Monday, August 10, 2009

In 1896, the author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" was the matter with Kansas.

I am willing to admit that, as much as I love machine-style politics, it may not be always and everywhere the right way to run things. If the time and place is 1950s California and one fourth of the people in your state did not live at their present addresses one year ago, then maybe there isn't enough stability for a party organization to flourish.

Or if you're a resident of small-town Kansas — say Emporia — in the early twentieth century.

To be more specific, say you're editor of the Emporia Gazette, your name is William Allen White, and your paper is transitioning from an organ of the Republican Party to a business that can turn a profit without Boss Leland's help — a business that can afford the luxury of political independence. From Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette by Sally Foreman Griffith:
The rhetorical opposition between a "party paper" and one that addresses the entire "public" was a longstanding tradition in journalism, as newcomers struggled to characterize their predecessors as the "kept organs" of special interest and themselves as the agents of the people. Seen in this context, White was contrasting the Gazette with a party paper — by implication, the Republican. The juxtaposition suggested that the Republican was not a true business, making its living by meeting the real needs of the populace, but was a party hack. In years to come, White would frequently contrast business and politics, invariably posing the former as virtuous, the latter as corrupt.
Considered in the abstract, this sounds like an excellent time to make an exception to politics-as-tribalism. In practice, the further away from the Kansas Republican machine White got, the worse his opinions became. Closer to advertisers than voters — advertisers that, more and more, came from outside Emporia — White's decisions about which kinds of investment to encourage or discourage weren't always very good. (His enthusiasm for the town college puzzled those who would have preferred a factory or two. According to an employee of White's, "He called this the Athens of Kansas and they [working-class Emporians] disliked him for it.") He called for dry laws to be enforced more strictly than most citizens wanted; most of the time there were no joints in Emporia to raid, so he prompted police to raid the Eagles lodge and take their beer. In this and other ways, he was more puritanical than a real politician could have afforded to be.

Either the lesson here is that my personal preference for party loyalty corresponds to the Good, Beautiful, and True, or the lesson is that small-town newspapers should cover politics like they cover astrology: For entertainment purposes only.

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