That's the case Hendrix's Jay Barth makes in a new report he discussed at the Clinton School this morning. Commissioned by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, "Ripe for Reform: Arkansas as a Model for Social Change" argues that, despite creeping hyper-partisanship, Arkansas's modern history is filled with more progressive achievement than its Southern neighbors. And that it's progress that can be built upon.
Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Public Policy Panel, offered a sort of Cliff's Notes version of "Ripe for Reform" in a guest column in this week's Times. Find a chunk of it on the jump.
And read Barth's full report here.
Speaking of Barth, I'm pleased to announce that he'll be joining our stable of columnists beginning Feb. 27. He'll appear in print every other week. Sometime in May, he'll start writing a weekly column that we'll run online.
Barth replaces Graham Gordy, who's gone on hiatus to write for a TV show Ray McKinnon is doing for the Sundance Channel. I hope Gordy returns; regardless, Barth will stick around.
"Ripe for Reform: Arkansas as a Model for Social Change" examines Arkansas's unique history of tension between progressive reformers and traditionalists who protect the status quo. It's not a partisan history; there are examples of reformers and traditionalists from both parties.
Barth identifies five structural advantages for reform that are uniquely Arkansan: our culture, our small size, our strong nonprofit community, our history of reform and our ability to impact our region and nation.
Among those, Arkansas's unique culture is our most important advantage. We have a long history of caring for those in need while being leery of the reach of government into our private lives on social issues. We are a small state where most of us really do know one another and relationships still drive our politics (as well as everything else), and we believe in compromise and maintaining friendships even when we disagree.
That and the other advantages Barth identifies add up to a culture of progress where we have an opportunity to continue solving the big issues holding us back. More progress on education, poverty, racial disparities, prison reform, public health, economic development and the environment will be good for all of us.
What is holding us back if Arkansas is so primed for reform? Barth explains that despite recent progress, Arkansas has decades of history electing leaders more entrenched in the status quo. And now we are in danger of returning to the bad old days of stagnation. This past legislative session was the most partisan and polarized in modern Arkansas history. And "we the people" are not actively engaged enough to insist on pragmatic, effective representation.