The Matter with Kansas, Again

I am an expatriate Kansan. For this reason my friends press me to explain the latest episode of political stupidity whenever my home state surfaces in the national media. Since moving away I have been asked to account for the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, the abolition of the Kansas Arts Commission, and the ongoing nastiness of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. The long struggle over the place of evolution in the state education curriculum followed me into my undergraduate years. Recently in the news we have witnessed the political success of the conservative faction of the state Republican Party: a first step toward eliminating the income tax; the privatization of Medicaid; and the introduction of a package of restrictive, even cruel anti-abortion legislation. Meanwhile, the most damaging conservative activity—the gradual dissolution of the state government—has garnered little national attention. The unmaking of the state has accelerated in the two years since Governor Sam Brownback took office, and during this legislative session is being pursued with redoubled fervor.

Kansas wasn’t always this way. Until World War I, the state was a hotbed of radicalism: it produced figures such as John Brown and Mary Lease, and was a major base of operations for the Populist and Socialist movements. Then, for eighty years, the state went quiet, becoming a watchword for everything middling and dull in American politics. It is only since the 1990s that Kansas has become associated with a long row of reactionary ideas, leading many commentators to argue that the state took an abrupt right turn. In fact, exactly the opposite is the case: Kansas is terminally moderate. What’s troubling about the case of Kansas is that conservatives have framed all their ideas in the blandest common sense discourse, while their opponents have rarely been capable of responding with anything more vigorous than polite disagreement. The result threatens to undermine the very existence of the state.

The fact is, the conservative faction in Kansas is relatively weak. Though Kansans vote overwhelmingly Republican, there are seventeen states where a higher proportion of residents self-identify as “conservative.” Because most Kansans will vote Republican most of the time, but most Kansans do not identify themselves as conservatives, the results of low-turnout primary elections can lead to dramatic political swings. The protracted contest over evolution, for instance, hinged on Republican primaries for seats on the State Board of Education, with extremists, moderates, extremists, and moderates winning in four successive elections. Evolution is now firmly installed in the state curriculum, though the leader of the anti-evolutionist group, Steve Abrams, is firmly installed in the State Senate, where he serves as Chair of the Education Committee. But the pendulum never stops: a moderate primary challenge forced the now-disbarred State Attorney General Phill Kline (an anti-abortion crusader, Kline lied to state agencies numerous times to advance his anti-abortion activities) from public life in 2008, while conservatives defeated several moderate incumbent senators in primary challenges in 2012.

Wholesale privatization of public health services, a hallmark of the early period of Brownback’s term as Governor, only reverses the work of Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius, a two-term Democratic governor, was elected after serving as the State Insurance Commissioner, and campaigned on her successful prevention of a private takeover of Kansas BlueCross BlueShield. Had she not accepted an appointment as President Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, she very probably would have won Brownback’s vacated US Senate seat in 2010. Sebelius was, in her own way, a knee-jerk moderate: she left office with few positive achievements, but routinely blocked the more extreme measures of the State Legislature. The assurance of her quiet veto, in turn, led many moderates to vote for extreme measures that they otherwise would have defeated on the floor.

Even the visible and occasionally violent struggle over abortion is a sign of moderacy. Kansas had, and still has, more permissive abortion laws than most of its neighbors, explaining why the infamous Summer of Mercy took place in Wichita rather than Oklahoma City, and why George Tiller was still performing legal abortions when he was shot in 2009.

The most sensational instances of Kansas conservatism, in other words, have been the result of crass opportunism, rather than hidebound conviction, and often fail to endure. Less visible, but more important, has been the steady elimination of state services, accompanied at every step by tax cuts. Education and health services have been singled out for attack, leading to the elimination of many thousands of jobs in the last year. Another huge round of cuts is planned for this year, as well as a package of laws meant to make cuts harder to resist in the future. The courts and the public unions have been the most effective opponents of austerity, and both face major attacks. If the conservatives succeed, those most hurt will be the poor, especially those living in rural areas.

Low population density makes rural communities extremely vulnerable to state cuts. The elimination of a school or clinic may force residents to drive to the next county (or the one after) to access a service. There are nearly 150 public high schools in the state with 150 students or fewer, many of them barely able to remain open. Cuts in state funding for public education, which could come to thousands of dollars per pupil in the coming years, will force many of these small school districts to close or consolidate. This will produce endless travel time for the unlucky students. It will also mean the demise of many small communities: the social life of the local school sustains many towns throughout the state, and when a high school closes, the community often dissolves.

