Ben Watts

This past legislative session has been demoralizing for many Arkansans, to say the least. It seemed like every day the state legislature was finding a new way to hate and discriminate against a large portion of its population, whether it be women, the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, or even white men who don’t subscribe to the right wing’s particular brand of theocracy. I’m sure to many of the readers of this illustrious newspaper, it feels like things are only getting worse, and it’s not just those who identify as liberal, but those who identify as moderate as well.

The data bear this out. Figure 1 pulls from the Arkansas Poll from 2012 through 2022 and plots the percentage of liberal, moderate and conservative people who say Arkansas is going in the wrong direction. The blue line represents the trend among liberals, the purple line is the trend over time among moderates, and the red line is the trend among conservatives. You can see, more and more liberals and moderates are saying that Arkansas is headed in the wrong direction, to the point that in 2022 more than 57% of liberals and nearly 40% of moderates said the state is headed in the wrong direction. This is in contrast to conservatives who have actually trended the other direction.

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But is Arkansas actually the raging dumpster fire that it appears to be becoming under the Huckabee Sanders Administration? A government is not the same as a people, which raises the question as to whether the attitudes of the people of Arkansas are in line with the positions of this government? This question can be answered using the same data sources (the Arkansas Poll) used in Figure 1.

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Changes in Arkansans’ Ideologies

To understand whether the people of Arkansas are well represented by the government, it’s useful to start by looking at ideology. The government of Arkansas has undoubtedly become more conservative over time, but has the public?

Using data on self-reported ideology, we can determine whether the state has become more liberal or conservative. Figure 2 reports the percentage of Arkansans in each year from 2012 through 2022 who self-identified as liberal, moderate or conservative.

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Despite government becoming more and more extreme right wing in the last 10 years, the percentage of Arkansans identifying as liberal, moderate and conservative has remained quite stable. The only real changes we see occurred between 2017 and 2021, as more moderates identified as liberal, likely as a result of the Trump Administration polarizing voters. However, since 2021 the percentage of Arkansans identifying as liberal and moderate has returned to its pre-Trump numbers.

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But this doesn’t tell the whole story. In order to understand societal change, there is one ironclad rule that needs to be remembered: People die and are replaced by younger people. So, what does ideological identity look like among the young (those 40 and under) in comparison to older Arkansans (those over 40)? Figure 3 shows the percentage of Arkansans under the age of 40 who identify as liberal, as well as the percentage of Arkansans over the age of 40 who identify as liberal. Both of these groups saw a spike after Trump took office. For older Arkansans, however, it returned to pre-Trump levels by the beginning of Biden’s term, but this didn’t happen for those under 40. The percentage of Arkansans under the age of 40 who identified as liberal dropped to a degree between 2018 and 2022, but it didn’t return to the level it was in 2016 or earlier. Put simply, this indicates that Arkansas will likely be shifting more to the left in the future.

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On the Issues

Of course, ideology can be very subjective, particularly when it is self-reported. What is liberal, moderate or conservative to one person may not be the same to another person. The question then becomes, how have Arkansans shifted on the issues. As the government has begun to lean toward fascist theocracy, has the public shifted in the same direction?

Let’s start with one of the Republicans’ favorite topics, the proliferation of guns in Arkansas. As of 2021, Arkansas has 11.7 homicides per 1,000 people. And that’s the year the Republican-controlled government of Arkansas made it easier to carry a handgun by removing the requirement that a person have a concealed carry permit. Is this in line with the wishes of Arkansans?

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Figure 4 shows the percentage of Arkansans favoring stricter gun laws, keeping gun laws the same as they currently are, and looser gun laws. The first thing you might notice is that there has never been a ton of support for loosening gun laws in Arkansas. In 2014 about 20% of Arkansans supported looser gun laws, while 40% supported stricter gun laws and about 36% favored keeping them the same. This is the high-water mark for support for loosening gun laws. Meanwhile, support for making gun laws stricter increased substantially in 2018, the same year as the Parkland shooting, and while support for stricter gun laws has receded to a degree, it is still substantially higher than it was a decade ago. Put simply, the Republican government of Arkansas is out of step with Arkansan people on the issue of gun violence.

Of course, gun control isn’t the only issue the Republican-run government of Arkansas is focused on. They passed a law in March 2023 that requires state entities to divest from financial providers that consider environmental, social and governance factors in decision making. In essence, the law says that financial service providers who seek to avoid investments that might harm the environment or perpetuate our gun violence epidemic are no longer eligible to provide financial services on state accounts. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Ricky Hill (R-Cabot) actually talked about the need to defend fossil fuel companies. But are Arkansans concerned about the environment?

Figure 5 shows the percentage of Arkansans who believe climate change presents a serious threat. This figure begins in 2015, as that is when the data from the Arkansas Poll begins. While the percentage who say “no” is larger than the percentage who say “yes,” this difference is shrinking. In total, the percentage who believe climate change presents a threat is up by about 10 points since 2015, and the percentage saying it does not present a threat is down by more than 20 points in the same period.

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If we look at self-identified moderate Arkansans (Figure 6), this trend is even more stark. The percentage of moderates in Arkansas who see climate change as a threat increased more than 20 points between 2015 and 2022, while the percentage who didn’t see it as a threat dropped more than 30 points. On the issue of the environment, it appears that the Republican-led government is momentarily in line with the overall population of Arkansas, but they’re way out of line with moderates, and things are moving in the wrong direction for them.

Finally, Republicans in Arkansas and beyond have recently succeeded in stripping half of the population of control of their own bodies. Arkansas had an abortion trigger law that went into effect once the Dobbs decision was made by the Supreme Court, banning nearly all abortions in the state. But they didn’t stop there. In the most recent legislative session, they refused to pass a bill sponsored by a Democrat to provide an exception to the state’s draconian abortion laws for cases of fetal abnormalities that would prohibit a child from surviving. After this, they decided to put up a monument to fetuses on the state Capitol grounds. But how do Arkansans feel about abortion?

The data from the Arkansas Poll on abortion attitudes from 2020, 2021 and 2022 provide a clear sense of where Arkansans stand, and it is not with the extremist government of this state. Between 2021 and 2022, the percentage of Arkansans who want abortion illegal in all cases dropped by more than 10 points, to less than 15% (Figure 7). Meanwhile, the percentage who want it legal in all cases increased by 5 points to 21%, and the percentage who want it legal in some cases increased by 10 points to nearly 60%. Put simply, the public is just not with the Republicans on the issue of abortion.

I’m Hopeful

I don’t blame people in this state for feeling like everything is headed in the wrong direction. In reality, without change, we are headed in the wrong direction. However, this is not because this is what the people of Arkansas want. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. We are headed in the wrong direction because we have a government that doesn’t care what the public actually wants.

While the majority of Arkansans say they are conservative, this is changing, and more importantly, the majority of Arkansans don’t hold conservative positions. Republicans have been able to remain in power by relying on votes from people who feel conservative but don’t hold conservative beliefs. While this might seem disheartening at first, there is a silver lining. The public is not made of extreme fascists, and this portends well for the future of Arkansas.