Make Nebraska Reasonably Progressive Again

For the past 20 years, the state’s politics have marched steadily to the right.
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I love living in Lincoln, Nebraska. But…

Here, as we say in Nebraska, is the deal. I’m a native Californian who grew up mostly on the East Coast. After living and working in Philadelphia, New York City and Tokyo, I was ready to downsize, if not downshift. A little more than 20 years ago, my family and I settled midway between the coasts in Nebraska. I’m really glad we did. But…

Life in Lincoln is great, and it gets better every year. People here practice what’s known as “Nebraska nice.” It goes beyond superficial politeness. The level of civic engagement is remarkable. People serve on the school board for no pay. Nada. Nary a nickel. City council members draw near-poverty wages of $24,000 a year. If they’re elected state senators, they serve for a measly $12,000 a year in salary. At that grade, if they had no other income, they could draw food stamps.

Ordinary people volunteer at rates that lead the nation for all sorts of causes. They’ll run 2Ks and stuff themselves with doughnuts at the halfway mark (a clear human-rights violation) all to raise money for the Child Advocacy Center. They’ll volunteer by the hundreds to teach English to immigrants and refugees.

“Here in Nebraska, I know genuinely good people who have thoroughly wretched political views.”

My coastal friends tend to believe that Nebraska is as white as Wonder Bread. That’s never been entirely true, but in the last few decades Lincoln has experienced a fluorescence of diversity. Nebraska led the nation last year in per capita refugee resettlement, and Lincoln is the landing point for thousands. More than 50 languages are spoken in our schools. We are home to refugees from Vietnam, Sudan, Bosnia, Russia, Ukraine, Burma, Afghanistan, Cuba and, most recently, Iraq. You remember the horrific assault that ISIS made on an ancient minority in Iraq? Well, our city is now the unofficial capital for Yazidis in exile.

Lincoln offers an astonishingly rich cultural life. It has a fine art institute housed in a building that is an architectural wonder on par with the Kennedy Center. It also has many fine artists active in the community. First Fridays, when people go on art walks through the many galleries, are an inexhaustible source of visual delight. It has an excellent orchestra, led by a genial, bear-hugging conductor with an antic sense of humor. It has a strong literary tradition, rooted in the early 20th century fiction of Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz and, but plowed into this century by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser.

“Ha!” you may say. “How can that hold a candle to the cultural depth of, say, New York?” It cannot. But Lincoln has a cultural density that is unmatched. However big a city may be, we can only know so many people personally. When I worked in New York, Tokyo and other big cities as a journalist, I got to meet a lot of people, but most of my friends were people who did pretty much the same thing I did. Here in Lincoln, I, like many others, have interlocking circles of friends that allow me to count among my friends scientists, writers, musicians, singers, painters, politicians, athletes, lawyers, refugees, teachers, and bunches of wonderful people who are not so easy to label. It’s by far the richest personal experience of life that I have enjoyed.

And yet, there’s a canker in the rose.

For the past 20 years, the state’s politics have marched steadily to the right. When I prepared to move here, Nebraska had a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators. Since then, Republicans have run the table. Not only do they hold every statewide office and a majority in the legislature, but voters have become increasingly ideological ― something that goes against the pragmatic Nebraskan tradition.

In 2000, voters passed a ballot initiative that gave our state constitution the nation’s toughest and cruelest ban on same-sex relationships. Eight years later, they passed a ban on affirmative action. When the legislature, moved by a showing that capital punishment is arbitrary and extremely expensive, put an end to the death penalty, voters promptly restored it. The legislature has passed a series of laws restricting a woman’s right to abortion. Up until the ’90s, the Unicameral passed gun control laws, from outlawing duels to banning machine guns to limiting access to handguns. Lately, though, the bill hopper has become a playground for the NRA.

“If hope for a better tomorrow for our country doesn’t lie here, I don’t know where you can hope to find it.”

This rightward tilt reflects the same ideological poisoning that has afflicted much of our nation. The outrage pumps of the rightwing media find a center pivot in Nebraska. The bile spills out everywhere. It’s commonplace to find Fox News on-screen in airports or hotel lobbies ― as if it were a normal news outlet. When I go to the management and politely object, explaining that it makes people like me feel unwelcome, they are astonished.

Which brings me to the last and possibly most important reason I’m glad to live in Nebraska. Here, I can make a difference. When I lived in Philadelphia, everyone I knew was a Democrat. If I occasionally met a Republican from the suburbs, he or she was usually a fairly moderate person who didn’t like paying taxes.

Here in Nebraska, I know genuinely good people who have thoroughly wretched political views ― at least from my point of view. Despite our differences, we have the opportunity to really get to know, respect and like one another. Maybe over time that will bring our politics closer together. Perhaps we can eventually restore the Prairie Progressivism of Republican George Norris. And if hope for a better tomorrow for our country doesn’t lie there, I don’t know where you can hope to find it.

Clay Farris Naff is the Science and Religion Correspondent for the Humanist magazine. Any views expressed are the author’s alone.

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