Out of America: The spirit of John Brown stirs in Kansas

The outcome of a Midwest senate race may reinvigorate US populism – or leave Obama a-mouldering in the White House

Rupert Cornwell
Saturday 13 September 2014 18:00
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Radical stand: John Brown, as portrayed by John Steuart Curry, believed in fighting for slaves’ rights
Radical stand: John Brown, as portrayed by John Steuart Curry, believed in fighting for slaves’ rights

You’ve probably never been to Topeka, Kansas, but, if ever you find yourself in this small corner of the Great Plains, a visit to the second floor of the state capitol building is a must. There you will find a wondrous mural, entitled Tragic Prelude, by the mid-20th-century American regionalist painter John Steuart Curry.

It features the radical abolitionist John Brown (he whose “body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on”), who fought the pro-slavery forces in Kansas on the eve of the Civil War and was executed in December 1859 for a raid on a federal arsenal, to steal weapons with which to arm a slaves’ uprising. In the mural, Brown is depicted as a crazed messianic figure, standing on corpses, with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other. In the background, fires and a tornado rage, emblems of the dreadful conflagration to come.

Today, Kansas, at first glance, is a tranquil slice of the American heartland: incurably and eternally Republican. Back then, the state played a very different role, as a crucible of the struggle over slavery. Kansas later became a centre of the short-lived US populist movement, born of protest and despair at runaway corporate power. Now, there are stirrings of a new prairie revolution, this one more peaceable than the violent rampagings of John Brown but which may have political repercussions from coast to coast.

Over the decades, populism turned into a moderate Republicanism that dominated Kansas until the 1990s, epitomised by the state’s most famous political sons: General, later President, Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole, former Senate majority leader and the Republicans’ White House candidate in 1996, pillar of a lost age of political compromise in Washington.

Then something weird happened. As the state struggled economically, its politics lurched to the evangelical, and then Tea Party, fringe. In his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? the political analyst and historian (and Kansas native) Thomas Frank sought to explain the paradox of the toiling workers voting for pro-business, anti-union Republicans, against their personal economic interests which the Democrats defended.

Economics, he concluded, didn’t really matter. This was a populist backlash against an affluent, out-of-touch liberalism that helped to ignite the culture wars – abortion, guns, gays, even evolution – which divide America now. But in their search to build an “ultraconservative utopia”, as one critic called it, the state’s Republican rulers may have gone too far.

Finally, moderates are fighting back against the orthodoxy of tax cutting and benefit slashing, with its religious underpinnings, that has driven the party for the past 20-odd years. At this year’s mid-term elections, nationally promising only trouble for Democrats and President Obama, Kansas voters may decide to throw out not only their arch-conservative governor and but also their senior senator in Washington, who has turned into little more than a Tea Party acolyte.

When he represented his state in Washington DC, before he was elected governor in 2010, Sam Brownback was called “God’s senator” for his unyielding opposition to abortion and his belief that homosexuality was a violation of both church and natural law. Back in Kansas, he has slashed taxes for the wealthy and sought to block the extension of health benefits under the Obama reforms. His approval rating has slumped to around 30 per cent, and more than 100 past and present Republican state officials are publicly backing his Democratic opponent Paul Davis, who currently leads Brownback by half a dozen points.

However, unless they run for president, governors rarely make waves outside their own state. Not so Pat Roberts, the 78-year-old senior Kansas senator whose fate in November could determine whether or not Republicans wrest control of the Senate – and leave Washington in a gridlock even worse than today’s, reducing Obama from lame duck to dead duck.

The arithmetic is finely poised, with Republicans on course to make the net gain of six seats they need for a majority. Last week’s polls show their candidates ahead in eight currently Democrat-held seats, in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. Since then, Obama’s national popularity has plummeted – to the extent that some threatened Democratic candidates shun him like the Ebola virus. But all these calculations might be upended if Roberts loses on 4 November.

At first glance, what incumbent could be safer than a solidly conservative senator in a reliably Republican state? But Roberts has been off his game since he survived a challenge from the right in August’s primary, winning by just 48 per cent to 41 per cent. For the Tea Party, despite his ever more conservative voting record, he is a creature of Washington, while moderates deplore his shift rightward. His battle has acquired an almost comic desperation.

Originally, Roberts was in a three-way contest against an independent and a Democrat, confident of a placid re-election as his opponents took votes from each other. Then the Democrat, Chad Taylor, dropped out, and the independent, a businessman named Greg Orman, took the lead.

But the top Kansas election official (who happens to be a member of the Roberts campaign committee) refused to take the Democrat’s name off the ballot, hoping to muddy the election-day waters. Now Taylor is expected to sue to have his name removed. Meanwhile, Orman is still narrowly ahead.

It may not last: never underestimate the power of incumbency, and the money that goes with it, in America’s ossified electoral system. Party HQ in Washington has sent its top operatives to Kansas to help Roberts. The battle will become ferocious, and probably very dirty. But dear old John Brown, even a-mouldering in his grave, should be enjoying every minute of it.

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