As a lifelong Kentuckian, I watched the Nov. 3 election results with disbelief, sensing an ominous turning of the page in our state's history.
Since the early 19th century, until quite recently, Kentucky has produced a number of public figures celebrated for their moderate temperament and centrist ideology.
Whig leader Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser of the antebellum era, mediated debate between the North and South in Congress, delaying the impending crisis of the Civil War and advocating preservation of the union.
In the past century, Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper, noted by historian Arthur Schlesinger as "the nicest man in the Senate," also espoused centrism. By supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later criticizing the escalation of the Vietnam War, Cooper bucked short-term pressures and displayed tremendous political courage in the process.
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Throughout the 1970s to the 1990s, Democrat Wendell Ford furthered Kentucky's moderate standing, working with members of both parties in his long Senate career.
But these figures are no more.
With the exception of Andy Beshear's and Alison Lundergan Grimes' narrow wins (in addition to the state's lone Democratic congressman, re-elected last year), Kentucky stands essentially as a one-party, ideologically reactionary state. In his campaign, Gov.-elect Matt Bevin, who has resided in Kentucky only since 1999, rejected any form of centrism and pivoted instead to the far right of the ideological spectrum.
By doing so, he presented himself as the standard-bearer of social conservatism, attacking the Supreme Court's recent decision on gay marriage at every opportunity. Whatever supporters of Bevin's position might think, there is no true change he can effect on the matter, besides perhaps to encourage continued lawlessness on the part of figures like Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis.
Bevin's plan to dismantle Kynect — widely regarded as the most successful health care exchange in the nation —and reverse Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act would effectively end health care for 400,000 Kentuckians.
With Bevin's triumph, Kentucky loses its enigmatic position as a "purple state" (electing Republicans nationally but nearly all Democrats statewide). The state that once cast its electoral lot in favor of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton has virtually transformed within two decades into a Republican guarantee.
It stands today neither unpredictable nor enigmatic. Rather, the state is now brandished and discarded in terms of political identity, a castoff in a sea of "red states."
As Americans witness the extinction of moderate officeholders in the mold of Southern Democrats and northeastern Republicans, we are left with ideologically polarized governments at the state and national levels.
I must confess, however, that while I am a short-term pessimist, I remain a long-term optimist. Perhaps others will rise to the forefront and again champion the state's forgotten reputation as national consensus builder and interparty collaborator. Perhaps also the 70 percent of eligible Kentucky voters who failed to vote in the election might see that their voices do matter and elections, indeed, have consequences.
Until then, I only hope Bevin's tenure as governor proves neither as radical nor damaging to Kentucky as his campaign suggests. And if it does, I strongly advise more Kentuckians to awaken politically, realize their civic responsibilities and make their concerns roundly heard through the mediation of the ballot box.