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In moderation: Project rebuts Thomas Frank's 'What's the Matter with Kansas?'

Thursday, September 04, 2014

LAWRENCE — In Thomas Frank's popular 2004 book, "What's the Matter With Kansas?," he argues that the rise of political and social conservatism in the state essentially led to economic policies that didn't benefit a majority of people.

A University of Kansas visiting adjunct professor of sociology who studies political moderation, however, says Frank failed to capture the history and influence of moderates in state politics.

"The idea that people should vote in their economic self-interest, I think that's a very narrow way in defining interest," said Alexander Smith, who is also a Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Warwick. "If anything, we want to challenge that idea. What I think moderation is about is developing a much more expanded idea of what our interests are as a community."

Smith has studied Kansas politics since the mid-2000s, around the time nationally of George W. Bush's second term as president and then Barack Obama's rise to succeed him. After spending the 2014-15 academic year in England, Smith is scheduled to return to KU to write a book manuscript about political moderation based on his findings.

He said the project started based on his interest in conservatives gaining more power in the Republican Party nationally and in several U.S. states.

"I was interested in exploring how these conflicts were working their way out on the ground and in relation to ordinary activists trying to make a difference," Smith said. "And that's actually what brought me to Kansas, because contrary to Thomas Frank's thesis, I thought Kansas looked pretty interesting because there was a struggle on the ground in which moderates are capable of doing better than they’re often credited for."

Since Smith began his research, both Kansas and the nation have seen swings politically. Democrat Kathleen Sebelius used moderate support to win re-election as Kansas governor in 2006 in the overwhelmingly Republican state. During that election, Mark Parkinson, a former Kansas GOP chairman, switched parties to be Sebelius' running mate, and he served as governor for nearly two years when Sebelius joined the Obama administration in 2009.

Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, easily won the governorship in 2010, and a more conservative legislative majority has taken power. But several polls have predicted a tight race for Brownback’s re-election campaign against Democratic House Minority Leader Paul Davis ahead of the November general election. The rise of the conservative Tea Party Express nationally in the Republican Party has occurred during Smith's research.

Smith said that internationally many political observers are watching what occurs in Kansas, especially with what happens with political moderates. Understood as a tradition of challenging extremism, he said the state has a long history of moderation, dating back to its statehood in 1861. For example, religious groups played a role in the temperance movement and other important social events in American history.

"It's important to remember that moderation is in fact a value that many conservative traditions hold dear," Smith said. "The idea of being a fiscal conservative is about prudence, and that is a moderate principle. And moderation as a value is written deep into the heart and soul of Kansas. Those committed to moderation are committed to the principle of listening to others and deferring their own judgment on an issue long enough to make themselves available to others to be reasoned with. They understand that, and they embrace that."

During his relationship with KU and the Department of Sociology, Smith has fostered exchanges that have included KU Professor Robert Antonio and graduate students participating in workshops in the United Kingdom.

Smith said as part of his research, he's often asked whether American politics is too polarized for moderation to survive. He said it is worth remembering that the nation has been much more polarized in the past, during the Civil War, for example, and that the Founding Fathers themselves introduced compromise as a principle and political value with the Declaration of Independence.

"If you forge a nation made of immigrants, and a nation of very, very different and sometimes opposed interests, one has to have a way of building a collective politics," Smith said. "And how can you do that without compromise?"

He said local government bodies often exhibit the most compromise and moderation because that's where elected officials tend to deal with issues that are most influential in people's daily lives.

"That's not to say that there aren't threats and dangers," Smith said. "But that's where you see an example of it. It needs to be recognized first and foremost."