U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Report from Kansas

[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Ruben Flores, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas, and winner of the 2015 Society for U.S. Intellectual History Book Prize for his Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico’s Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States.  This coming October, Dr. Flores book will also be the subject of our annual S-USIH Book Prize Roundtable at the S-USIH Conference in Washington, D.C.. The roundtable will take place on Saturday, October 17, 2:00-3:30. We hope to see some of you there!]

The first week of June 2015 was both the happiest and saddest of my career. Several days earlier, colleagues in my profession had awarded me a prestigious prize for a book I had struggled to write for the better part of six years. It was an astonishing honor. Colleagues whose ideas I have followed for years as I tried to learn about the history and culture of my country had given me an award for a book that spoke to their concerns. Concerns about the meaning of government. Concerns about ethics and what responsible citizens owe to one another. Concerns about institutions that ignore and harm the vulnerable.

Yet even as my book had brought national recognition to my state, I had simultaneously been designated a “non-essential” employee of the University of Kansas. Not 30 miles distant from my office, the Kansas state legislature was refusing to reach a practical compromise on a budget that would fund the treasury from which state employees are paid. University employees, including professors, were being warned that they were to abstain from any university-related work in the absence of a legislative breakthrough. Some colleagues argued that professors had little to lose financially since we are not paid in the summer, but the larger significance of what had happened was obvious to those who had followed the last decade of politics. My colleagues at Kansas garner their share of national attention for the work that they do to reconfigure the meaning of community in our state and nation. They travel to archives and interview people, staring intently at the blank page day in and day out, before they craft the interpretations that are central for the creation of a better social fabric. Yet in spite of the fact that they are valuable interlocutors in the exchange of ideas that is essential to our democracy, state leaders had signaled that their work was disposable amid current political priorities. Every doctor, lawyer, accountant, schoolteacher, nurse, pharmacist, and architecture student who will receive a degree from the University of Kansas will first pass through the classes of its humanists first, learning to write, to debate, and to challenge the assumptions they take for granted. Yet those humanists had just been called disposable and unimportant.

This crisis of ideas had been artificially crafted. Three years ago, state income taxes for small businesses and the wealthy had been slashed by Governor Sam Brownback, who foresaw rapid investment with the added money that businesses would now have. We are still waiting for the promised results of an economic experiment that does not work. Meanwhile, private philanthropy that Brownback promised would reinvest never made up the difference in arts funding that had been cut from the budget. Healthcare has taken a hit, with the result that cancer patients are leaving the state and dying sooner. Students are working more hours to pay for higher tuition, yet they have fewer classes, fewer professors, and fewer advising sessions. Professors and researchers are feeling the squeeze more than ever, all because of a governor’s faith in an economic experiment that we know cannot work. Ideas have been placed on a hold as a result.

Brownback’s self-deception is made worse by his anti-intellectualism. When a resident of Kansas recently pointed out that our medically vulnerable population was experiencing increased levels of suffering, Governor Brownback promptly ignored the evidence that hides in plain sight. He has argued that dependency on government is immoral, but he refuses to explain why he has allowed government to authorize higher bank fees via a new law that forces our poorest citizens to use their debit cards more frequently. He has encouraged our secretary of state to pursue investigations of voting irregularities, thus spending revenue that is better used elsewhere, yet there are no incidents of voting fraud at all. His logic eludes us all. In place of justification, explanation, and thought, there is only the resort to fear and the ethics of wishful thinking.

To watch Brownback in action is to watch a public official who deliberately avoids discussion, debate, and evidence. He recedes from public scrutiny, providing neither press conferences nor meetings with the public. He averts the harm he has caused, afraid to be confronted with the evidence that stalks him at every turn, even as he has transformed government in favor of our most comfortable citizens instead of our most vulnerable, and conjured problems from the ether that do not exist. If university professors have not been explicit targets of his worldview, it is no loss to defund those whose ideas present alternatives to his utopian view of the world. It is for that reason that Brownback has now threatened to defund our state courts if they should dare to rule against his actions. A more emotionally distant public official I have never known, just as former candidate for governor Paul Davis has recently put it: “One thing that Democrats and Republicans may be able to agree on right now is the complete lack of engagement and leadership on the part of the governor.” Brownback fought his way to national office two decades ago by criticizing politicians who were removed from the everyday concerns of their constituents and a federal state that be believes had inordinate control of the lives of its citizens. But it is he who has now become the state’s most utopian dreamer. In the process, he has also turned himself into its most removed autocrat.

Like other American provinces that have undergone the troubles of war, racial conflict, and economic exploitation, Kansas has never suffered from a shortage of ideas. John Brown’s fiery indignation comes readily to mind, as does the socialism of Marcet Haldeman-Julius and Eugene Debs. But it is two other thinkers that I study more frequently. Vernon Parrington spent his early life in Emporia, not one hour south of my campus office, and it was there that he witnessed the dreadful life of Kansas farmers that resulted in the transformation of his thought toward the progressive left. This was in 1890s Kansas, long before he went on to write Main Currents in American Thought, still a classic for the historicity and organicism that he brought to his interpretation of American ideas. And there was also George S. Counts, born and educated in Baldwin City just south of Lawrence, who would author Dare the School Build a New Social Order? in 1932 and become an important interlocutor in the debate about the role of the school in New Deal reform. These were thinkers all, wrestling with the fundamental role of institutions and vibrant thought in the life of our democracy. They were ethicists, too, thinking of the good society and the role of men and women in achieving it. From the Exodusters who sought a new life north of slavery to the Mennonites who challenged established church doctrines to the farmers of the Grange who fought the railroads and the banks, Kansas has never been a flyover state in the realm of ideas.

