February 24, 2023 10:00am

The state of the union is unwell

Plus, overwhelming support for Pulaski County’s homeless village plans

Photo of Benjamin Hardy
Little Rock, AR Correspondent

Six weeks into Sarah Sanders’ governorship—and after listening to her response to President Biden’s state of the union—more than 70 percent of Power Poll Little Rock respondents say Sanders’ harsh brand of politics is unlikely to succeed nationally.

To be fair, this was a bit of a strange poll question, as Sanders herself is unlikely to run for national office in 2024. But her highly visible role in the Trump administration, and her apparently endless appetite for waging bitter culture war, have made Sanders a pretty good embodiment of a certain currently ascendant strain of post-Trump (maybe?) Republican politics. Could someone like Sanders — someone running a much larger state, say, one with nice beaches — win the presidency, or is there a natural ceiling to their support?

There’s no doubt that this stuff sells in Arkansas, but winning over the country as a whole is a different story. In your responses to Sarah’s response, the phrases that came up again and again were “divisive” and “playing to the base.”

Some of you said those very qualities made the speech effective for Sanders. “That's what matters to her politically right now,” one said. Others, though, said Sanders combative message came across as “without substance” and “dumb and mean.”

Sanders speech was composed of “inexperienced comment[s] from someone trained that ‘might makes right,’ as opposed to the concept [that] compromise is essential in a diverse society,” said one respondent. “Whether she will ever learn this point is yet to be seen.”

A few of you, meanwhile, thought the speech was spot on. It was an “honest appraisal of a completely upside down value system,” according to one respondent, and “spoke to the issues of our times,” according to another. The governor, it seems, tends to push people into one corner or the other.


The ironic thing about divisive social issues is that if you divorce them from overheated partisan rhetoric, a majority of people tend to express views that are far more complicated (nuanced? contradictory?) than one might thing.

Fewer than 30 percent of Power Poll Little Rock respondents said they wholeheartedly embrace the idea of “drag story hour” for kids or think it’s a positive thing for children to view age-appropriate drag performances. (To be clear, we’re talking explicitly about age-appropriate events here, meaning no raunchy / sexy acts.) Only about 10 percent said drag is “deviant” and believed the bill was a good idea.

A plurality, 47 percent, said drag in general is fine and the bill was ridiculous but they thought “drag story hour” sounded like a bad idea for kids. I should also note several of the “Have a different opinion” responses also expressed similar reservations.

(More than one took issue with my wording. “Deviant is too strong of a description. Not age level appropriate is better,” said one. Point taken: One could support the bill without necessarily considering drag performances “deviant.”)

There are a couple of ways to interpret this result. One is that issues at the intersection of gender identity and child well-being are potent wedges for Republicans. Even among an audience critical of Sarah Sanders, a solid majority disapproved of the idea of drag story hour to one degree or another. It’s no wonder Sanders, DeSantis and other next generation culture warriors love to fight these battles: They’re on solid ground.

But you could also draw the opposite conclusion. Despite the fact that most respondents expressed discomfort with drag story hour, few liked the legislature’s bill or appear to be enthusiastic about the direction the Republican majority is taking the state. That might suggest the “issue,” if you can call it that, of drag queens reading books to children in libraries just might not be THE most salient political concern for most citizens. Hard to believe, I know.

Certainly, playing up the alleged dangers of drag is popular among conservative voters, but a true wedge issue is one that divides your opposition sufficiently to convince some to stay home, or switch teams. Poll responses like this one suggest there may indeed be a sort of silent majority on such issues — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll change their larger political behavior accordingly.

Also: I especially liked this comment, though I’m not sure I understand it. “Sex and gender matters have always been a part of childhood, school and growing up. When child molesters and dirty-minded legislators get involved you've got trouble.”


And finally, the issue that probably matters most in terms of real human well-being: Three-quarters of Power Poll Little Rock respondents fully support the construction of a “community village” for homeless residents in a rural part of Pulaski County. I’m pleased to report that no one chose the “we don’t need to help the homeless any more than we already do” option.

This is in addition, by the way, to the separate development for homeless residents that Little Rock is planning to build on Roosevelt Road. Pulaski County’s ambitious proposal is modeled off of the “Community First!” project outside of Austin. Both are to be funded by federal stimulus money provided by Covid relief legislation.

That's all for now. Have an Arkansas-specific question you'd like to see considered for a future poll? Email me with ideas.

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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