As they reached the halfway point of the 2023 legislative session, the members of the Indiana General Assembly made their priorities clear.
They focused inordinate amounts of time and energy on making the already difficult lives of transgender students even harder, keeping students, teachers and librarians from reading or just making available any books dealing with human sexuality and preventing children and their parents from deciding what name a student could be called at school.
Critics—and there have been many of them—have focused on the meanness, even the cruelty, of many of these measures.
The criticism is valid. It is apparent that not all the bullies in Indiana lurk in school hallways.
More than a few of them have been elected to the state legislature—and they use their positions to torment children too young and too few in number to fight back in any meaningful way.
But the cruelty is only one feature of this concentration of conservative legislators’ energies. The other notable thing about this campaign of persecution is how small it is in scale.
When Republicans, led by Gov. Mitch Daniels, came to power 18 years ago, they had a sweeping agenda.
The conservative GOP stalwarts wanted to transform the state. They planned to remodel the tax code, build in incentives for performance, restructure Indiana’s educational system and recast the state as a model of the opportunity society.
Reasonable people could and did disagree with the plans and policies put forth by Daniels and that wave of Republicans, but no fair-minded person could dispute that theirs was a vision epic in scope.
That’s no longer the case.
The focus of this current crop of Republican Indiana lawmakers is as meager in its reach as it is in its humanity.
Consider the disproportionate attention devoted to the lives of transgender Hoosiers.
The highest estimate of the percentage of people in Indiana pegs the number at .56 percent. That’s one-half of one percent—or roughly one in every 200 Hoosiers.
Other studies list the number even lower, at .2 percent—or one in every 500 residents of the state. The Indiana Youth Institute’s research puts the total number of transgender students in Indiana at 3,400–out of 1.12 million students statewide.
Yet, making their lives miserable is the top priority for many Hoosier lawmakers.
Do these legislators not think this state has any real problems to which they might devote some time and thought?
The same could be said of the efforts to clamp down on reading and other similarly repressive measures.
At one time, leaders in this state and country did everything they could to encourage young people to read. Now, they work to keep them from picking up books.
What happened to so diminish Republicans’ approach to governance?
That question can be answered in two words.
The first is gerrymandering. The second is success.
Gerrymandering—the dark political science of picking and packing legislative districts to partisan advantage—tends to put in power officeholders with narrow points of view. Because they are elected from districts created to cluster voters of like mind, the gerrymander-rewarded legislator often believes everyone thinks just the way he or she does.
This encourages these lawmakers to pursue extreme initiatives, because they are secure in the knowledge that their packed districts will reward them for intransigence and even cruelty toward those with whom they disagree.
That’s what’s happening now.
The second factor is the success of the conservative agenda.
Republicans have occupied the governor’s office since 2004. They have controlled the Indiana General Assembly for most of the past two decades—and have enjoyed supermajorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for much of that time.
They have used this power to push through almost every big item on their wish list—tax reform, school vouchers, privatization and a host of other policy changes. There literally are not many big-ticket conservative ambitions left unrealized in Indiana.
They could look again at some of their programs that haven’t worked—like, say, a school voucher system that hasn’t come close to delivering on the student achievement gains its advocates initially promised.
But that would require humility and a willingness to acknowledge a mistake.
It’s easier by far to persecute people who can’t push back, largely because their tormentors occupy offices secured by a rigged system.
And that’s why, at the halfway point of this legislative session, we Hoosiers are where we are.