Conservatism, we hardly knew ye

Conservatism in Arkansas is dead. That is, if it ever truly lived here to begin with.

Don't get me wrong; the Republican Party is alive and well in the state. It's literally never been better. Since Obama was elected in 2008, the GOP has stormed from their trenches and claimed new territory in states across the country, especially here in Arkansas.

Once known to be a state that favored the blue dog Democrat, Arkansas has turned ruby red by historic margins. Over the past few years, Arkansans have given Republicans control of their U.S. congressional delegation, the state capitol, the governor's mansion and beyond. The party hasn't had this much influence in the Natural State since the Reconstruction Era.

But just because Arkansas is Republican-led doesn't mean it's conservative; quite the contrary. The party, as a whole, actually seems to be trending away from much of what it used to mean to be conservative. And Republicans in the Arkansas Legislature are leading the charge.

When I think about conservatism, I think of small government. I think about traditional interpretations of the Constitution. I think about the embrace of localism. I think of individual liberty, and the belief that being left alone, especially by the government, is a natural right. Those, and should be, ideological pillars for a conservative legislator.

Each of these examples has proven to be too difficult for some state Republicans to live up to. So, instead, they've abandoned them.

As it is, you can't so much as breathe without having been affected by government. It's everywhere. It touches everything. A true conservative would want to roll that back, rather than pile on. But that is exactly what the ruling party in Little Rock has been doing for the past nine weeks.

Monday was the last day legislators could file bills. In a single day, a total of 558 bills were filed. All told, at least 2,590 bills have been filed this session. Of those, at least 369 have been signed into law. That's 369 new laws that we didn't have just a few months ago. And if legislators get their way, they'll add those 558 bills to the roll.

How can a state with a Republican supermajority justify that?

The vast majority of the bills filed at deadline were "shells," or bills with only a title and no workable details. These shells give lawmakers the opportunity to file a bill and have it assigned to a committee without having to disclose what the prospective law is even about.

These bills could become laws. Laws affect our lives. Why, then, can a legislator file dozens of shell bills at the buzzer without even deciding what he or she wants that bill to do? It's insanity. And it sure as heck ain't conservative.

The legislature began the session with a handful of priorities that included, but were not limited to, highway funding, healthcare and declining revenue. So far, none of the nearly 400 new laws address any of that. In fact, bills to address healthcare and highway funding weren't even filed until just recently.

In the meantime, lawmakers have wasted time and money debating self-serving bills that hurt individuals, restrict liberties, remove local control and expand the scope of government. Conservative? Never heard of him. And don't forget, they get paid for every day they're there.

So far this session, we've learned that individual liberty only extends to those who wish to possess a gun and carry it wherever they like, including college campuses, federal buildings and courtrooms. I'm curious to see how that last one works out.

Individual liberty seems to stop at the use of a plant for medicinal purposes. Though voters approved the medical marijuana amendment in November, lawmakers have worked at a breakneck pace to water it down in any way imaginable. They've tried to ban smoking it. They've tried to ban eating or drinking it. They've even tried to ban it altogether. At deadline, 18 medical marijuana-related shell bills were filed.

Individual liberty isn't extended to the LGBT community, either. A bill calling for a Constitutional Convention to ban same-sex marriage has already been approved. And if the convention doesn't work – it won't – a deadline bill to ignore the Supreme Court and outlaw it anyway was also filed at deadline.

Side note: If you're against same-sex marriage (or homosexuality in general) because of personal or religious reasons, you have every right to be so. In fact, you're protected by the Constitution in that regard. But, the Constitution as interpreted by Thomas Jefferson - separation of church and state - forbids governments from legislating their own religious beliefs on the public.

You can't advocate for a traditional interpretation of the Constitution only in certain respects. It doesn't work that way. Neither can you laud the virtue of one amendment, like the Second, and encroach on aspects of another, like the First.

But Arkansas Republicans sure will try.

A bill passed by the House just last week would make it much easier to shut down a protest if it is deemed offensive, or causes "public alarm." I've ask lawmakers who voted for the bill what exactly would be considered "public alarm," but they couldn't quite nail it down. The bill would also give others the right to sue someone for illegal protest if they cause a "public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm." So, think before you cut someone off in traffic. They might just take you to court.

Another bill, introduced last week, would outlaw "picketing" if it caused even the slightest delay in traffic. In other words, no marches. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be so proud.

Both bills are sold as a means of protecting private property and keeping others from blocking first responders in traffic. But there are already laws on the books that take care of that. In reality, both bills attempt to limit First Amendment rights, stifle any dissent and quite the opposition. That's not conservative. That's authoritarian.

And is it conservative to ban a book? I doubt it. But a bill filed last week would prevent schools in the state from using books written by a certain Boston University professor because they tell a history of America through the prospective of the poor and minorities. The bill's sponsor said the books were un-American.

You're more than welcome to disagree with a book. But to ban a book to keep others from being able to debate it is another thing entirely. Unless Russia recently annexed Arkansas. Did I miss something? I’ll file that under authoritarian, too.

Nationally, the Republican Party is enjoying a new-found popularity that it hasn't experienced since the Reagan administration. But it's not because of their conservative message. Donald Trump won the White House with a mix of authoritarian and populist promises. Arkansas legislators took notes.

Rest in peace, Arkansas conservatism. We hardly knew ye.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Caleb Talley is a member of the Times-Herald news staff. He may be contacted at 870-633-3130 or by email at newsroom@thnews.com.)