Favorite

Polarization thwacks the legislature 

One would think that Arkansas's state political institutions would be overwhelmingly popular with the state's citizens.

The state's budgetary health throughout the recession years has been the envy of other states. Sizable (though not irresponsible) tax cuts were enacted in the just-completed legislative session.

In that same session, the state government showed that it could tackle big problems by successfully passing a corrections overhaul that is arguably the most important action by state government in this generation besides the Lake View school reforms.

Gov. Mike Beebe is, indeed, the recipient of immense public approval.

Last week's Talk Business/Hendrix College poll showed the ongoing broad and deep support for the governor. At 67 percent approval, including 52 percent support among Arkansas's Republicans, Beebe appears on his way to sharing the title of most popular Arkansas governor in the contemporary era with Dale Bumpers.(Remember that David Pryor had the ill-conceived "Arkansas Plan" that harmed his standing midway through his governorship.)

But, the approval of state government stops with the governor. The state's General Assembly is not sharing in the warmth of the Arkansas public. That same poll shows that Arkansans paying enough attention to the recent legislative session to evaluate it disapproved of the legislature's performance by 29 to 41 percent.

The state's draconian term limits provisions ensure ever-decreasing legislative experience and have turned the opening weeks of every legislative session into a lengthy orientation session for the dozens of new members working to learn the basics of the legislative process. This increasingly apparent legislative inefficiency certainly gets some blame for the low standing of the legislature. Also partly to blame is the unwillingness of the body to pass meaningful ethics reform legislation even as taxpayer-funded reimbursements to legislators for their own "consulting services" are brought to light.

However, it is another force that showed itself during the session that brought the greatest harm to the General Assembly's public perception: partisan polarization. As all signs indicate a future with an even more intensely polarized legislature, the future does not bode well for Arkansans' faith in their legislative voice.

The Capitol building in Little Rock is a replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. In 2011 the Arkansas legislature similarly began copying the behavior of the hyperpartisan United States Congress, breaking with a past in which partisanship mattered relatively little in Arkansas's General Assembly. That partisanship was shown in rhetoric that grew increasingly heated as the session's weeks went by on issues such as health care reform, taxes, and abortion.

This week's report of the Citizens First Congress, a multi-issue progressive lobbying group, shows almost complete partisanship in the voting patterns in the state House with all but one Democrat clumped at the top of their list of supportive legislators and all but two Republicans clumped at the bottom. (The state Senate does remain less polarized, for the moment.)

Polarization turns off voters across the political spectrum. Independent voters are repelled by partisanship in any form. But, more ideologically extreme voters are also demoralized when the polarization often leads to an impasse on the issues they care most about.

The prison reform package that has the promise to transform the state's increasingly costly corrections system should have been celebrated as an achievement that showed that the legislature could do big things even in an era of polarization and term limits. However, the bill signing was overshadowed by headlines about the messy (and often partisan) congressional redistricting process that log-jammed the legislature for weeks.

It is unclear which party will control the General Assembly in the 2013 session, but it is quite clear that the divided body will likely be even more polarized than this time out. The result will be a frustrated, disempowered citizenry unless legislative leaders emerge from both parties with the Beebe-esque capability to build bridges across these lines of difference.

Jay Barth is a professor of politics at Hendrix College. Ernest Dumas is on vacation.

Favorite

From the ArkTimes store

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Jay Barth

  • Arkansas's GOP factions

    One clear takeaway from the 2017 legislative session is that, for the first time, stark factional divisions within the state's Republican Party are now shaping the winners and losers in Arkansas's public policy debates.
    • May 18, 2017
  • An ideological canyon

    If you're troubled by the political division in America, two surveys of our youngest adults released in the last week indicate you haven't seen anything yet.
    • May 4, 2017
  • Remembering Elaine

    Elaine's 1919 race massacre marked, probably, the deadliest event of racial violence in U.S. history.
    • Apr 20, 2017
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Schlafly's influence

    Phyllis Schlafly, mother, attorney and longtime antifeminist, died recently. What Schlafly promoted was not novel or new. Men had been saying that men and women were not equal for years. However, anti-feminism, anti-women language had much more power coming from a woman who professed to be looking out for the good of all women and families.
    • Sep 15, 2016
  • Seven

    The controversy over the Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol lawn just won't go away.
    • Feb 9, 2017
  • Why a change of leadership at the LRSD now?

    Johnny Key's abrupt, unilateral decision to not renew Baker Kurrus' contract as superintendent strikes us as shortsighted, misguided and detrimental to the education of our children and the health of our community.
    • Apr 21, 2016

Most Shared

  • Trump unfit

    Even as an oligarch, President Trump turns out to be breathtakingly incompetent. Is there any reason to suppose he's even loyal to the United States? Does he even understand the concept? Trump is loyal to Trump, and to his absurdly swollen ego. Nothing and nobody else.
  • You want tort reform? Try this.

    The nursing home industry and the chamber of commerce finally defeated the trial lawyers in the 2017 legislature. The Republican-dominated body approved a constitutional amendment for voters in 2018 that they'll depict as close to motherhood in goodness.
  • Goodbye, Mr. Trump

    It is hard to escape the feeling that the fortunes of President Trump and the country took a decisive, and for Trump a fatal, turn May 9-10, when the president fired the director of the FBI over its investigation of Russian efforts to swing the presidential election to him and the very next day shared top-secret intelligence with Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting closed except to a Kremlin press aide toting electronic gear to capture the intimate session for Russians but not Americans.
  • Raw feelings in the Arkansas Justice Building over workload, pay

    Strained relations between the Arkansas Supreme Court and the Arkansas Court of Appeals broke into public view this week. I expect more to come.

Latest in Guest Writer

  • Vote no on school tax

    I have never voted against a school tax in my life, but I will be voting against the debt service millage extension for the Little Rock School District.
    • May 4, 2017
  • Intracity tourism

    The issues that tug at my heartstrings are neighborhood stigma and neighborhood segregation, which are so prevalent in Little Rock. In my opinion, the solution to those problems is "intracity tourism."
    • Apr 27, 2017
  • Not justice

    The strongest, most enduring calls for the death penalty come from those who feel deeply the moral righteousness of "eye-for-an-eye" justice, or retribution. From the depths of pain and the heights of moral offense comes the cry, "The suffering you cause is the suffering you shall receive!" From the true moral insight that punishment should fit the crime, cool logic concludes, "Killers should be killed." Yet I say: retribution yes; death penalty no.
    • Apr 20, 2017
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

New Entrance and North Forest to debut with Chihuly exhibit opening at Crystal Bridges

New Entrance and North Forest to debut with Chihuly exhibit opening at Crystal Bridges

Dual Chihuly exhibit opening also brings culmination of year-plus forest project

Event Calendar

« »

May

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31  

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Trump unfit

    • Well, Al - I'll give it to you - I can't find, again, that phrase…

    • on May 22, 2017
  • Re: Trump unfit

    • Well, not only does Al do the Projection shuffle, he also does the Strawman two…

    • on May 22, 2017
  • Re: Trump unfit

    • Al, you're a little late to the party, and have arrived with dated info. The…

    • on May 22, 2017
 

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation