The clamor and fun of our annual end-of-summer street dance is no place to discuss politics, especially while selling cotton candy to youngsters who are barely tall enough to see over the edge of the table.
Politics doesn’t come up. What does, is price (a dollar) and, occasionally, age – usually a contrast between that of buyer and seller. At one point a colleague at our booth, earning his stripes as a master candy spinner, laughed and said to someone, “Really? Well, I was born during the Truman Administration…”
Which brought me to thinking of politics, the long reach of it in government. The youngsters at table’s edge have been exposed to a couple of presidents. But the older folks have lived with at least 14 of them, from Franklin Roosevelt into Donald Trump, from the ‘30s through the millennium toward the ‘20s.
While the master candy spinner was a toddler, the Truman Administration was hard at work bringing western Europe out of the grinding ruin of a second world war; it also sought to help Japan rise from its ashes as another war loomed on the horizon of Korea. And for America the Truman Administration offered a Fair Deal (including health care, a minimum wage, civil rights) to enhance the wide reach of FDR’s depression-era New Deal.
Alf Landon, the two-term Republican Kansas governor who ran for president in 1936, had no heated quarrel with Roosevelt. Landon was a moderate, his differences with Roosevelt seemed more technical than practical.
The Republican tradition in Kansas was – and is – caught in a paradox that started before most farms had electricity and the only air conditioning was in the cities’ movie houses. It involves a conflict between values steeped in religion and politics rooted firmly in tradition.
The foundation was built on a Protestant culture that dominated politics until 1932. Our national politics, Democratic and Republican, had derived from its ethic a basic creed that if man worked hard and took care of his family, either fortune or God would reward the effort.
But this philosophy, a solid and unmistakable grain in the planks of both parties, collapsed when the national marketplace broke down and when, on the great plains, the nation’s breadbasket turned to dust. Hunger and unemployment flew in the face of Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance. The independence so fiercely practiced on the plains and worshiped by the Republicans had been fractured.
Franklin Roosevelt sought to rescue the country’s ravaged political culture by reinforcing a lasting political truth: that in a modern industrial system all individual effort must be shored by a government that guarantees opportunity for those who want to work, food for the starving, pensions for the elderly, and aid to the sick and the poor. (Moderate Republicans have come to believe much the same.)
Our farmers today accept federal subsidies, price sup-ports, insurance; the poor have welfare and Medicaid; the elderly accept Medicare; business and industry have grants, tax loopholes and benefits; state and local governments receive piles of aid from Washington.
In this farm state, fierce independence remains cherished. Citizen responsibilities in private life and community life are as great, if not greater, than the responsibility of government to shape the life of communities.
But society changed, and several developments have ensured even in Kansas that today’s community is not necessarily tomorrow’s. Great infusions of federal highway funds after World War II – and later the Kansas Turnpike and interstate highway system – provided farms with faster access to markets, city expansion to the suburbs and communities access to each other.
Telephones, rural electric power, television, newspapers and magazines long before the Internet diminished the remoteness of sequestered rural towns and the isolation of farms. People began to discover that local issues were not exclusive, that what helped or hurt farmers in Meade had likely done the same for those in Marion. What bothered merchants in Manhattan troubled storekeepers in Hays. What delighted the banker in Pittsburg could please one in Colby.
Goals and dreams, trouble and elation were shared and became common over the years. But as transportation improved and communications sharpened, as cities grew, and farming became an industry, the interests of each were honed, narrowed. Distinct contrasts remained; residents in western and southwest Kansas often remarked that they were closer to three other state capitals than to their own. They began to draw lines and attract sympathetic loyalists for their separate and conflicting causes.
The great difference was not between Republican or Democrat but in the division between rural and urban interests, the lengthening suspicions among representatives of farm and town, city and suburb.
They remain today. The successful government will find ways to unify the state in common purpose beyond the hack theme or cheap slogans. Division is the fuel of demagogues and power mongers, but hope is for everyone. It should never be the franchise of one tribe above another.