GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS.
Oklahomans have reasons to compare politics to weather. In their state both are usually intemperate, both are often electrifying, and both are occasionally freakish. Both also move to discernible rhythms, both respond to identifiable pressures, and both have formidable consequences.
Sooner weather and government share another quality too: each occurs in a particular environment. The political climate, as one might call it, has four defining environmental features. They are Oklahoma's 1) constitution, 2) place in the federal system, 3) relationship to the surrounding region, and 4) persistent political culture. Each contributes to the intemperate, the electrifying, even the freakish ways of Oklahoma's politics. Together, though, they illuminate the rhythms, pressures, and consequences of Oklahoma's governing ways.
Its constitution is the place to start. Dating to 1907 and statehood itself, the constitution remains a product of that quite distant and quite different time. Its defining characteristics—its shrill antibusiness tone, its scrambling of political authority, its excruciating detail—testify to an earlier generation's distrust of power in all its wiles and guises. Because its writers feared economic power, they imprisoned business and industry in tight constitutional shackles, forbidding what they could not regulate and regulating what they could not forbid. Because they resented political power, they divided authority into as many pieces as possible and buried those in every nook and cranny imaginable. Because they carved their fears into hundreds of wordy, detailed, and complex provisions, they made a constitution longer than any then known to Americans and made certain that subsequent rewriting would have to make it longer still.
That is precisely what happened. Conditions changed, often rapidly and decidedly. The constitution did too, usually slowly and fitfully. For both reasons, the state remained in what amounted to a permanent constitutional convention, as Oklahomans kept reworking the document at nearly every opportunity. They began immediately, literally amending the constitution (to prohibit alcohol's sale statewide) at the very election in which they ratified it. Thereafter, they just kept going. By 1990 Sooners had considered no fewer than 274 constitutional amendments, approving 133 of them. In the next nine years, they added twenty-seven more in just thirty-eight opportunities. No one knew if the greater rate of approval was due to the electorate's greater wisdom or to its greater weariness.
Most amendments merely rid the constitution of the more zany notions of its authors. Years after railroads had suspended passenger service, new amendments finally released them of the obligation to maintain nonexistent depots in every county seat, even permitted them to charge imaginary riders more than the old cap of two cents per mile. Other amendments eventually ended the voters' sovereign right to elect the clerk of the supreme court, president of the board of agriculture, state printer, state mine inspector, and, for that matter, three assistant mine inspectors as well.
Other changes were hardly trivial. Many offered a surrender in the old war against enterprise to ally government and business for a new crusade of economic development. Typical was the opening of the state treasury to offer grants, loans, or investments to any company that promised to create private-sector jobs. Another offered up college and university faculty as consorts to high-tech research firms. Other structural amendments already had permitted the governor to serve two successive terms and scheduled annual legislative sessions, for which lawmakers would be paid professional salaries. The logic of these latter changes was that concentrating political power would buy administrative efficiency.
For all of that, many of the constitution's worst qualities remained unchanged; some grew worse still. On balance, the process amounted to surgically removing a few vestigial parts here and there while artificially grafting others to replace them. The consequence looked more like a Frankenstein's monster than an athlete conditioned for modern government. For example, periodic attempts to simplify the constitution's tax structure kept fiddling with the already much amended revenue sections. The result was the cacophony of eighteen new amendments added between 1968 and 1998 alone. Some were amendments to amendments of amendments, their only certain beneficiaries tax attorneys and accountants. Likewise, constitutional efforts to strengthen the executive branch accompanied the steady sprouting of new agencies, boards, and commissions, many utterly independent of the state's so-called chief executive. As their number reached and passed 250, it was obvious that effective administration was lost amid constitutional kudzu.
There were important changes, even radical changes, in Oklahoma government, but the most radical of them had to come from outside. Oklahoma was hardly alone in that. The history of twentieth-century state politics was the history of the steady evolution of American federalism. The national government grew more powerful, and that power included the ability to shape state affairs.
