Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > What's Still the Matter With Kansas?

Oct 29, 2012

What's Still the Matter With Kansas?


Credit: Wikimedia Commons/HNN staff.

Today I posted a long article on Truthout.org titled "What's Still the Matter With Kansas -- and With the Democrats?" The title refers to a popular 2005 book by Thomas Frank, exploring the puzzle of why so many people of middling economic means vote for Republicans whose policies so clearly favor the rich and do little to help people of middling economic means. Frank chose Kansas as the place to study a large number of voters who vote against their economic self-interest because he came from Kansas.

In my article I use "Kansas" as a symbol for all those voters.  I argue that Democrats are losing this key demographic group, and maybe this election, because they're unwilling to support values issues dear to the heart of “Kansans” that they could very plausibly endorse.

One little piece of that article may be of special interest to historians. I note another book on the same topic, Red State Religion, by another native Kansan, the eminent sociologist of American religion Robert Wuthnow. He stresses the powerful spirit of community you will find among these Republican voters of Kansas.  He also traces the history of that spirit being expressed both in religious communities and in electoral politics. There’s a rich tradition of many “Kansans” voting Democratic for decades, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when populism and progressivism overlapped in so many way. Back then, lots of “Kansans” understood the invaluable role of government. 

Now, their descendants will still often bend over backwards to help you out when you need it -- as long as they judge you deserving. But, crucially, they insist on reserving that right to judge for themselves. They won’t let any government bureaucrat do it.

Why not? Wuthnow traces the distrust of the federal government back to 1938, when Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to follow through on the promises he’d made in the 1936 campaign. As my Truthout article shows, that’s far too simplistic an explanation. It’s only one factor, and probably not a major factor, in understanding the “Kansas” of today.

Still, it’s an interesting point. Wuthnow does make a strong case for the late ‘30s as the crucial point at which “Kansas” began to support the conservative drive to shrink government.

But he neglects to explore the complexities of that turning point. FDR did not intentionally forsake “Kansas.” He made a couple of bad strategic blunders: insisting on his court-packing plan after it was obviously bound to fail, and campaigning in the 1938 primaries against some stalwart Democrat conservatives running for re-election to Congress, who won re-nomination and re-election anyway. 

As a result, FDR lost a lot of political capital in Congress. For that and lots of other reasons, Congress became more conservative and blocked progressive measures that FDR probably would have been happy to sign into law. 

So FDR was blamed for failures that were mostly caused by an obstructive Congress. Of course back in those days a president was allowed to blame Congress, loud and clear, for obstructing progressive measures that he would have approved.

Today that seems to be pretty much taboo. Barack Obama, who suffered much the same fate as the second-term Franklin Roosevelt, has put very little effort into pinning the blame on the Republicans in Congress. If he tried to make that a major issue, he would be pilloried by the press as a whiner and a weasel, trying to avoid taking responsibility. 

I’m not sure why that change in media perspective has happened. But it’s certainly worth noticing.  

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