Elections are heated in Kentucky; Mitch McConnell is currently the Senate minority leader and is poised to become the Senate majority leader if Republicans gain majority in the Senate. This election has been more appalling than usual; the stakes are high and both parties seem more interested in control. Today I’m sharing a guest post from Dr. Jeremy Hall about the importance of elections and voting.
Let’s face it. None of us likes to be told what to do. I have been learning this more directly over the past year as my relationship with my soon-to-be stepson, Gabriel, evolves. He’s a very strong-willed youngster who’s four and going on forty in many respects. He does not like to be told what to do. His recalcitrance to following instructions has caused me to adjust my disciplinary perspective. In particular, I’m moving away from the command and control model toward one focused on incentives and disincentives. The economist in me says this market-based approach should yield improved results. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. The whole thing got me thinking about how most of us like to be lords over our own affairs—some more than others. In particular, I want to take a look at politics in Kentucky; after all, I know a lot more about that than parenting for the time being.
Kentuckians are notorious for our independent personalities. While friendly toward all, we don’t necessarily welcome outsiders with open arms. If anything, we like to keep them at arm’s length. We value community, family, and tradition, and seldom will we blindly succumb to the persuasion of intrusive outsiders who try to tell us what to do.
President Abraham Lincoln famously said “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” That seems to be about the way some people view the Commonwealth today—a means to a much larger political end. The difference is in how the two sides see the pie. It’s simple, really. Republicans want to regain control of the Senate; Democrats want to prevent that from happening. But that’s a national matter; what about Kentucky values? Who represents that? The McConnell campaign has adeptly portrayed Grimes as “out of touch” with Kentucky values by linking her to Obama. And the Grimes campaign has painted McConnell as too long in Washington and thus “part of the problem.” The story is a bit deeper than this. It’s not just about an election, and it’s also not just about control of the senate. This race is very symbolic.
Democrats have a wide registration advantage among Kentucky voters, but we consistently elect or support Republicans for national office. Like most Southern states, control of the state legislature (the General Assembly) has also been gradually slipping away from the Democrats. Now, even if you are reading this thinking to yourself, “but I don’t agree with McConnell’s policies,” or “I could never vote Republican,” you should take a moment to think about what it means for Kentucky at the highest levels. First, McConnell’s whole platform is focused on the idea that outsiders have taken too much liberty in telling us what we can and cannot do. Obama’s environmental policies have cost coal miners thousands of jobs, and the local economies are slipping into depression because of the economic impact of the industry. Is it better for the U.S. government to intrude in these matters, or better for Kentucky to manage its own affairs? That’s a central question in this race. Of course, national movers and shakers won’t allow us to make that decision on our own. The money just keeps pouring in. The television, radio, and print advertisements have filled available space through election day. The two campaigns alone will spend over $10 million in the final month leading up to November 4. The election on the whole is set to become the most expensive Senate election in U.S. history, with total spending expected to surpass $100 million (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/09/03/mcconnell-vs-grimes-kentucky-absolutely-fascinating-grudge-match/). If you’d like to take a look at the totals so far, check out opensecrets.org here.
Kentuckians developed their unique identity even before becoming a state. Early residents stood up to Virginia and demanded separation from a state that failed to guarantee their security during a very hostile time. Pioneer Kentuckians viewed their remoteness as a strong argument for self-government to ensure that their interests were properly addressed. In 1785 a convention of Kentuckians formally petitioned the Virginia Assembly for separation.
Kentucky remained neutral during the civil war. That’s not because we couldn’t pick sides, but because we just didn’t want to be in the middle of someone else’s fight. We had large territories of slaveholders that were die-hard Democrats. In the more mountainous parts of the state, people who didn’t farm had little interest in the squabble; those areas were much more Republican in complexion. Since the time of the Civil War, the political parties have flipped sides in the state. The mountains now vote predominantly Democrat, whereas the people of the Cumberland Plateau have mostly endorsed the Republican platform. But the people of the Commonwealth have always valued individual rights, as well as states’ rights, and the decision to opt out of the War of Northern Aggression reflects the inward focus of our state leaders on what was best for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Kentucky can lay claim to birthing both the President of the United States and that of the Confederacy in places just a stone’s throw apart, and less than a year apart. Many hard-fought battles of the Civil War took place on Kentucky soil—Mill Springs and Perryville among others. Brothers fought brothers to support what they felt was right. Ironically, while most now suppose the Civil War to have been about slavery, it was really about states’ rights more generally. Those sympathizing with the Union favored a stronger federal government, whereas those fighting for the Confederacy believed in the sovereignty of the states and their right to self-determination. Liberty and freedom were on the line; the abuses of government against its states or its people were not to be tolerated.