Huge cuts to the state income tax will be offset by the continuation of a sales tax increase and the elimination of a number of tax credits primarily benefiting the poor. Kansans making less than $20,000 could see their annual taxes increase by several hundred dollars. This does not include other ways that life will be made more expensive. Lower levels of state support for necessary institutions such as universities, courts, and roads will be made up by increases in tuition, fees, and tolls. In the past decade, the University of Kansas tripled tuition in an attempt to make up for cuts in state support. Despite this the University has seen increases in class size and time to graduation, lower completion rates, and the deferral of vital maintenance.

Underneath taxation is an idea of society. Taxes in Kansas have long supported public goods that are both necessary and too expensive to be paid for solely by the people who need them. Because the state is huge and speckled with small communities, infrastructure and schooling were important funding priorities. Though the political life of mid-20th century Kansas was unglamorous, it supported an idea of prudent, rational government that attempted to provide for the necessities of civic life.

Nobody paying attention would doubt that the more conservative elected officials in Kansas think that both taxation and public goods are essentially bad—the same may be said of the most vocal conservatives throughout the US. The Kansans have been successful, and retained office, because they never make this claim directly. Each individual cut has been presented as prudent and necessary—nothing more. Even the elimination of the highest of three state income tax brackets, the first step in a declared project of abolishing the income tax, was not offered as a statement about the injustice of taxation. Tax cuts are merely a way to stimulate economic growth. If things continue in this way, the conservatives will whittle the state down to a highway and a football team without ever saying in so many words that government is bad.

The conservative faction has never been forced to declare its real position because the opposition does not contest the terms of debate or offer an alternative vision for the state. When Governor Brownback abolished the Kansas Arts Commission, he did so on the grounds of expense. Defenders of the Arts Commission immediately conceded that dollars were the best way of measuring art. They responded by saying that public arts funding is good for the local economy, and the Arts Commission was, in any event, not expensive. What the defenders did not say was that art was good in itself, or good for the public in ways that do not tell on a ledger.

Every new retrenchment is met with a half-rebuttal: opponents express the polite hope that Brownback’s cuts really will stimulate economic growth, however ridiculous this claim may be. Moreover, they never say that a state government, rather than being a checkbook to be balanced, is a guarantor of the public good and a reflection of the state’s ideas about itself.

Perhaps opponents have a hard time describing the public good because the state has changed so rapidly. Kansas has become, in a short time, a metropolitan society. More than half the population lives in just five of the state’s 105 counties. (Adding in the census-defined suburbs of these areas brings the total to 70%.) These same five counties represented only 30% of the population in 1950, and 11% in 1910. Economic power is even more concentrated: eighty-nine of the state’s counties are poorer today than they were a generation ago, and the most populous areas are also the wealthiest. Many of the key proponents of state cuts come from these prosperous communities, which make net transfers of wealth to the rest of the state and would be least injured by the elimination of public services.

Aside from sectional conflict, there is a very real division between the national allegiances of the most influential conservatives and the values of most Kansans. It is widely understood that Governor Brownback is preparing for a 2016 presidential bid, and Brownback’s Kansas is already being presented as a national model for conservative governance. Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and the American Tax Coalition have been intervening in state-level elections for many years. Though figures like Brownback have ingratiated themselves with the restless conservative wing of the national GOP, they are at odds with the 57% of Kansans who identified themselves as moderate or liberal in a Gallup poll released in February.

Anti-government conservatism has already been a damaging import; the rest of the country should not let the anti-government conservatism plated with mild rhetoric become Kansas’s most dangerous export. While this mixture may come naturally to politicians in Kansas, there is no reason to believe that it could not be cynically imitated elsewhere. For the good of the state and the country, it will be necessary to force the conservative faction to declare its real values. This will require a new vocabulary for talking about Kansas. Its radical tradition was a product of farm communities and small towns; these are irretrievably lost to history. But there is something to be learned from the fractious spirit of early 20th century Kansas, which saw conflict between waning Populism, the growing socialism of the Voice of Reason, the small-town Progressivism of William Allen White, and the racism of the Democratic Party and the Ku Klux Klan. These factions voiced often bitter disagreement over what the state was and should be, and their disagreement exposed real conflicts.

The same must happen now, in the face of a new set of conflicts. There are deepening sectional differences between the Northeastern corner (where Kansas City and Topeka can be found) and the rest of the state. The national conservative ambitions thrust upon Kansas cut against the desires of the majority of its citizens. Most fundamentally, there is a division between those who see the state as plentiful and those who do not. The fact is, Kansas is a mostly empty place, and always has been. It is not a rich place, and never will be. But the conservatives have made the war of all against all into a government policy when, in truth, Kansas is more than wealthy enough to afford to be a community. The question is whether Kansans have the mettle to argue out what kind of community it should be.

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