the right fight to have.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.