In the first 60 years of statehood, Kansas gave the nation crusading abolitionists, fervent prohibitionists, insurgent populists and progressive reformers, causing William Allen White to observe in 1922: "When anything is going to happen in this country, it happens first in Kansas.... These things come popping out of Kansas like bats out of hell.... Why, no one seems to know."
More recently, Kansas gained national attention for an unprecedented civil disturbance in which hundreds of abortion protesters blocked clinics and were arrested, and the State Board of Education shifted to and fro on the teaching of evolution in public schools. About the same time, a national think tank dedicated to individual liberty and free markets ranked Kansas first among the 50 states in economic freedom based on greater fiscal restraint, less regulation and judicial activism, and lower welfare spending. Then, in the name of equity, Kansas courts ordered state lawmakers to add $750 million to school budgets.
Kansas politics can mystify. What explains these bewildering contradictions? Is there any connection between our state's colorful political past and its current politics? In a new book, "Kansas Politics and Government: The Clash of Political Cultures," my co-author, Joe Aistrup, and I argue that Kansas politics, past and present, may best be understood as a contest among political cultures energized by political preferences for liberty, order and equality.
Quite simply, deep-seated political values drive state politics.
Each political culture has a unique vision of a more perfect state. Those seeking individual liberty above all else believe that free markets and limited government will naturally result in social progress. Those preferring order see an active role for government in perfecting citizenship and democracy. Egalitarians call attention to inequities and injustice in our state and deflate the pomposities of both free markets and coercive governments.
We believe the lens of political cultures helps interpret Kansas politics and reveals the intimate connections between the state's political past and its current politics, for example:
* How Kansas state government, once fiscally solvent and debt free, veered onto an unsustainable financial course, with budgets dramatically out of balance and accelerating debt burdens.
* How Republican Party factionalism, a part of party politics for most of state history, changed with the emergence of a Republican "polar alliance" dedicated to restraining government on economic issues, such as tax cuts and spending, and enlarging the power of government on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
* How Kansas courts, historically restrained, became an active force for equality in "superintending" state financing of schools and coercing legislative action, thereby creating the current conundrum in school finance.
* How Kansas politics, often viewed as an island insulated from outside influences, has indeed shifted with national political movements and party alignments.
Our political preferences do ebb and flow through time, but also persist. Even against the potent national and global forces shaping our lives today, these competing values frame today's issues, vie for partisans, shape party politics and guide the state's future. And they assure that Kansas politics will continue as a lively affair, for both participants and observers.