Kansans must keep up the hard work of protecting democracy

In a photo possibly taken in Gray County, Kansas, between 1905 and 1910, a group of women poses in front of a sign that reads "suffragists." Several are reading newspapers. (Kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society)

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. Leslie Mark is a community volunteer in suburban Kansas City.

As American democracy grew on its foundation of three competing, balanced branches of government, her people relied heavily on the fourth branch of civic life: a responsible and free press in which to float ideas, publicly debate values and affirm their community’s guiding principles.

Much of the territorial decade preceding Kansas’s statehood was documented and influenced by competing newspapers that often, though not unanimously, supported Republican sentiments against slavery. Voices from across the prairie were also heard advancing ideas on women’s status and whose vote should be counted.

One can read accusations of election fraud as three early constitutions were vigorously disputed. As factions for and against slavery ramped up their vitriol, several newspapers were attacked and at least one destroyed. Kansas lurched through 10 governors or acting governors in the six years leading up to state ratification, even as settlers, lured by Eastern newspapers guaranteeing abundance, continued to arrive to build homes, grow farms and start new businesses.

In the three and a half decades I’ve lived in Kansas, I have watched the heirs of that robust media era decline. Stagnant business models and rapid depopulation of rural towns bear part of the responsibility, even before the internet. I’ve come to realize that our democracy has thus been hollowed out, so rarely do we hear the raucous array of fellow citizens’ voices. I believe this has helped give rise to our contemporary version of uncompromising political vitriol — most heavy-handedly experienced in the Brownback administration.

While neither a professional politician nor a paid advocate, I have tried to play whatever small role in raising awareness of issues impacting our civil and constitutional rights. I know that I am not alone in wondering, 159 years on, how today’s radicalized politicians still seriously consider constitutionally mandated control of women necessary for the security of the state? Why are we having to re-litigate values that Clarina Nichols, abolitionist and ardent suffragist, touted as associate editor of the Quindaro Chindowan newspaper? We know that it was her dedication and influence reflected in the provisions of the Wyandotte Constitution addressing women’s rights in child custody, married women’s property rights and equality in matters pertaining to public schools.

The 2020 election year was remarkable for the number of extraordinary Kansas women who stepped up to run for office, motivated by their desire to return us to more transparent, responsive and nimble representation.

One Kansas Senate candidate from Olathe, Stacey Robinson Knoell, is the descendant of Isaac F. Bradley Sr., KU Law’s first black graduate in the class of 1887. He became one of the state’s first black judges and joined W.E.B. DuBois in the Niagara Movement (precursor to the NAACP) before owning and editing the Wyandotte Echo newspaper in 1930. Her loss was our collective loss. It was also a personal letdown, since I first met Stacey, accompanied by her mother and daughters, at the weekly meetings I facilitated at Sen. Jerry Moran’s offices as we maintained pressure to preserve the Affordable Care Act all throughout 2017.

After years of grassroots organizing and participation in organizations like the League of Women Voters Kansas, the Mainstream Coalition and the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, I do not find any modern conservative argument persuasive for a sustained intransigence on stabilizing education financing — nor on their cascading failures in the spectrum of a quality Kansas life, from health care delivery to a fair taxation structure to easier access to the ballot box.

From my perspective, the best antidote for lingering inequities is inspiring more people to engagement. You might, at first, respond to a suggestion to read regular advocacy newsletters or make small recurring contributions, and in time (when we may safely) attend an occasional political meeting. Ultimately, however, you might be a part of creating new forums to educate and possibly engage more neighbors. The United Women’s Empowerment (formerly the Women’s Foundation) and the University of Kansas Institute for Leadership Studies have just embarked on a collaboration to increase the number of women’s voices promoting equity, opportunity, and economic strength in our state, to give one example.

The word “politics” is derived from the Greek politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens.” Whatever sparks our initial civic engagement, be it Youth Assembly, Rotary, 4-H Club or a sabbath sermon, we can only sustain enthusiasm and motivation when we’re connecting to each other, finding and sharing our voices across the vast, beautiful Kansas panorama.

Like previous generations of Kansas immigrants, we are still responsible for preserving democracy that future generations may improve upon and preserve for themselves. There was never, actually, any easy guarantee, but real disillusionment would be if we stopped caring to make any effort at all.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.