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Inquire Indiana: Why Is Indiana So Conservative?

An Indiana historian says the state is moderate, but shifts more conservative or liberal depending on what's going on (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News).

We want to know what you wonder about the Hoosier state and its people as part of our Inquire Indiana project. And, when we first asked you to submit questions, a couple of people had the same one.

Aaron Tsay asked "What major milestones or factors contributed to Indiana becoming one of the most conservative states in the USA?"

And, Kevin Howell asked "Why is Indiana so red?"

We posed those questions to a Hoosier historian. James Madison is an Emeritus professor of history at Indiana University. 

Why Is Indiana So Conservative?

The question 'Is Indiana a conservative state?' doesn’t really have a yes or no answer, in my opinion. And, historians tend to do this. We say 'yes and no' to questions like that. I think most people think today it’s a conservative state. In some ways, it is. I think Indiana’s more a moderate state that has shifted one way or another, liberal or conservative, a little bit over our 200 plus years.

Part of Indiana’s culture comes from the first generation of pioneers who settled here in the very early 1800s. A majority of them came from the upland south. They were not slave owners, they were mostly poor farmers. But, they brought with them when they crossed the Ohio River into southern Indiana certain values: religion, spousal relationships, child rearing, how to grow corn, how to build a barn, how to vote in politics. And, those values were moderate. They were democratic in many ways, they included certainly low taxes, or no taxes, and minimal government. And, so that first generation really set the tone.

In 1816, Hoosiers wrote a constitution that was almost radical in its definitions of democracy, in its promise of guarantees of political freedom, of speech and other freedoms. And, for example, of its guarantee of a free education for all Hoosier kids – from elementary school to a state university where the tuition would be free. That’s a very, very liberal, progressive view of the future as seen in 1816.

There are also times when Indiana is more conservative, less progressive. The 1920s is a fantastic example of that. Because the leading political event of the 1920s in Indiana was the rise to power of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most regressive, conservative, reactionary kind of movements with significant political power

One of the ways in which Indiana tends to be conservative is that Hoosiers have never quite trusted government. Government is often viewed as a bad thing. Government can do two things that are bad. It can reduce your individual freedom to do what you want, and it can tax you. And, boy, do Hoosiers not like taxes. Even less so in recent decades. That means small government, inexpensive government, and that tends to mean a conservative or moderate approach to the problems of the general welfare of the people.

Another liberal, progressive moment is with the election of 1960. In response to all sorts of things going on in our culture – the beginnings of student movements, civil rights, of women’s movements as we came to see them later on. But in 1960 Hoosiers elected a fairly liberal democrat as governor, Matt Welsh. They elected that same era as senator Birch Bayh. These and others in office in the early 1960s were rather liberal.

There are other times when conservative politics and ideologies have been more powerful. The 1950s, the era of McCarthy, the era of small government and low taxes. And, again in the 1990s when Indiana became almost obsessed with lowering taxes, with not providing public services that would increase the state’s budget.

A conservative social ideology and policy that began in the 1990s and came to flower in the administration of governor Pence, who really has been, perhaps in many ways, our most conservative governor in recent years. We now have a governor who’s not quite as conservative, especially on the social issues. More willing to return to what I see as traditional Hoosier values, of allowing people to decide for themselves who they want to marry, what their personal lives are all about, rather than having government interfere.

I think Indiana, and America, is now moving in a somewhat different direction, maybe a significantly different direction, away from the more moderate or conservative politics. Away from some of the hot button social issues that have so occupied our attention and time in recent years.

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