After fifteen years of thinking, writing, and teaching about Arkansas politics, and even more years of practicing it, I have come to see one particular puzzle as central to any understanding of the state's political past and critical to any evaluation of the political present and future. Briefly, here is the enigma.
For most of Arkansas's history, most of its citizens were hardworking and hard-pressed farmers, struggling for subsistence against formidable odds. For all of its history as a state, Arkansas has had democratic institutions through which this majority of the citizenry should have been able to elect sympathetic officials, demand attention and assistance, and hold the government accountable. Yet this kind of demand and response has been a rare event rather than a routine occurrence. Anyone with even the most superficial acquaintance with Arkansas knows that its people have always been fierce in the protection of what is theirs, quick to take offense against slight or injury. And yet, despite the state's proud motto of "Regnat Populus" (The people rule), there is little evidence in the nineteenth century or for most of the twentieth of either popular assertion of just demands or of government provision of necessary and useful services. Indeed, for most of Arkansas's 150 years, state government's relationship to its people seemed to range from irrelevant to injurious.
Recent decades have brought profound political change. There are obvious light years of difference between a state government that spent virtually nothing on schools or roads or health and one that now spends well over a billion dollars annually on these and other services; between Governor John Roane ( 1849-52) asserting, "I am convinced, after careful inves-