Kansans need each other too much to let politics monopolize our lives

Jim Richardson's "Voting Baby" photograph was taken in 1976 in Russell, Kansas, when Bob Dole was running for vice president with Gerald Ford. (Submitted by Jim Richardson to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jim Richardson is a photographer known for his work in rural Kansas and for his 35 years with National Geographic Magazine.

“Republicans shouldn’t thresh with Democrats.”

My father was imparting wisdom upon me, something he’d heard from his father, learned on their farm in Kansas. Wisdom that maybe we could use today.

I’d probably better translate. Back then farmers banded together to buy a threshing machine to be shared among neighboring farms during wheat harvest. This great communal tradition is laden with nostalgic memories of neighbor helping neighbor. The threshing picnic at the end of harvest is a rich icon of idyllic rural life. Friendship shown all around, we imagine.

Not so, my father was telling me. Peace among farmers meant politics shouldn’t rear its ugly head. Republicans should harvest with Republicans. Democrats with Democrats. Worked better that way. Even then politics was bad medicine on farms in Liberty and Freedom townships in Republic County.

Our current season of fire and brimstone triggered this memory. Politics consumes us now, like a raging prairie fire we can’t outrun. We are at each others’ throats, treat our neighbors like traitors. We suspect people we’ve known all our lives are actually an alien species, not one of us. We’ve learned to hate them.

This partisan rancor is not new. My mother wrote about a neighbor who got so worked up at a political meeting at a nearby farm that he drove home and forgot his wife and children. So he had to go back to the barn at midnight, hitch up the horses to the buggy and go get them. And when her grandfather (a staunch Democrat) was sick and required a transfusion, he got it from Aunt Lila — a Republican. Republican blood in his veins! They never let him live it down.

What have we forgotten about how to deal with this recurring feverish malady?

Recently I read of a New York editor (a COVID refugee) who had moved to rural Pennsylvania. Things had changed for her. Gone was her comfortable bubble, life among reliably like-minded people with whom any political thought could be shared without fear. It was pure culture shock.

Welcome to our world. I live in a small town where no such ideologically segregated enclaves are possible. No, out of necessity we live and work with each other every day. (We may well think that some of our friends and neighbors are wackos, but if we are smart we just shut up about it.) We need them, they need us. I don’t debate politics with our plumber; tomorrow I may have a clogged drain.

More than cynical social utility is at work here. (I’m not naive; political differences can’t just be swept under the carpet.) Without ever knowing his politics I know that plumber as a good and decent person. So are lots of people in town who don’t share my politics. That’s OK. Politics is just one measure of our social bargaining. Mutual respect demands forbearance, shown in small acts of tolerance. The conservative coffee group gathers early in the coffee shop, but they are careful to make way in good time for the liberal coffee group that comes in later.

So perhaps America has not fallen from some imagined state of divine neighborly grace. (That probably never existed.) But we do seem to have forgotten the rules of co-existence that our grandparents practiced.

Something else may also be at work. If this societal truce has broken down (replaced by mutual contempt that verges on civil breakdown) perhaps it is because we have let politics monopolize our lives. What is wrong here is not that politics is bad but that it has come to dominate — indeed obliterate — all other measures by which we know each other.

Political parties are in the business of winning. But if winning means vanquishing your neighbor down the street, then that’s not winning at all. Small-town politics is a paradox: You can’t really win by winning. We need each other too much, whatever our disagreements.

Our communities are built out of a multitude of shared experiences and values, respect and mutual need. Politics today threatens to silence all those other ways by which we define ourselves, to break those links that bind us together.

The day after the upcoming election we must set politics aside for a while. We must remember the rules of daily life by which a community — and a state — can grow and prosper. We must not let politics become the sole defining aspect of our public lives. It will be the end of us.

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