In 2004, Thomas Frank wrote a book titled What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. It was an exploration of what voters in the heartland were thinking when they repeatedly voted against their own (assumed) self-interests by repeatedly electing Republicans to office.
Perhaps because of the condescending assumption that folks in red states don't properly understand their own self-interests, the book cemented a sense among progressives that red states were "unwinnable" -- that there was something inherently "wrong" with "those" voters that they would continually vote for Republicans. As a result, most progressive organizations and campaigns fled red states like Kansas and focused their energies elsewhere.
The result is that these states have been left to fend for themselves with not only few progressive resources, but also little progressive infrastructure. Without investment in progressive infrastructure and resources to help prop up and support populist tendencies within the state, states like Kansas have been left on their own -- and, as a result, they're becoming the political playgrounds of right-wing extremists.
Take, for example, the very recent effort to force a bill through the Kansas state legislature that would have legally permitted discrimination, if the act of discrimination was rooted in an individual's "sincerely-held religious belief." This bill wasn't pushed through by Kansas voters. It wasn't introduced by a Kansas legislator who firmly believes in its merits. It was handed to a legislator for introduction and passage by an out-of-state, extremist organization housed by a right-wing think tank in Washington, DC. Though it was disturbing to see the bill pass the Kansas House with flying colors (stopped, fortunately, by the Kansas Senate), what was more disturbing was to see the reaction of progressives on social media:
"What do you expect? It's Kansas, for Christ's sake!"
"I don't know why anyone lives there - it's a god-forsaken place."
"If you live in Kansas, don't bother complaining about this bill - you chose to live there, and you can choose to leave."
These comments and hundreds of others flew around social media as the story started to get national attention. True, the bill was awful -- it not only would have legally permitted discrimination by private business owners, but also would have permitted public servants like police officers and firefighters to refuse service to anyone whose identity was in conflict with their religious beliefs. But reading the comments from progressives about the bill was revolting.
If progressives have decided that it's ok to pull out of states like Kansas and Oklahoma and Arizona (which just passed a similar bill that is now sitting on the governor's desk for signature or veto) and my home state of Kentucky, then we shouldn't be surprised when right-wing extremists descend in droves. To be sure, there are local and state groups that are fighting the good fight in these places -- but they are under-resourced, under-supported and under attack. There are heroic organizers in those places who are embroiled in the struggle and who are pushing back on these attacks daily -- not only in state legislatures, but each time they walk down the street or go to the store. East and West Coast progressives know very little of that reality -- of LGBTQ folks walking down the street with their heads down to avoid attention, or of women praying when they go to the pharmacy that the one pharmacist who will dispense birth control is working that day, or of immigrants driving 10 miles under the speed limit to avoid being pulled over by racist and abusive police officers. Coastal progressives just assume that one can (and would want to) simply pick up and move to a "better" place without understanding the value of home, and of place, and of roots -- without understanding the powerful draw that generations of family members have, and the support network that comes with it.
We've seen this tactic before in the form of "copycat" bills introduced in state legislatures across the country. We saw how SB1070 in Arizona devastated the immigrant community there, and then spread from state to state -- only staved off by the fearless organizing of those in red states who stood up and risked their lives (and livelihoods) to defeat them. We saw the foils of "conscience clauses" and "hospital admitting privileges" devastate women's access to reproductive healthcare across the South, despite the valiant efforts of legislators like Wendy Davis and Leticia Van De Putte -- and of activists across Texas -- to filibuster the bills.
And now we're seeing a new form of copycat bills -- those using the foil of "religious liberty" to demolish and devastate the lives of LGBTQ Americans. Make no mistake -- these bills are about neither religion nor liberty. Right-wing radicals know that they are losing the battle to outrightly and unapologetically discriminate against LGBTQ Americans, so they're using the excuse of "religious liberty" to hide their discriminatory attitudes in "mom and apple pie" language.
As someone who was raised in the church and who learned the meaning of social justice work from my seminary classmates, this effort to wrap un-American and un-Christian discrimination in the banner of religious liberty is heinous and offensive. And the fact that these bills are being introduced into state legislatures in an effort to undo the little progress that has been made at the state level is particularly upsetting. If we get to the point at which an individual simply has to "cry religion" to justify discrimination, we will be set back by decades -- and the religious right knows it.
So what's the matter with Kansas? It's not that there's something inherently wrong with red states. It's not that there's not enough interest in progressive change in red states. It's that coastal progressives have given up on red states and left them for dead. If we're going to fight back against draconian measures that will harm the lives of LGBTQ folks, immigrants and women, we must fight in these states. We must struggle. We must support the heroic work of local organizers there. We must stop posting inane things on Facebook about how "backward" these states are and, instead, we must ask what folks in these states need. And we must fight back against the out-of-state extremists who are using red states as their political playgrounds.
What's the matter with Kansas? Not a damn thing.