Kansas lawmakers put faith in the power of positive self-delusion

February 20, 2023 3:33 am
The Kansas Statehouse inner dome soars overhead, while the Kansas unemployment rate continues to fall. The February rate of 2.5% was lowest in a decade. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Many legislators have been closing their eyes to the reality of Kansas, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Legislature and its leaders seem to believe if they close their eyes tight enough and sing to themselves loud enough, the real world will go away.

This session, they have tried repeatedly to deny our state’s problems. Their policy preferences hinge on a make-believe world, one in which the Ogallala Aquifer gushes with water, trickle-down economics works, women refuse abortions and transgender people don’t exist.

No matter how much legislation they pass, however, that make-believe world won’t come any closer to our own. Norman Vincent Peale wrote about the power of positive thinking, but he didn’t follow up with a sequel about the power of positive self-delusion. We’re stuck in the real world, where facts — as a conservative commentator once put it — don’t care about your feelings.

We know that some parts of the Ogallala Aquifer will run dry within 10 to 20 years. Refilling it naturally would take 6,000 years, and I didn’t put a couple of extra zeroes on there by accident. A comprehensive bill last session would have started addressing those very real problems, but agricultural interests killed it. This year, the state Legislative Division of Post Audit confirmed that local groundwater management districts hadn’t made a dent.

A couple of new bills look promising. But will telling the districts to come up with better plans and adding funding for water projects save the aquifer before farming — and life — in Kansas changes forever? Will they be enough?

“We’ve got a long ways to go, but this is a good beginning,” said Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, chairman of the House Water Committee. The first part of his sentence is an understatement. The second sounds … optimistic.

Speaking of trickles, Kansas knows that supply-side, tax-cut based schemes don’t work. Former Gov. Sam Brownback tried it, pushing the state into a self-inflicted catastrophe. The state endured two sales tax hikes and three credit downgrades, stacked atop four years of budget gaps and nine rounds of budget cuts. Let’s not even mention the harm inflicted to education, infrastructure and public services.

Speaking of trickles, Kansas knows that supply-side, tax-cut based economics doesn’t work. Former Gov. Sam Brownback tried it, pushing the state into a self-inflicted catastrophe. The state endured two sales tax hikes and three credit downgrades, stacked atop four years of budget gaps and nine rounds of budget cuts.

– Clay Wirestone

The very same folks who supported that experiment now want Kansas to try it again. (Hello, Kansas Policy Institute!) You would think folks who wrecked the state’s economy for years might offer apologies or feel a bit of shame, but that’s not the way of conservative ideologues. Nope, instead they’re backing a “flat” tax proposal that would cost $1.5 billion a year and primarily benefit the wealthiest Kansans.

But this time, it will work. Because they just really want it to, apparently.

The same goes for so-called social issues.

Additional abortion restrictions don’t improve people’s health or stop abortion. They make life more difficult for low-income women. Giving towns and counties the ability to ban a safe and common medical procedure won’t improve anyone’s health but will ensure that the wealthy and well connected travel elsewhere for care. The poor will resort to illegal and potentially dangerous means.

Passing bills that target transgender youths and their care won’t pop them out of existence like some sort of Marvel movie plot point. All of those children will still be there. They and their parents and friends will still grapple with gender identity. Banning same-sex marriage in Kansas didn’t make gay men or lesbians vanish either.

LGBTQ folks have always lived in the real world, you see. Perhaps we had to hide, but we were here.

Some astute political watchers will say that those in power don’t actually believe these delusions. They don’t blind themselves to the world in which we live. They just seek profit and control of Kansans at all costs, not caring about the consequences. You might call this the Lex Luthor theory of politics, one in which the person pulling the strings happens to be a genius, albeit an evil one.

You could see this back when Donald Trump was president. A certain type of Twitter pundit always raced to claim that Trump had a master plan of one sort of another. His tweets were meant as distractions. He had a comprehensive agenda to seize Americans’ freedoms that he was enacting across the country.

I don’t think that was true of Trump, and I don’t think it’s true of conservative Kansas powerbrokers.

Oh sure, a few might acknowledge the broader truths. If you talked to this handful over a couple of drinks late at night, they might nod absentmindedly at the aquifer or acknowledge that you can’t fill state coffers by slashing tax rates.

The vast majority, however, appear to believe quite sincerely that the world should conform to their ideology, not the other way round. That belief leads them astray. Research from Ohio State University scholars backs me up.

“Conservatives have lower sensitivity than liberals, performing worse at distinguishing truths and falsehoods,” write researchers R. Kelly Garrett and Robert M. Bond in the June 2, 2021 issue of Science Advances. “This is partially explained by the fact that the most widely shared falsehoods tend to promote conservative positions, while corresponding truths typically favor liberals.”

Self-delusion serves as a poor replacement for fact-based public policy. Conservatives could engage with the real world and offer real solutions — but they need to open their eyes and ears first.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.