Davis Meritt
Wichita Eagle
In the summer of 1975, when our family of five arrived in Wichita, the job of editor of The Wichita Eagle and The Wichita Beacon seemed to offer respite from 18 years of the perpetual turmoil of the East Coast.
My newspapering in North Carolina, Florida and Washington, D.C., had centered on politics and government, including the social explosions of the ’60s, the ceaseless, bitter foment over Vietnam and Watergate, school desegregation and urban deterioration, too many assassinations and too little statesmanship.
Kansas, by contrast, offered a comfortably conservative social and political atmosphere overlaying Kansans’ willingness to accept what you were and did so long as you reciprocated.
For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, Kansas had been reliably Republican in presidential and legislative races, though five of the 22 governors had been Democrats. Then something strange happened, and of the next seven governors (from 1967 to 2009), four would be Democrats.
Of course, Kansas Democrats were not East Coast Democrats; not even close philosophically. But the relative moderation of both parties kept the state’s course steady and its economy stable.
But the turn into the 21st century saw that moderation replaced by an aggressive, angry swing to the far right that in part mirrored a national shift, but had particularly Kansas characteristics.
Explanations abound, too complex to deal with here. But three notable attempts are:
• Kansan Thomas Frank identifies the problem as the rise of a new brand of pseudo-populism grounded in social values (“What’s the Matter With Kansas?”).
• Robert Wuthnow, also a Kansan (“Red State Religion”), sees Kansas’ political extremism as an artifact of evangelical churches, particularly Southern Baptist, aggressively organizing working-class people around social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
• Jane Mayer (“Dark Money”) blames Wichitan Charles Koch’s determination to use his billions to interpose hard-line libertarian ideas between governments and his business empire.
Whatever the complex forces, Kansas has come to a bad place politically, socially and economically, and the question of how to return to the days of relative comity and compromise is crucial.
That’s why the unprecedented alliance of four recent governors is a glimmer of hope in a dark passageway. The immediate aim of the four – Democrats John Carlin and Kathleen Sebelius and Republicans Mike Hayden and Bill Graves – is to form a voting coalition to sidetrack Gov. Sam Brownback’s “dangerous agenda” in the upcoming legislative elections. Among their concerns: unbalanced tax policy, lax support of public education, limited access to health care and threats to judicial independence.
But wouldn’t it be exciting if their effort became a first step toward realignment of the two major parties (or spawned a third one) along today’s political philosophies rather than centuries-old labels, habits of mind and familial inheritances?
Clearly, our current embittered political culture cannot lead to a much-needed Kansas renaissance.
“The 4 Govs” just might.
Column courtesy of The Wichita Eagle