Our democratic systems rely on political debate and opposition, but the tyrannical right delights in attacking the opposition.
Let’s dive into what healthy political debate should look like and why the coordinated attacks on Sanders’s opposition hurt Arkansas’s democracy.
Healthy debate means that everyone takes both the facts and their opponents seriously.
We’ve talked a lot about propaganda and extremism. From trolling to distraction to gaslighting, propaganda techniques have been showing up quite a lot in the state’s political discourse lately. The usage of these techniques means that the truth is often playing second fiddle to whatever culture war rhetoric the tyrannical right wants to push on Arkansans.
Democracy relies on healthy political discourse, and healthy political discourse relies on the truth. It’s hard to have a good debate about the merits of the LEARNS Act when we can’t even get the Governor’s spokesperson to admit the truth about the voucher program’s effects, like how only 1% of applicants are from failing schools.
Healthy politics also relies on taking political opponents seriously. If they give their opponents the benefit of the doubt, if they are accurately representing facts and simply disagreeing on policy, then that’s okay. That’s a bedrock principle of our country and our state.
But that’s not what’s going on in Arkansas.
Take the Governor’s recent “oped” in the Democrat-Gazette. Immigration is a complex issue that has stymied both parties for decades, but the Governor claims that President Biden’s border policies have created “chaos” at the border and are “cruel,” not compassionate. This is pretty silly on several fronts, but for now, it’s important to point out that it’s not taking the intricacy of the issue seriously. What’s worse – statements like this set the tone for the group of legislators, spokespeople, and lobbyists who do the Governor’s bidding.
How does the radical right deal with their opponents?
Attacks on political opponents come from a few different areas.
First, there’s the obvious. Attacks often come directly from extremist politicians or their social media , as in the case of our governor’s infamous chalk cross or her response to the LEARNS referendum. CAPES is a bipartisan organization that remains deeply concerned about the law’s effect on public education. Calling them “self-serving partisan extremists” playing “political games” fails to take these concerns seriously. Name calling is a tactic regularly employed by the radical right. If Sanders actually thought her law did what she says, she might try to argue on the merits of policy. Instead there’s just name calling.
Second, attacks are now coming from executive branch departments, like the Department of Education and the Arkansas State Police. We recently reported that ADE had become another propaganda arm for the Governor’s Office. We can add to that attacking students and educators who have serious questions about the Department’s decision to remove AP African American Studies from schools this fall. Next, the Department of Human Services took a swipe at folks ringing alarm bells about the speed of Medicaid disenrollments, saying that “This is exactly how the system is supposed to work.” We can’t emphasize enough how much we disagree.
Third, radical right legislators that Sanders has in her pocket love to ride her coattails, even to the point of directly insulting Arkansans. Dan Sullivan recently had a bad week on Facebook, and we were disgusted when Jane English gleefully prevented Central High students from speaking against LEARNS. There should be healthy debate between the members of the same party, and it’s always concerning to see them in lockstep with the Governor, let alone attacking their own constituents.
Fourth, Sanders has a dedicated army of online trolls and lobbyists who reliably pop out of the woodwork in social media replies. We can’t say for sure if they’re receiving talking points directly from the Governor or just have nothing better to do, but we can say the Governor’s office takes advantage of their posts. People like Nicholas Horton, who likes to joke about the massive healthcare crisis in this state, are part of a group of posters that pile on whomever the Governor has targeted.
Why does it matter?
To be clear, we expect our policy stances, content, and work to be critiqued.. A healthy democracy requires debate, and debate requires conflict. Our concern is that the aforementioned attacks—on us, on CAPES, on Central High students, on everyday Arkansans expressing real fear about the direction the tyrannical right is taking the state—are stifling the healthy discourse we should be having. Arkansans aren’t afraid of opposition, so we aren’t sure why the far right is so reluctant to engage with the facts.