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Kansas’ shattered economy shows that democracy can still work

America should thank Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

After his election in 2010, the hard-right Republican launched the state on an adventure in conservative policymaking by slashing personal income taxes in what came to be known as the “Kansas Experiment.” It was an effort to show that running a state according to conservative economic orthodoxy would deliver jobs and growth that would in turn offset the lost tax revenue.


The experiment failed — spectacularly. Since Brownback took office, Kansas’ growth and employment have both lagged behind the country as a whole. In 2016, economic output in the state was up a scant 0.2 percent compared to growth of 1.5 percent nationally. During Brownback’s tenure as governor, employment in Kansas is up about 6 percent — half that of the U.S.

The tax cuts also hurt the state’s finances, shrinking revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars and helping to open up a budget deficit of roughly $900 million over the next two fiscal years. Kansas has tried to make up for the shortfall by repeatedly raiding the state’s highway fund meant for infrastructure improvements, skimping on pension contributions, and cutting education spending.

Predictably, those tactics have proved wildly unpopular. In April, a poll showed 66 percent of Kansans disapproved of Brownback’s performance as governor, making him the second-most-unpopular governor in the country, behind only New Jersey’s embattled Chris Christie.

After an influx of moderate, anti-Brownback Republicans were elected to the state legislature in 2016, Kansas decided enough was enough. Earlier this month, legislators overrode Brownback’s veto of a large tax increase set to raise $600 million — a public acknowledgement that the people of Kansas no longer want to be governed as Republican guinea pigs.

But the state’s turn away from Brownbackism was more than yet another illustration of the fact that tax cuts aren’t a foolproof way to boost economic growth. Kansas also shows that American politics are not necessarily destined to become more and more extreme.


Brownback never hid what he intended to do as governor of Kansas, and his supporters got what they voted for. After a few years, however, they learned that what they voted for was an economic mess. Having tried extreme right-wing economic policy and seen the damage it inflicted, they then changed their minds and voted for moderate lawmakers.

This is how a healthy democracy works. But in recent years, American democracy has become increasingly unhealthy, in part because Americans have been shielded from the impact of the policies for which they claim to be voting. As a result, the conservative wing of the American electorate has failed to correct and continues on an increasingly extreme course.

For example, Republicans regained control of Congress in 2010 in the aftermath of the Great Recession, empowering tea partiers who were focused on cutting back government spending — a crucial component of the economic recovery — and setting off a string of destabilizing fights over the U.S. debt.

These fights amounted to mini-crises that slowed the recovery. But they didn’t push the economy back into recession, thanks in large part to extraordinary efforts by the Federal Reserve to effectively bail out the economy and keep interest rates at historically low levels. Effectively, the Fed — an unelected quasi-independent branch of the government — managed to shield the economy from the impact of what people actually voted for.


Then there’s Obamacare. Many people in states like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio were able to obtain health care coverage thanks to President Barack Obama’s signature law. A few years later, many of these same people voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, a candidate who ran on an explicit promise to do away with Obamacare.

Some didn’t realize their health care was, in fact, Obamacare, while others took Trump at his word that he’d come up with “something terrific” to replace it. But no doubt many didn’t believe they would actually feel the effects of the policy for which they voted because of the checks the legislative process puts on a president. Even one whose party controls both houses of Congress.

It should be pretty easy for Republicans to run the country the way they want right now, yet the first several months of the Trump administration have shown the GOP is having difficulty enacting major legislation.

That doesn’t mean the party is backing off its agenda. House Republicans pushed through a plan to undo the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, the financial overhaul designed to make the banking system safer after the financial crisis. And all signs indicate that Senate Republicans are serious about producing a bill that would effectively destroy Obamacare, resulting in millions of Americans losing their health insurance.

But the lack of major legislation in the early days of the Trump administration does suggest that Republicans don’t want to set off a broader Brownbackian backlash. One could argue that’s politically savvy. And in the short term, it’s probably better for the country if policy doesn’t lurch toward the extreme right.

But over the long term, American democracy needs a fundamental course-correction to a more moderate path. And one way to temper the current Republican appetite for extreme policies may be if America, like Kansas, gets a good look at what those policies do when actually put into practice.