The most common route passed through the national treasury. Federal dollars, often just a few initially, became seeds that rooted, grew, and altered forever the landscape of state government. A few thousand dollars given early to improve public thoroughfares thereby multiplied exponentially to fund everything from bridges to interstate highways, all of them built and maintained by the states. A pittance of money in 1917 to fund vocational schooling thereafter blossomed into a vast national system of technical and career training, in Oklahoma's case one of its more costly and most valuable public services. Washington's determination to get money to the most needy in the emergency of the 1930s survived seven prosperous decades later as a sprawling public welfare system requiring billions of state tax dollars and incalculable administrative skills. Roads, schools, welfare—these together account for all but a thin slice of Oklahoma's annual state spending. Together, they define nearly every issue of public consequence. Together, they measure the impact of the federal government and of the federal system upon the state.
Federal hands that bore gifts sometimes bore the rod as well. In some cases it was federal authority, and only federal authority, that eventually reformed some of the worst features of state affairs. One instance involved the policy-making process itself. Since 1907 Oklahoma's constitution has clearly mandated the redistricting of both legislative chambers following every decennial census. Six times Oklahoma legislators stubbornly ignored that mandate, starting with their first opportunity, just after the federal census of 1910. Every subsequent census, those of 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, and 1960, kept measuring Oklahomans on the move, going from country to town, from town to city. Every year, rural population dropped, but rural representation never did. Every year, urban numbers soared, but urban representation never budged. By the early 1960s a hardy band of Oklahoma reformers could calculate that it took eighty voters in crowded Oklahoma City or Tulsa to match the legislative influence exercised by a lonely voter out in the Panhandle. America's political scientists were adding that only one state (Tennessee) suffered with a legislature more inequitably apportioned than Oklahoma's.
All of that finally changed in the mid-sixties; but neither in-state reformers nor out-of-state scholars deserved much credit. Of course, Oklahoma's public servants deserved none at all. It was federal judges, including those sitting on appellate courts in Denver and Washington, who forced the state to do what it said it must do back in 1907. They did it with a series of court orders (most of them stoutly resisted and loudly decried in Oklahoma) that compelled the state to reapportion its legislative districts finally and fairly.
By the time that happened, almost sixty years had passed. When it happened, urban Oklahomans at last got the representation the numbers deserved. That change begat another: new policies enacted by newly elected legislators on behalf of their newly empowered constituents. Revised formulas matched highway and school monies with traffic counts and classroom enrollments. Metropolitan governments won new levies to fund local and county libraries. Not least, the state wrote new and more urbane liquor laws. Over the years that followed there were so many other changes that many judged the legislature's reapportionment a watershed event for Oklahoma's political history. If so, the credit belonged not to the state but to American federalism.
The same interaction of federal authority with state politics caused other changes as well, including changes in the dark underworld of Oklahoma's county government. For most of the twentieth century government of its seventy-seven counties was a dirty little secret, one no less dirty for being so poorly kept. It centered on county commissioners, three per county, each elected from an independent district. Sitting as boards, the commissioners managed each county's budget, even authorizing the salaries paid lesser county officers, not least of them prosecutors. The boards also approved every dollar spent in each commissioner's personal bailiwick. Most of that money, totaling tens of millions of dollars per year, went to contractors and suppliers to maintain more than eighty thousand miles of so-called county roads. At least some of it went to contractors and suppliers, some of whom actually earned it. A good and dependable portion (the going rate was up to 50 percent) went right back into the commissioners' pockets. So routine, so long standing, and so nearly universal was the practice that a commissioner who voluntarily limited the kickback to "only" 10 percent was commonly esteemed a model public servant. True, a few metropolitan journalists, a handful of good-government types, and an occasional independent politician may have voiced displeasure. For the most part, however, these failed to awaken public apathy amid the deafening silence of commissioners and their allies: the courthouse crowd, local businesses, and rural legislators.
What broke the silence, and broke apart the system, were quiet, well-educated voices, heard first in the U.S. Department of Justice. U.S. attorneys, Internal Revenue Service inspectors, and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents spent five years assembling the evidence to uncover the largest and most systematic case of public corruption in American history. OKSCAM, they called their investigation, and when it finished in 1984, they had convicted more than two hundred people, most of them incumbent or former commissioners.
State officials thereafter tightened controls over future commissioners and made less likely their worst abuses. Most Oklahomans were as little disgusted as they were surprised, however. Rarely noticed was the fact that OKSCAM, as bad as it was, was not alone. After all, the fallen commissioners turned out to be just some of Oklahoma's 246 public officials found guilty of federal crimes between 1977 and 1987, and even that astonishing figure did not include the many others convicted of state crimes.
