What's the Matter With Kansas? is the title of a 2004 bestseller by Kansas native Thomas Frank. His argument is that Kansas's economy is in sharp decline but that Kansas voters have been hornswoggled into voting against their economic interests by big business operatives operating undercover through Christian evangelists. Never mind that Frank's home town, which he cites as evidence of economic decline, is in Johnson County, economically booming suburban country just west of Kansas City, Missouri, and that Kansas's unemployment rate has been well below the national average; and never mind that it's arguable whether government spending programs help low income people. Frank might as well complain about rich people on the Upper East Side of New York voting against their economic interests by opposing candidates who would cut their high taxes. Kansans, like Upper East Siders, are entitled to vote on whatever basis they want, and if their views on cultural issues trump their short-term economic interest, as they do in both cases, they still are entitled to be respected as rational decision-makers, however misguided you might think they are. It's their decision.
Frank has a better point when he says, "Kansas may be the land of averageness, but it is a freaky, militant, outraged averageness." For the history of seemingly placid Kansas--it actually is flatter than a pancake, geographers announced in 2004 after comparing its geography to an IHOP product--has been punctuated by uprisings, intellectual and violent, by moments of anger and rage sweeping through the tall sheaves like a tornado wind. Kansas literally began in a moment of violence, the Bleeding Kansas of the 1850s that led proximately to the terrible war that split the whole nation. The trigger was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which left to local settlers the question of whether this new Kansas Territory would be a free or slave state. Pro-slavery "bushwhackers" rode over the line from Missouri, stealing elections and writing a pro-slavery constitution. But much larger numbers of free-soil "jayhawkers" from New England and the New England-Yankee-settled Great Lakes states put down roots and, despite the massacres of the mad John Brown, prevailed and established their own law and order. This was a civil war before the Civil War and, as Wichita State historian Charles Miner points out, one conducted by literate people who produced mountains of documents that have not been fully mined by historians.
Kansas's effect on national politics was tumultuous: The Democratic Party was split, the Republican Party was created, and the nation was plunged into Civil War. The ultimate effect on Kansas was calming: The anti-slavery majority bent the soil to the plow and built small towns thick with schools, churches and colleges, to the point that in the 1939 color movie, The Wizard of Oz, the Kansas scenes were shot in dreary black and white as the image of dull, prim, old-fashioned Middle America, while the scenes in imaginary Oz were shot in brilliant color. But the rebellious impulse did not totally die out. Kansans' livelihoods were always at risk: Hailstorms, grasshopper invasions, dry seasons or a drop in world farm prices could mean disaster for thousands. The high-rainfall 1880s attracted hundreds of thousands of new settlers to Kansas; the low-rainfall 1890s produced a bust and a populist rebellion. "What you farmers should do," said orator Mary Ellen Lease, "is to raise less corn and more hell." For a few years in the 1890s, and then in farm rebellions of the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s, Kansans did, but afterwards always returned to jayhawker Republicanism.
Kansas remains Republican in the 21st century, but not in quite the same old way. Its most famous politician, Bob Dole, still returns occasionally to his small hometown of Russell, out on the plains. But Kansas' population is increasingly metropolitan. Some 51% of Kansans live in just five counties, which include Kansas City, Lawrence, Topeka and Wichita, and in 78 of the 100 other counties the population declined between 2000 and 2004. A majority of Kansans are in or within easy reach of metropolitan Kansas City, which has a diverse economy that is by no means dependent on farming. Small towns on the plains see their city halls and post offices padlocked and high schools closed because of low attendance; some towns have bought land to be distributed free to homesteaders, others have courted call centers. But at the same time new office complexes and corporate headquarters are rising amidst the affluent suburbs of Johnson County, which has one of the highest job growth rates in the country. The smaller metropolitan area of Wichita, while less diversified, has an economy built on its role as the world's leading producer of small airplanes: Here many World War II planes were built and here today Cessna, Bombardier, Raytheon and other manufacturers make 53% of the general aviation aircraft in the world. Hispanics are flocking to work in meatpacking factories in towns like Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal, whose populations in 2000 were more than 40% Hispanic; Hispanics accounted for nearly half of Kansas's population growth in the 1990s; Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans was born in Cuba. There is no warrant today for shooting the Kansas scenes in black and white.
This transformation has had political consequences. Some 40% of Kansas's votes in 2004 were cast in the mostly suburban counties from Kansas City west to Topeka, and another 15% in Wichita's Sedgwick County. If rural Kansas once produced farm rebellions, these urban and suburban Kansans have produced their own kind of rebellion. Since the mid-1990s Kansas has had a kind of three-party politics--conservative Republicans versus moderate Republicans versus Democrats. Republican Governor Bill Graves, elected in 1994 and 1998, favored abortion rights and gun control; he was fiercely opposed by conservative Republicans in the legislature. Graves beat back a conservative challenge in the 1998 Republican primary by nearly 3-1, but conservatives won a majority on the state school board and in 1999 issued guidelines that treated evolution as a theory. That aroused a national uproar and was reversed in 2001, and in 2003 moderate Republicans took leadership posts in the legislature. The Republican split opened the way for Democrats, who captured the 3d Congressional District seat in 1998 by beating a conservative who was hated by suburban moderates and the governorship in 2002 when Democrat Kathleen Sebelius beat conservative Treasurer Tim Shallenburger. Conservatives won victories in the August 2004 legislative primaries and gained a 6-4 majority over moderate Republicans and Democrats on the state school board, where the board planned to revisit the science guidelines in May 2005.
But Kansas has not moved toward Democrats in national politics. In voted 58%-37% for George W. Bush in 2000 and 62%-37% in 2004. Its two Republican senators were both first elected in 1996, when Bob Dole resigned and Nancy Landon Kassebaum retired. Sam Brownback reflects the views of Kansas's conservatives and Pat Roberts of its moderates, but they seem to work in harmony unlike their local equivalents. Kansas has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932--the only state that hasn't. Three of the state's four House seats have gone to Republicans essentially uncontested, although Democrats represented two of them in the 1980s and early 1990s.