Midwest Nice Legislative Stamp of Approval - Mondays with Michelle 5/6/24

By michelle
Torn images of a small town and the Indiana Statehouse with a yellow smiley face that has dollar signs for eyes centered between the two.

The other day, I talked to voters about why investing in a campaign like mine matters. You see, my district, Indiana House District 60, comprises bedroom communities, rural spaces, and one county seat. I keep explaining to people: two precincts in Monroe Co., 13 precincts in Johnson Co., and 33 precincts in Morgan Co. That helps them place where I am on a map. And then they nod and say, “Wow. Tough campaign.”

What they mean is that my district has largely been written off as “solidly Republican.” And for too many, that also means, “We don’t really talk to them.” Or worse, “They won’t listen to you.”

Whenever I talk with friends outside Indiana about why my campaign matters to them, we must first dispel the myth of Indiana being just a “flyover state.”  For too many, their image of the Hoosier state is corn fields and straight roads and Indy 500 and basketball. Okay, the last two are pretty accurate. But just corn fields and straight roads? That is definitely not true! (Although, give me some fresh Indiana corn any day!) Yet I know what they mean. On a national stage, Indiana has been written off as a single-party, low-informed voter state. If anything, we are the entrenched “Religious Right” state. With two decades of Republican supermajority supported by growing Evangelical Christian Nationalism, they aren’t far off. However, other states should support our Democrat candidates and their campaigns. Here’s why. I call it the “Midwest Nice Legislative Stamp of Approval.”

We all understand the tongue-in-cheek phrase “Midwest Nice,” yes? It’s the person who smiles graciously at you while simultaneously waiting for you to leave the room so they can talk behind your back…or worse. It’s an agenda-driven superficiality. Oftentimes, it is harmless. Just shallow pleasantries. But sometimes, it is downright harmful. That’s where Indiana has evolved.

Because we are not a state of extremists…we are NOT Florida…unsavory legislation gets tested out here. Indiana is like the canary in the coal mine. If the bills move through the state legislature, get signed into law, or even just marked up and quietly dropped, that information travels across the country. Similar bills pop up elsewhere. We have given these bad bills our “Midwest Nice Legislative Stamp of Approval.” It’s as if others say, “How bad can that bill be? Indiana signed off on it.” And since we are also the “flyover state,” nobody really pays attention on the national stage to the power our statehouse actually wields. Sad, really, for a state known as being in the Heartland of America. 

Indiana is not alone in this. As David Pepper, former Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and author of Laboratories of Autocracy explains, “...[since] statehouses are the front line in the advance of the far-right’s economic, social and anti-democracy agenda, this is not happening one state at a time, or by happenstance. It’s coordinated nationally…by an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC brings together all sorts of corporate and right-wing members and interests, sets an overarching agenda to satisfy the collective interests of these private entities, then advances that agenda through “model bills” that anonymous state legislators enact back in their gerrymandered states…They’ve privatized the legislative process of dozens of states, and those private members have purchased themselves a vote equal to elected officials in that process across those states.”

“Fly-over state”. “Gerrymandered Districts”. What happens when you live in a county that is a “drive-thru” county? Most people traveling between Indianapolis, Greenwood, and Bloomington or from the southern region to the airport use i69 and i67 to cut straight through Morgan County. When I asked a room of Hoosiers who lived outside Morgan County if they could remember the last time they stopped in Morgan County on their way elsewhere, nobody raised their hand. And I felt a wave of sadness I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager living in Martinsville. It’s the feeling of being made invisible. 

When voters feel invisible, they act invisible. Believing the lie that their voice, and by extension their vote, do not matter, they simply do not show up. And without the votes, our candidates cannot win. Without constituent voices, our candidates don’t know the real impact of bad policy. When elected officials do not show up to meet with their constituents, it reinforces a narrative of invisibility and lack of care about what really matters to people.  Indiana desperately needs legislators who care about what is impacting Hoosiers, like supporting reproductive and mental healthcare, having clean water, soil, and air, and keeping Hoosiers in their homes. Basically, all the things the Republican supermajority has either ignored or actively worked against. And let’s be clear. Indiana has a Republican super-majority that filters down to local government. The largest town in District 60 is the county seat of Martinsville. It has a Republican-led county council and Republican-led city council. If there should ever be a town emulating the results of trademark Republican values, it should be Martinsville. So why do so many feel exploited right now?

The idea that a person’s voice and vote matter is only as strong as the relationships that guide it. Too often, electoral work is short-term and transactional. Organizing, however, is relational and requires a long-term commitment. Democrats need to invest in organizing their base, both the very visible and the ones waiting to be seen. To do otherwise risks Indiana continuing to be the “flyover state” with a co-opted “Midwest Nice Legislative Stamp of Approval.” And that’s not the Indiana we want nor deserve.

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