Opinion

Kansas politics have been a freak show this year. There’s a cynical explanation for that.

December 9, 2021 3:33 am

Kansas politicians including (clockwise from bottom left) Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta; Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover; former Secretary of State Kris Kobach; and Attorney General Derek Schmidt have all weighed on COVID-19 mandates or critical race theory — or both. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, original images by Sherman Smith and Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

I  think it’s time to take a step back.

In the nearly four months since I became the Kansas Reflector’s opinion editor, we’ve had a grand old time chuckling at the antics of Kansas politicians. I wrote about Derek Schmidt playing footsie with fascism, a modern-day medicine show promoting COVID-19 quackery, an anti-vaccine frat party at the Statehouse, and fears that critical race theory will turn your children into card-carrying members of the rainbow mafia. Everyone enjoyed themselves.

We’ve seen enough performative dopiness, though, that you and I should pause for a moment. We should ask ourselves an important question.

Why?

Why are otherwise reasonable Kansans — regular citizens and politicos alike — willing to act like this? Why have they taken leave of their senses? Why are formerly sober conservatives willing to don figurative dunce caps and frolic around the village square yelling “neener, neener, neener”?

You can call Derek Schmidt many things, but you can’t call him dumb. You can accuse Statehouse GOP leaders of ideological incoherence, but they know how to run their chambers. Anti-vaccine crusaders wrap themselves in conspiracy theories, but they attract crowds eager to believe. I may not agree with any of these folks’ policy positions, but I’m more than willing to acknowledge their intelligence.

So what’s up?

I suspect you know the answer. I do too. I’ve never taken the time to fully acknowledge it, however, and we need to do so as 2021 draws to a close.

Power.

Conservatives were wiped out at the federal level in 2020. Despite Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the election, President Joe Biden was still sworn in Jan. 20. Democrats took control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives as well. Two years earlier, conservatives in Kansas experienced their own Waterloo, with Laura Kelly besting the hilariously awful Kris Kobach in a three-way match.

Usually, parties that suffer such sweeping defeats take time to ponder what went wrong. Their former leaders retreat into exile. Policy positions shift, and new faces come to the fore.

Why are otherwise reasonable Kansans — regular citizens and politicos alike — willing to act like this? Why have they taken leave of their senses? Why are formerly sober conservatives willing to don figurative dunce caps and frolic around the village square yelling ‘neener, neener, neener’?

– Clay Wirestone

In 2021, conservatives just decided to double down on racism and death. They didn’t say that outright, of course, but they understood that hatred of Black and brown people is still a potent weapon among white voters. Trump had taught them many lessons, but that was one of the most important. They also understood that Americans at some level prefer freedom to safety, violence to peace, plague to health. COVID-19 never had more enthusiastic boosters than Republicans once they understood that unpopular yet effective measures to slow the virus could be politicized. Just as school shooting after school shooting leads to little change in our nation’s gun laws, the emergence of threatening new COVID variants has lead to little change in public health policy.

Kansans have seen this play out in vivid detail during the past few months. Anti-vaccination rallies and hearings at the Statehouse have turned discussions over stopping a dangerous virus into a platform for patriotic filibusters. Conservative activists created a furor over “critical race theory” out of whole cloth, preying on the barely suppressed racism of white parents. We’re now supposed to worry about how “a little white girl” might feel about learning of this country’s history. Never mind how a little Black girl might feel.

But none of these topics are important in themselves.

Few conservatives are eager to remind their supporters that the Trump administration poured money and resources into developing vaccines. Few were fighting critical race theory before this year. These issues are distractions, ways for those out of power to seek a way back in, less than a year after an attempted right-wing insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

For those not paying attention to politics — and if you don’t have the time, who can blame you — the topics might seem legitimately important. People of goodwill have been caught up in these movements. I’ve read their testimony on the Kansas Legislature’s website, and I hurt for them. These are decent Kansans being exploited by politicians. They have collected references and sources. They have rehearsed their speeches.

The sad reality? The politicians playing power games don’t give a damn about their concerns.

The same thing happened a little more than a decade ago. The Tea Party movement exploited fears about government spending to return the GOP to power in 2010. Legislators who earned golden tickets to Washington, D.C., heaped praise on activists, but they didn’t slow or stop government spending. That wasn’t the point (and no one in their right mind would propose cutting costly programs such as Medicare or Social Security).

So here we stand in December 2021. Conservatives believe the road back to power runs through anti-mandate and anti-CRT rhetoric. They could be right.

If they earn that power, though, what will they do with it? What laws will be passed and what policies enacted?

What price will we all pay for their antics?

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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