I haven’t lived in Kansas for 50 years, but I still consider myself a Kansas girl. The election this week wasn’t exactly a surprise. Kansas has long been the heart of the heartland, and though Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback have wreaked terrible havoc on the state, it was always a long shot that my home state could desert the party of Eisenhower and Dole. But I grieve for my beloved state, and for our country, which is being torn apart by a red tide of money and where politics has become estranged from its people.
Like many Midwesterners who migrate to cities in the East and the West, I often feel an immediate bond with other displaced Midwesterners. We recognize each other’s relative lack of cynicism. In the days since the election, we ask each other why and how all this could have happened … why such hate and distrust in our heartland? What happened to the dear hearts and gentle people?
How did Joni Ernst, the freshly minted Tea Party senator from Iowa whose campaign was funded by the Kansas Koch brothers, capture hearts and votes? She crassly touts her memories of wearing plastic bags on her shoes as a badge of solidarity with financially struggling Iowans: “All of us on the school bus wore plastic bags on our shoes.” But hers is a fake solidarity and a fake decency of the most cynical kind. Ernst received millions from David and Charles Koch’s super PACs. Her down-home façade masks an Orwellian manipulation by big money that is choking the very lifeblood of American democracy. She is now touted as the new face of Republican politics.
The people I know in Kansas would not swoon to see fellow Kansans David and Charles Koch pull out their magic pocketbooks or Sam Brownback try to sell snake oil. They are far too decent for that. But when they are bombarded with insidious messages that put the blame on President Obama for everything from letting immigrants take their jobs to opening our borders to Ebola and ISIS, they lose faith in the very concept of government. They have been brainwashed to lose hope.
Kansas is scarcely alone. The red tide has swept the country and washed away blue and purple constituencies nationwide. America has become a country that spends billions on political campaigns but cannot address the needs of its people. We have been persuaded to fear one another and to blame the government for all our problems. We see money and jobs, but they are not for us. And we vote blindly, in our anger, and we give democracy away.
But I am still a Kansas girl, and I don’t recognize the bitter, mistrustful people who voted against themselves and their government. They are not the people I grew up with and still know in Kansas. My good friend Tom, who at 98 continues his decades-long habit of going every day into the hills near my hometown to paint luminous landscapes of the changing seasons, says Kansas hasn’t changed. “Politics has changed. It’s an ugly season. But you know Kansans … we always make it somehow.”
Maybe. Tom is a quintessential Midwesterner whose values embody a hard-earned optimism that has survived almost a century of upheavals. But money has never been so pervasive and corrosive in politics, and decency and optimism are under siege.
“Bleeding Kansas” was a phrase that resonated widely throughout the nation on the eve of the Civil War, as pro- and anti-slavery forces battled fiercely for the soul and future of the state as it prepared to enter the union. John Brown and others discovered when they led anti-slavery campaigns there that it might take an enormous showdown for decent people finally to have their say.