Kansans’ political labels paint complex landscape

07/29/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:11 AM

Political labels don’t stick anymore

People are rapidly unpeeling them, claiming that a label simply can’t represent the full range of their political views in a society of growing complexities

Dana Schifflett, a retired Air Force meteorologist from Newton, is a Republican who considered himself a conservative, but now doubts he was one. He had to come up with several labels to accurately describe his views.

“I’m a fiscal conservative, a social moderate and a theological liberal,” Schifflett said, responding to an Eagle query conducted with the Public Insight Network,

His thinking evolved with world events. Schifflett said Democrats made a Republican out of him when they couldn’t control their spending, lied to the country about Vietnam, and favored intrusive laws such a 55mph speed limit, a helmet law for motorcyclists, and restrictive gun laws.

But the Republicans wiped out the budget surplus of the 1990s quickly under George W. Bush, he said, and “have left me searching for my inner Democrat.”

Larry Bennett of Wichita is a progressive Democrat, but his interest in long-term and structural solutions aligns him with conservatives, he said.

He has begun to reject the assumption that we must choose between only two political options. Nor do we need to opt for the middle of the road, he said.

“Instead, we need to actively look for areas of agreement — even if they concern relatively small issues — and then work out from there to craft larger solutions, “ Bennett said.

People he knows have misconceptions about him, he said. They tend to think he is on the “liberal team” and assume he is for higher taxes, or they assume he is on the conservative team because he defends the interests of small-business owners.

“News flash. I am not on a team,” Bennett said. “My allegiance is to those who are trying to address the root causes of our problems.”

“What we have in America today is a situation where active voters don’t know what label best describes themselves,” said Russell Arben Fox, associate professor of political science at Friends University. “It’s actually a struggle.”

People didn’t need labels when the party system was strong and well integrated into the American life, he said. People knew what the Republican and Democratic parties stood for going all the way back to the Great Depression.

That changed in the 1960s and ’70s when events like Vietnam, Watergate and the counterculture movement caused people to reject identifying with political parties and start using labels such as liberal and conservative, instead.

“Now we get into this complicated situation where if someone says they’re a conservative, you’re pretty certain they are Republican, and if they’re a liberal, they’re probably a Democrat. But if somebody supports a Republican candidate, are they doing it for conservative reasons, or for reasons that don’t quite fit into the conservative model? Maybe they’re moderate conservatives, or even liberal,” Fox said.

It’s the same on the Democratic side, where Democrats can be moderate or even conservative on different issues, he said.

Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist in Kansas City who has run national and state political campaigns and does extensive polling on voters, said voters are more partisan than ever.

“Voters will tell you one thing, but do another,” he said.

People typically hold to the ideologies they learned from their parents and grandparents, then have a difficult time reconciling their ideologies with their positions on issues, he said.

“You’ll get mutually inconsistent information,” Roe said. “They don’t want to be different than their heritage — their ideological positions force them to be. They’re not lying to themselves, they just have a hard time reconciling their ideology.”

Rapid changes

Kristin Schultz of Overland Park is a Republican homemaker and community volunteer who grew up in urban areas of Iowa exposed to different political views. She learned that participation in the political process was readily available to her, which required her to be responsible. She read newspapers and magazines and watched televised news. That background helped form more liberal viewpoints, she said, but she resists labeling herself a liberal.

“Technology and mobility create rapid societal and economic changes,” Schultz said. “Fixed and polarized political values restrict citizens and elected officials from crafting intelligent responses to these changes.”

Schultz believes in limited government, but also in the intervention of government in issues of shared interest, such as quality public schools, transportation infrastructure, safety and access to culture. Health care reform and financial regulation are in everybody’s interest, she said, while abortion should be kept outside the governmental arena.

“I want strong, competent leaders who are willing to work for solutions without delegitimizing the voice of those who disagree with them,” she said.

Barrick Wilson of Wichita said he is a Republican who has supported “well-qualified” Democrats and doesn’t think the Republican party bears much resemblance to the party he registered with in 1965.

“I value reasonableness in political dialogue, thoughtful deliberation and compromise,” he said.

He called “abhorrent” the effort by some conservative Republicans to oust moderates in the Kansas Senate, and he believes former Gov. Bob Docking had the right idea by being fiscally conservative and socially sensitive.

Bart Hall, a Republican from De Soto, called himself “primarily a constitutional conservative.”

“Except for jury duty, no true right expressed in the Constitution requires me to do anything beyond leaving other folks alone,” he said. “I expect them to leave me alone as well, even when they work for the government.”

Hall, a small-business owner, believes the core problem in America is with elitist politicians who consider themselves unbound by the rules they impose on the “little people.” That elitist sense is dominant among Democrats, he said, but it is growing among Republicans, as well.

“They constitute a direct, powerful and present threat to the liberty and freedom envisioned by the Founders and expressed in the Constitution,” Hall said.

And there are those, like Mike Everhart of Derby, who simply are fed up. Everhart, a Republican, describes himself as a “moderate conservative, but mostly apolitical.”

He grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when people worked for they got, and there were few handouts, he said. His parents were hard-working conservative Republicans who mostly voted independent.

Everhart said he has become disgusted with the political process and all politicians in general.

Most people who like to talk politics are polarized so far to the left or right that they have lost sight of what is good for this country, he said.

“Collectively, we Americans have lost our ability to look objectively at the views of the other side and work together for a compromise,” Everhart said. “It seems to be either ‘My way, or no way.’ ”

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