Those who pondered such facts took scant comfort comparing Oklahoma's record to that of any other state, with the possible exception of Louisiana. If fair, it would not have been the only thing that Oklahoma shared with its neighbor to the southeast or, for that matter, most of the other southern states as well. Its southern exposure turned out to be one of the things that contributed most tellingly to Oklahoma's political climate.
The fact that much of the future state was settled by immigrating southerners had great influence on Oklahoma's later politics. Its unwieldy constitution, its distrust of concentrated corporate and political power, its steady run-ins with federal authority, even its susceptibility to political corruption—all of these were qualities that the Sooner State shared with states of the Old Confederacy. The parallels were even closer at two points long characteristic of politics in the so-called Solid South. They were, in fact, the two that accounted for the region's historic solidarity: the long-standing primacy of race and of the Democratic Party.
The two were not always distinct. Early Oklahoma Democrats campaigned and governed just like their fellow Democrats across the South: they openly and bluntly proclaimed their racism to win power, and they used power to affirm and institutionalize their racism. It was they who mandated separate schools under the constitution; they who segregated public transportation in Oklahoma's first statute; they who countenanced "white only" public accommodations, neighborhoods, even entire towns; they who systematically disfranchised blacks with racist election laws.
Early masters of playing the race card, Democrats kept winning even after they put it away in the 1930s with the arrival of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Democratic candidates kept winning, and winning newly restored black votes too, because they wisely tied themselves to the popular FDR and his immediate successors. That was little wonder. The policies of the New Deal and the largess of post–World War II federal spending saved Oklahomans, black as well as white.
That was why Oklahoma long stayed just about as Democratic as Dixie itself. It quit being Democratic as Dixie did too, at the same time, for the same reason. The process began at the top, first in national, then in statewide contests, gradually moving downward through entire tickets. Sooners and others broke first to favor Republican presidential nominees, the same ones, in fact: Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Richard Nixon in 1960. That done, the GOP next broke the Democratic hold on southern governorships, Oklahoma's Henry Bellmon opening that breach after 1962. U.S. Senate and House seats followed. First one or two went Republican; eventually most of them did. By the century's end Republicans filled all of Oklahoma's. As secondary state offices finally became competitive, Democrats in Oklahoma and elsewhere fell back to their last foxholes, state legislative chambers and outlying courthouses. Even there, everyone knew that the old pack of "yellow dog" Democrats was too feeble to hold the GOP forever at bay.
Both Oklahoma's and the South's partisan realignment reflected underlying values. In Oklahoma's case, those values were central to a political culture that remained stubbornly agrarian, conservative, and moralistic. Decades after its economy was mostly agricultural and its policy makers mostly rural, Oklahoma's governing values remained mostly agrarian. One sign was property tax revenue among the lowest in the nation. Another was the maintenance of twenty-seven state institutions of higher education, one near every farmers' fence row.
Voting for conservative candidates, Oklahomans insisted on conservative policies. They got them in the form of underfunded public services. Because it had only a conservative diet, the state's infrastructure grew too weak to shoulder a technological and service economy. Their eyes fixed on traditional moral values, Oklahomans were quick to behold and denounce the least mote of personal immorality in others. They were neither attentive nor outraged to behold the beam in their state's public record, including its record numbers of incarcerated women, unwed mothers, abused children, and broken families.
That is why Oklahoma left its first century of statehood with strong winds of change at its back. It is why Oklahoma also approached its second century of politics adrift in old, familiar currents. It is why what separated Oklahoma's present from Oklahoma's future was Oklahoma's past.
Oklahomans talked about their past and their present, just like they talked about their weather. Of each they could say that it was usually intemperate, often electrifying, and occasionally freakish. The thing was that Oklahomans could do no more about the past or present than they could about the weather. It was the future that could be different. Oklahomans just might do something about that.
See also: CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, DEMOCRATIC PARTY, JUDICIARY, LEGISLATURE, LITTLE DIXIE, LYNCHING, OKLAHOMA CONSTITUTION, POPULIST (PEOPLE'S) PARTY, PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT, PROHIBITION, REPUBLICAN PARTY, SCANDALS–POLITICAL, SETTLEMENT PATTERNS, SOCIALIST PARTY, STATEHOOD MOVEMENT
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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Danney Goble, “Government and Politics,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=GO018.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.