Opinion

Going plus-one: Republicans keep leapfrogging previous political barriers

May 20, 2022 3:33 am

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt answers questions from the news media at Monday’s redistricting arguments at the state supreme court. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

This week’s Kansas Supreme Court’s decision permitting Republican-drawn legislative maps delivers so many different lessons. 

It just depends on who you are. 

A Black voter in Wyandotte County sensibly might become more cynical that the Kansas political system is rigged against minority representation. A centrist might see the political ping-pong of partisan lawsuits and court rulings as another symptom of a divided nation. 

However, the lesson learned by Republicans is most vital in Kansas because of the state’s conservative supermajority. A conservative state legislator might learn that they can not only write legislation that serves their personal interest, but they can also disclose their craven motivations, as Republicans did with the redrawn map.

Or, that same Republican state legislator could also say, “This amassed political power . . . it’s enough for us.” 

Not likely. 

Why stop at an overwhelming amount of political power? Political analyst John Dickerson, on the Slate Political Gabfest this week, gave voice to a perspective that he might not fully believe — but I sure do. 

Republicans, Dickerson said, “will go plus-one. They will do what is necessary to do to retain their power position. And we have seen multiple instances of that — maybe not all of the same amplitude — but when they come up upon a barrier they will go plus-one. 

“That has been seen in enough different spaces that you’ve got to assume that this is basically the way they operate, and that if you care about anything the normal barriers that are going to protect the thing you care about, there will always be an effort of plus-one to go after that thing you care about.” 

The last few years of national politics nominate so many example to support this “plus-one” approach to conservative politics: 

  • The willingness to snub the Merrick Garland nomination, fast-track the Amy Coney-Barrett nomination and sanitize Brett Kavanaugh in exchange for a Supreme Court that would strike down Roe v. Wade.
  • Evangelicals stomaching former former President Trump’s ugliness and infidelity toward women in exchange for a GOP-controlled White House.
  • National defense hawks overlooking Trump’s accommodation of Putin’s Russia in exchange for keeping Trump in office.
  • Senators allowing delusional election fraud theories and excusing the Jan. 6th rioters in exchange for unified right-wing political support in midterm elections.

The pattern is clear enough nationally. Each obstacle can be overcome with political power that before was 'unprecedented.'

– Eric Thomas

The pattern is clear enough nationally. Each obstacle can be overcome with political power that before was “unprecedented.”

So we shouldn’t be surprised when this “plus-one” political aggression infects Kansas.

The clearly gerrymandered map is the most obvious example. While constitutional in the court’s opinion, the map is a geometric absurdity aimed at even more political power for Republicans. Before the first maps were drawn, lines so clearly aimed at minority disenfranchisement seemed “too far.” 

But that is the nature of “plus-one.” Ever changing, the standards must be continually recalibrated. A female legislator bursting into the men’s legislative bathroom becomes political theater rather than a hateful and embarrassing stunt. A drunk legislator driving recklessly becomes a reason for a mild scolding rather than inspiring leadership to remove him from office. 

Republicans might claim these actions help solidify their electorally earned power. However, a discussion about transparency on KCUR’s “Up To Date” this week provides another motivation: a bit of laziness. 

Why should a Republican supermajority hide the sponsors of their bills, the topics of their hearings and the contents of their legislation? A guest on the show, the Kansas Reflector’s own Tim Carpenter, suggested lack of transparency makes things easier. 

Leadership can more quickly pass laws without thorough and balanced hearings. It’s nearly impossible to discover conflicts of interest in anonymously authored bills. 

In these ways and more, an increasing trend toward government secrecy in Kansas is yet another “plus-one” tactic by Republicans. The opaque legislative process helmed by Republicans has inspired many journalists to write about it over the years

How should the Democrats counter these “plus-one” tactics? The message could be a morally murky one. They could dive into the game of political one upmanship with Republicans. 

But Dickerson provides an electoral alternative: “Construct a motivational argument” that “doesn’t rely singularly on abortion.” Instead, create an argument using the examples above that paints Republicans as ruthlessly and, in the case of Kansas, needlessly hoarding power.  

Our political reality, Dickerson says, would be much different “if there were a Democratic party that was energized by a leader who could make and repeat this case.” 

However, a Democratic party as robust and creative as that can be difficult to imagine — especially here in Kansas. 

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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