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Monday, August 02, 2004

Elections in the Heartland

Guest Blogger Paul Parker

Missouri and Kansas hold primary elections on Tuesday, August 3rd.

Kansas – or the rural America it represents in Thomas Frank’s archetype -- has been the subject of much political discussion recently. Frank argues that rural Americahas essentially been duped into voting for conservatives on issues of values, thereby helping to elect the Republicans who run an economy that is against their interests. An interesting front page story in Sunday’s KC Star, Those who work the land resist idea of playing on it,” by Scott Canon (there is no link, as the article is in “pay for access to archive” form) detailed the problems of an aging and shrinking population in western Kansas, as well as its bleak future as the remaining farmers drain the Ogallala Aquifer.

The news story follows a former Kansas governor, who is exploring an idea he used to think crazy: having the federal government buy farmers’ land and let it go back to natural. This was first seriously suggested in the later 1980s as part of a return to a “buffalo commons” throughout the plains states. Short of that, the article suggests making much of western Kansas essentially a large game reserve, with a new economy based on hunting and “ecotourism.”

“Decades of irrigation have forced farmers to drill ever deeper, and to take on steeper pumping costs to coax up enough water for their parched soil. Today parts of Kansas are within 25 years of using up water below.”
But the title of the article is reflected in the comments of the president of Southwest Kansas (natural gas) royalty Owners Association; about the aquifer, he asks,
”What are we saving it for? For future generations so they can’t use it either?”

The obvious question is, what future generations? A graphic with the article noted that “57 western counties combined for 450,995 persons, compared with 451,086 in Johnson County.” (suburban KC). Today western Kansas has such sparse population that there are 69 counties in the first congressional district, while three counties comprise the 4th District.

What growth has occurred in the west is largely due to the meat packing plants in Liberal, Garden City and Dodge City. And the locals are not universally fond of that growth, either: “Hispanics and other minority groups have gone from 36% of Garden City’s school population in 1990 to 68% today. All the school district’s signs appear in English, Spanish, Laotian and Vietnamese.”

In Fast Food Nation, (buy / review summaries) Eric Schlosser discussed the loss of good working class jobs in major cities, as meatpackers moved to rural areas, many on the high plains. Schlosser traced a movement from Chicago to Greeley, Colorado, but the story is much the same thoughout the Midwest. In Missouri, Kansas City and St. Joseph suffered fates similar to Chicago’s; meanwhile, smaller operations have been sprinkled thoughout rural areas, including Milan, Missouri (45 miles from here), Marshall, Minnesota, and Fremont, Nebraska. This move has been good for business in the form of lower wages, a more docile and transient workforce, and relatively lax environmental standards. It has made communities struggle with their identity. As Garden City Deputy School Superintendent Julie Ford noted, “The older people struggle with (the cultural influx). But its made Garden City a much more interesting city.”

Meanwhile, Johnson County continues its expansive growth, much of which has been driven by technology (e.g., Sprint), and suburban flight from Kansas City. If you ran a political party, how would you mobilize these disparate communities? On Tuesday, the battle for the soul of the Kansas Republican party continues; the conservatives just cannot get along with the moderates, and consequently the Governor is Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, and Dennis Moore is the Democratic incumbent in the third District (KC metro and Lawrence). Adam Taff is expected to be the favorite in the Republican primary to face Moore again, but the bigger battle will be among the Republicans in November. If they keep up their infighting, perhaps the Democrats can continue to appeal to the moderate Republicans, and begin to prove Thomas Frank wrong.

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