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Andrei Cherny Headshot

Why Liberal Isn’t…Liberal

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LIBERAL, KANSAS – I don’t know what’s the matter with Kansas (I’ve only been here about 24 hours on a nearly cross-country drive from Washington DC to Phoenix), but, at first glance, things seem to be all right. It’s a beautiful state. As I’ve stopped along the way in Abilene at the Eisenhower museum, in Dodge City to see the old home of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and here in Liberal to walk down the Yellow Brick Road of “The Land of Oz,” people couldn’t be more friendly and welcoming.

But Kansas is not simply a place of history and fantasy. It is a state where good people struggle greatly and where the wide open spaces seem a mocking contrast to fenced in hopes. Despite this, Kansas votes overwhelmingly for Republican candidates whose policies do little to help – and often much to hurt – the prospects and progress of middle class families. Liberal (pop. 20,000) is the county seat of Seward County which gave fully 79 percent of its vote to George Bush and Dick Cheney last year.

So it is no surprise that the question of “what’s the matter with Kansas” has consumed so much attention among Democrats. It’s the right question to ask even if too many pundits have come to the easy answer that Kansans have been cynically pushed into becoming the tools of big corporations because issues such as abortion and gay marriage lead them to vote for the GOP. Surely, the fact that Kansans put their concern with the moral direction of the country above their desire for policies that will put more dollars in their wallets is something we should be celebrating, not castigating – even if we might disagree with their assessment of the values debate.

But something more is also at play. When the oldies station I was listening to on my drive cut in with the news at the top of the hour, they carried a story about a young woman in Utah who went on eBay to offer up her forehead as a billboard to the highest bidder. GoldenPalace.com bought the prime advertising space for $10,000. It is the kind of story that makes you wince about people’s desperation for publicity. Then the radio announcer read the last line of the story and I winced for a whole different reason: “She’s planning on using the money to pay for private school for her son.”

Kari Smith’s desperation wasn’t for publicity. She decided to have the name of a sleazy online casino tattooed indelibly in inch-high black block letters on her forehead because she was desperate for a better life for her son and – after weighing her options for weeks – she decided this act was her only source of hope. She might be walking around as an object of ridicule for the rest of her days, but any shame she feels should be only a fraction of ours. Her country’s leaders have failed to give her any confidence that we are ready to do what it takes to give her son the chance of a better life.

This mother was willing to deface her very face in order to spring her child from a failing public school system – in Bountiful, Utah, mind you, not Brooklyn or Boyle Heights. Yet, in last year’s election, all Democrats offered when it came to public education was attacks on the clearly bad idea of vouchers and criticism of President Bush for breaking a promise to fully fund a Leave No Child Behind law that leaves a lot to be desired. We were all-but-completely silent when it came to any set of ideas that would renew a public education system that is a walking tragedy for millions of children – not just in inner cities, but in middle class communities across the country. Should we be surprised that voters in Kansas and Kentucky and even many parts of California fail to see why their decision not to support Democrats means they are voting against their self-interest?

It was in 1896, on a summer day when the mercury reached 107 on the streets of Emporia, Kansas, that 28-year-old William Allen White’s sidewalk altercation with a group of William Jennings Bryan’s supporters lead him to pen the “What’s the Matter with Kansas” newspaper column that made him famous. “We, the people of Kansas,” he proclaimed sarcastically, “propose to kick; we don’t care to build up, we wish to tear down.” What would this old Democrat think about the state of his party today?

We devote ourselves to testing which populistish Democrat can raise the most rabble, throw out the most red meat, and criticize the Republicans in the most vicious manner. We play with different issue “frames” because we all know that it is our lack of language tricks – rather than a dearth of ideas that speak to people and their lives – that have cost us popular support. We devote ourselves to providing the American people with exhaustive itemizations of Republicans’ voluminous missteps and mistakes. And when Americans still don’t hear our “message” we emulate a Bermuda shorts-clad tourist looking for directions to the Champs Elysees: we speak LOUDER and sloooower.

It is just possible that voters in Kansas and elsewhere heard Democrats’ message loudly and clearly in 2004, but still decided to not to flock to us. “Hope is one the way,” we said. They looked at what we were bringing and decided there wasn’t enough hope there.

Kari Smith has something to say too. It’s tattooed right across her forehead. Will we get her message?

Maybe before Democrats obsess over what’s the matter the Kansas, we might want to spend some more time on what’s the matter with us.