As early voting began this week, economic issues remained the top concern among Arkansas voters. Nearly 40 percent of respondents to University of Arkansas Professor Janine Parry’s Arkansas Poll listed the economy as the most important issue. Health care, in the low-to-mid-20th percentile, and crime, in the high-teens, rounded out the most pressing issues for Arkansas voters this spring. In an analysis developed by John Ray, Jesse Bacon and me, we found that these three issues — the economy, health care and crime, in that order — topped the list for likely voters in all four congressional districts.
Of course, drawing lines between the economy and health care — or between the economy and issues like LGBT rights, immigration and gun control that didn’t register very important in the Arkansas poll — is an arbitrary exercise. A central lesson — perhaps the central lesson — of the 2016 election is that issues of race, class, economy, gender and justice can’t be separated from one another. As scholars and activists have long noted, American politics are intersectional. No voter, candidate or movement can be defined by a single issue.
This lesson sometimes seems lost on Arkansas’s chattering class. The pundits, columnists and lobbyists who’ve proclaimed themselves the arbiters of which issues are important and moderate, which candidates are electable and qualified and which messages move voters, still seem enamored with the idea that the performance of the stock market is essentially a proxy for “the economy” in campaigns.
Yet, most Arkansans don’t own any stock and only about one-fifth of all Americans own enough stock to notice a gain or loss in their portfolio. The stock market is important to the chattering class because they’re part of that one-fifth. They aren’t the center. That title belongs somewhere within the other four-fifths of the state.
Candidates who came from, still live in, or work in that center have an opportunity to redefine Arkansas’s economic issues as something greater and more universal than the NASDAQ or Dow indices. This is particularly true for state legislative candidates. Already, activists-turned-candidates like Nicole Clowney, Tippi McCullough and state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) are doing it.
In 2016, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat, outperformed Hillary Clinton by 16 points in Missouri in a U.S. Senate challenge to Republican incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt, which Blunt won narrowly. Kander’s campaign was rooted in economic populism. He railed against a corrupt Missouri Republican Party and spoke out in favor of a statewide minimum wage hike. In Arkansas, where median income is the second lowest in the nation and a kickback scheme from the now-defunct General Improvement (slush) Fund has ensnared Republican legislators and lobbyists in federal indictments and convictions, Kander’s approach is a useful starting point for Arkansas’s 2018 slate of candidates.
But they can and should do more. Ideas like a jobs guarantee, universal health care, investments in public education and free postsecondary schooling are obvious economic issues that have a much larger constituency in Arkansas than more conventional measures.
Thanks to the slash-and-burn tax policy being pushed by Governor Hutchinson and the Republican supermajority in the state legislature, a populist economic message is primed to bolster the state Democratic Party. Despite a steady stream of positive press releases, the state is quietly facing a budget crisis. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences — the state’s largest hospital, academic institution and public employer — is being decimated by budget cuts. In the last few months, UAMS has been forced to suspend its cardiac surgery department, lost its top oncologist and cut more than 600 positions — all while the governor and his legislative cabal continue pushing for more tax cuts that will inevitably lead to a more dysfunctional health-care system throughout the state. In failing to adequately fund UAMS, they are placing the health and wellbeing of most Arkansans at unnecessary risk. Democratic candidates can and should hold them accountable for their failure.
When coupled with the president’s shocking and unnecessary fight with China — a fight that’s projected to cost Arkansas farmers nearly $400 million in new tariffs on their products — the economic argument for Democrats writes itself.