George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

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

Thu, 09/04/2014

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."

KU in the news
The Daily MailSat, 04/25/2015
CNNMon, 04/13/2015
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@KU bschool 's KIP team includes @KU _SADP students in all-ages housing project. #KUworks
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
26 prestigious Rhodes Scholars — more than all other Kansas colleges combined
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
46 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times