Tuesday, August 16, 2016

This Day in Media History (Editor Asks, ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?’)

Aug. 16, 1896—Annoyed at a crowd hectoring him about an anti-Populist article, William Allen White published one of the most famous editorials in his long career—and, indeed, one of the most famous in the history of journalism—with the provocative title, “What's the Matter With Kansas?”

If the title sounds familiar, it should: Left-liberal journalist Thomas Frank used it for his 2004 book speculating on why Red States (such as Kansas) continued to vote conservative Republican, even though it was clearly not in their best economic interest.

White (shown here in late middle age), who had just taken over the Emporia Gazette only one year before his piece ran, had a beef of his own 120 years ago with how Kansas voters could act in ways so contrary to their interest. How was it, he noted, that the state lagged the country and even other Midwestern states in different indices of prosperity and well-being?

Yet White came by his diagnosis from a vastly different ideological place than Frank. As a conservative Republican, the 28-year-old journalist blamed Democrats for his state’s doldrums, especially those advocating for the surging Populist movement (including, from adjacent Nebraska, the Democrats’ recently anointed nominee for President, William Jennings Bryan).

A half-century later, in the posthumous Autobiography of William Allen White, the editor admitted that his opinion piece was, shall we say, not entirely a product of cool reason. He had been on his way to his office when he was accosted by readers who took exception to his work.

“They ganged me—hooting, leering, nagging me about some utterances I had made. . . . Finally I broke through the cordon and stalked, as well as a fat man who toddles can stalk, down the street to the office. I . . . sat down to write for Monday`s paper an editorial, and I headed it ‘What`s the Matter with Kansas?’ . . . and it came out pure vitriol.”

That editorial took note of every conceivable metric White could think of—migration out of state, capital fleeing, stagnant industries outside of agriculture--and found Kansas wanting.

The editorial rose to a crescendo of sarcasm: “That's the stuff! Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffings out of the creditors and tell debtors who borrowed the money five years ago when money ‘per capita’ was greater than it is now, that the contraction of currency gives him a right to repudiate.”

In time, White regretted his scornful attitude. He continued to back Republicans for President: William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. But he thought he had dismissed too easily the legitimate grievances of Populism, an agrarian movement rightly fearful that large railroad companies were undermining their livelihood. Decades later, he realized that they had been engaged in “the beginning of a long fight for distributive justice, the opening of a campaign to bring to the common man a larger and more equitable share in the common wealth of our country.”

White grew less conservative, not more, with age, standing with those most marginalized in Kansas and the nation. In 1924, he ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for governor on a single plank—opposition to the Ku Klux Klan—when neither the Republican nor Democratic candidates refused to say where they stood on the issue.

It may be that 21st century Kansans may now, like White, be at least partially reconsidering their prior political beliefs. In the first term of Gov. Sam Brownback, they backed his plan to sharply reduce taxes. But hard experience with the consequences—deepening budget gaps, draconian cuts in school spending, deteriorating highways, and credit-rating agency downgrades of state bonds three times in the last two years—has sparked something of a counterrevolution.  

Two weeks ago in primary elections, moderate Republicans, calling for a return to the state’s “fiscal viability,” defeated 14 legislators allied with the governor, while anti-Brownback candidates won nominations for open seats in another seven races. Moreover, Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Tea Party favorite, lost his seat in the state’s 1st congressional district. Pushed to the limit, Kansans--as their counterparts in White's time did--have pushed back.

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