Moving forward about 70 years, “Bloody Harlan,” or the Harlan County Wars, offer another glimpse into external influence on Kentucky. While not the brightest moment in Kentucky history, Kentucky values were at the very core of the struggle. The livelihood of thousands of Kentucky coal miners was at stake. Appalachian people are recognized for their independent nature and fiery temper. They are suspicious of outsiders but share a tight cultural bond with their own. My great grandmother referred to some of the folks who lived deep in the holler’ where she was born as “ones who hide and peep at you.” They selected a region to settle that was ripe with natural resources—timber and coal in particular. And so geographically isolated that it was nearly impenetrable. History tells us that those exploitable resources presented too great a temptation for northern industrialists in search of raw materials and profit.
Aggressive corporations took advantage of our minerals, our timber, and our people; they robbed us of our coal, our timber, and our dignity. But absentee landlord corporations then made a bad thing worse. People flocked to the mountains in search of employment, which came at great personal cost. A new form of indenture developed as they agreed to live in company housing, to accept pay in script that was only valid in the company store, all while working in deplorable conditions. There is a place and time for collective action, and any savvy onlooker can easily appreciate the desire of these people to unionize against their corporate employers. The battle was fought tooth and nail, and many lives were lost in the fight—a fight for individual liberty; for self-respect; for the right to work for a fair day’s wage to extract the very minerals they had been duped into selling for pennies on the dollar, risking chronic health problems or even death. Outsiders descended on the mining camps—some corporate executives, some union officials seeking to organize the workers against the corporations that employed them. As they lyrics of the song go, You’ll never leave Harlan alive.
Shame on anyone who seeks to take advantage of another for financial gain. Shame on the outsiders who always seem to know best what we need here in Kentucky. Like the outside carpetbaggers who are trying to buy our current U.S. senate contest. Millions of dollars have poured into Kentucky in recent weeks; money from individual donors and from major national political action committees like the DSCC (The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee). A record-breaking amount of money has poured into the state to sway this election. Why? Mitch McConnell is vying for a sixth term in the U.S. senate—a seat he would ordinarily be expected to retain handily. However, he has faced the fight of his political career over the past few months as Alison Grimes, whose own political experience is limited to serving in her first term as Kentucky Secretary of State, seeks to unseat him. The stakes of this political joust are a bit higher than usual.
Mitch McConnell is the minority leader in the U.S. Senate—he’s a Republican. The Republicans currently hold control of the U.S. House of Representatives, but they are six votes away from control of the U.S. Senate. There are just a few seats nationwide that Republicans could win, narrowly taking control of the Senate, and with it creating a powerful legislative constraint to President Obama. As minority leader, McConnell is a prime target for Democrats because he rallies opposition to President Obama’s policies, but also because of his potential to become majority leader. Democrats see “picking off” Mitch McConnell as a key victory for their national platform. Not just because Grimes would be another rubber stamp vote for Obama’s policies, but because of the symbolism of taking down the Republican Party’s legislative leader and claiming his seat.
Seekers of national political office were once referred to as Statesmen. Henry Clay—another great Kentuckian—epitomized that role. Leaders looked out first for their home states and the interests of the voters that elected them. This was once ensured by the appointment of U.S. senators by state legislatures prior to ratification of the 17th amendment.
Unfortunately, now interests are national. Hollywood money is pouring in to support Grimes, and corporate money is pouring in to support McConnell. Outsiders care more about our senate race than many Kentuckians do. And this makes it hard for politicians to keep their hearts on things within the state. How many votes do you have to buy? Kentucky’s population is only about 4.4 million people. Of those, about 23% aren’t old enough to vote. So about 3.4 million people can participate in the election. 50%+1 will win the election. For reference, Texas has over 26 million residents; California has over 38 million. Think about it—we have a lot at stake, but our election is in the bargain bin at the store for national interests. It’s no wonder these outsiders can’t resist. Our resources are once again ripe for the harvest, and profiteers are again seeking to exploit us.
The media frenzy makes us all sick of politics; it makes us all weary of mudslinging. It makes us all a bit more frustrated with government in general. A lot of people will look at the incessant advertising and simply decide to stay home on Election Day. At the end of it all, I will go to the polls and pull the proverbial lever for the candidate who I believe is most likely to look out for Kentucky and its state interests. In my state-centered perspective, I think it is important to look out for my state in a time when the federal government is taking more and more control away from states and individuals. What are you going to do? Sit home and watch as outsiders try to tell us what’s best for us? Or take action and do what’s right for Kentucky? Our state has a long heritage of standing up to outsiders who try to tell us what to do. Regardless of which candidate you feel is best equipped, step up and exercise your right to decide. Let’s keep our state’s heritage strong by going to the polls on November 4 to let the outside world know that we simply can’t be bought.