Whether today’s Kansas electorate is borrowing from these ideas I do not know, but a majority of our citizens now believes that Governor Brownback has overreached. Metaphors and allusions to the “soul” have begun to creep into current civic debates about Brownback’s policies: “Kansas has lost its soul,” said the Kansas City Star yesterday, while others have said that our soul has been split in two. There is, of course, not a single soul, and there never was. More to the point, the soul is beyond the terrestrial, and for that reason, not an accurate descriptor for the tangible road we must follow institutionally if we are to break out of the challenges facing us. It is Brownback’s soul and faith that have mired us in the ethics of unsympathy, moreover, allowing him to replace pragmatic governance with the autocracy of his idealist visions.

But beneath the rhetoric of the transcendent are voting patterns and a public dialogue that reflect alarm with social and civic institutions whose possibilities are getting thinner and thinner. Republican legislators who Governor Brownback hand-picked to run for state office “actually have the courage [now] to say the experiment has not worked,” says Davis. Brownback won 63% percent of the vote in 2010, but in 2014, he garnered only 49% of the state vote to Davis’s 46%. Such a tight margin of victory was achieved even with the tax breaks that now threaten our state. In property-rich Johnson County, located next to Kansas City, Brownback won the 2010 vote by 25,000 votes, yet despite the tax breaks, he won by only 2,000 votes in 2014. These are all signals of deep resentment toward the governor’s policies. Even as the state legislature declared that University of Kansas employees were “non-essential,” the ongoing debate across the legislative aisle in Topeka was not about whether or not to raise taxes, but in what form to raise them. In other words, Brownback’s tax policies have cut too deeply for the legislature, and its members are backpedalling to raise much of the revenue they had previously cut. School districts and public school superintendents are openly challenging the governor, as are Democrats and moderate Republicans.

The challenge of crafting a more ethical tax policy will remain even if the state succeeds in repudiating much of Brownback’s and the extremist right’s budget cuts. We have eliminated business taxes and given revenue back to our wealthiest citizens, but we are about to hurt the poorest of our citizens by raising the sales tax in order to fund our budget. This cannot stand. We cannot harm the vulnerable in order to give money to those who already have it and do not reinvest it in our community. We must find the courage to return money to those who least have it, even as we return to a politics that keeps the flow of ideas open in our universities and public schools. Governor Brownback may not think our universities are worthy institutions to defend, but the State of Kansas has begun to isolate his attack on ideas and engaged debate. “We ought to be ashamed. I am ashamed. I’m ashamed to be associated with a group that won’t act any better than this. This is crazy. Absolutely stupid,” said Republican Les Donovan, the state Senate’s top tax negotiator, on June 10.

The ideas at work in my university and among the people of my state will never be “non-essential.” University morale has suffered in recent year as we have struggled to understand how an institution that counts among the 62 leading research universities that comprise the prestigious Association of American Universities has lost its priority for our governor and legislature. We wonder, too, about who counts as “essential.” Administrators who do not teach? Coaches and trainers who support NCAA athletics? Researchers who supervise doctoral projects during the summer months? Office managers who keep our departments running as new students visit during orientation? Yet my colleagues and I hold fast to our belief that the exchange of ideas matters. We do not have all of the answers, but we believe that searching for them collectively is a better means of arriving at compromise than is a unidirectional dictate that is closed to question and examination. We respond to the evidence of harm, to increased threats to the vulnerable, and to the redistribution of wealth and power, because institutions can harm as much as they can help. It is for that reason that we continue to write and to teach, for and about the citizens of our state and nation. It is also why we stand with our colleagues in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and elsewhere who value ideas and discussion, for it is there that we will find the best way forward at a moment of misguided politics.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As a fellow employee of a (humbler) Kansas Regents institution, I have to concur with the rendition of Brownback and the shock of the last week’s crisi at the brink. At the same time, without additional polling data, I’m uncertain how to read the feelings of our fellow citizens, especially the hardcore Laffer-curve Republicans who control the legislature: it’s not clear to me that we should be optimistic about the possibility of a return to moderation or shift in party affiliations, or in electoral victories.

  2. Ruben, this is so on target it was hard for me to get all the way through it. Thank you for expressing what so many of us are feeling these days.

    I am wondering if I could ask you to elaborate on your descriptions of Brownback’s vision as utopian or idealistic. I ask because, since I do work on how people talk about poverty, I’m often torn between being confronted by what seems like sincerity — some people really think the poor will have better quality lives in some kind of trickle-down fantasy — and just plain disdain and contempt for the poor. It almost seems like a substantial portion of the population wants to see the poor suffer more than they already do; wants to make sure, as the new law on welfare recipients in Kansas shows, that poor people not only remain poor but that they are barred from deriving any normal human enjoyment out of their life, as if being poor wasn’t punishment enough for their supposed sins. And when I’m confronted with that, it’s not only despair I feel, but an incredibly frustrating rage.

    So I guess I am asking, what do you think? How do you understand this desire to punish the poor? Of course, not everyone’s motivations, even if they use the same rhetoric, are the same. So what would you assessment be, then, of the combination of beliefs, hopes and prejudices that has gotten us to this place?

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