Free State Festival panel: Kansas is anything but ‘flyover country’

Earlier this spring, Kansas University researchers officially debunked the famous myth that Kansas, with its level topography, is in fact “flatter than a pancake.” A trio of experts attempted to do the same for the state’s political history Saturday afternoon at the Lawrence Arts Center as part of the Free State Festival’s series of idea panels.

During the discussion, dubbed “Kansas: Not as Flat as a Pancake,” panelists argued how iconic figures like Sen. Bob Dole as well as the state’s tumultuous political climate of the 19th century prove Kansas is much more than just “flyover country.”

Jeremy Neely, a professor of history at Missouri State University, said that many historians wrongly overlook Kansas’ involvement in the abolitionist movement that led to the Civil War.

The events of Bleeding Kansas — violent conflicts between pro-slavery Missourians and Kansas Free-Staters in the 1850s — foreshadowed “more famous developments elsewhere.”

“The fight for Kansas, as people in that day well understood, was not just a fight over the people in that territory, but a fight over the future of the West and indeed a fight over the future of America,” Neely told an audience of about 30 people. “It was assumed by people on both sides that as Kansas went, so would the rest of America follow.”

Luke Wohlford, an attorney at Morris Laing Evans Brock & Kennedy in Topeka, echoed that sentiment in his presentation on the history of populism in Kansas.

In the decades following the Civil War, he said, Kansas was “teeming with radical left-wing farmers, activists and ordinary citizens.” The People’s Party, which called for reform of the monetary system and increased government interference in the free market, reached the height of its power in Kansas during the 1890s.

Though the party eventually dissolved in the early years of the 20th century, its impact can still be seen in current American politics, Wohlford said.

“Populism really is an ideology that becomes most prominent during hard economic times,” he said, referencing recent grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street.

After sharing photographs from the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, senior archivist Audrey Coleman answered a question from an audience member: “Was Bob Dole a populist?”

During her presentation, Coleman provided insight into Dole’s nearly 60-year career as a U.S. representative and senator. She explained how Dole, a Russell native, grew up during the Great Depression and drew much of his value system from those challenging times.

He got through those years thanks to the generosity of the community around him, Coleman said.

“I’m going to say definitely no, with a capitol ‘P’,” she said with a laugh, differentiating between the Populism of the People’s Party and the broader definition of populism used today. “But I think as far as populism being relative to the power of the people, he would definitely tell you that as individuals you have power as a network.”