Opinion: Facing uncomfortable partisan realities

Like many of you, I’ve seen volunteers for the United Kansas Party over the past few months collecting signatures to gain ballot access as a legitimate political party. I’m happy to see them out there, even though their efforts imply something, I think, quite different from their intentions.

Why support them? Not because I think third parties are an effective way to challenge those in power. Outsiders to America’s two-party system face obstacles in the form of both restrictions put in place by the major parties, and also Americans’ attachment to supporting those party candidates they think can win. Small parties usually can’t overcome these challenges.

But there is also the desire to offer voters more choices, to represent points of view that some think are being ignored. Those are civic efforts that show a faith in democracy. But they also lead to the question: what “points of view” are the UKP seeking greater representation for?

In a recent wide-ranging discussion with the Kansas Reflector podcast, Jack Curtis, the founder of the UKP, was asked what “roster of issues” the movement cares most about. He listed a variety of very practical matters — but before any of them, he insisted that the UKP is “pro-democracy and the rule of law.” Normally, you’d consider words like that uncontroversial. But as we look forward to a presidential election that will feature Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, a man facing multiple criminal charges and who waited passively during a violent attempt to disrupt the election of his replacement, we realize that we do not live in normal times.

Curtis also talked about how 10 years ago he would have described himself as a Republican “in a heartbeat,” but added that “as we’ve seen the country change over the past decade,” he’s found himself voting in a more moderate way. The same could be said for the vice chair of the UKP, Sally Cauble; a longtime member of the state board of education and a moderate Republican, she fought frustrating battles to maintain Kansas’s science curriculum standards. And the same could be said for a half-dozen Kansas GOP legislators who have become Democrats in the past 10 years (the number of Kansas politicians who have gone the other direction in the last decade is zero).

In short, I suspect that many in the UKP reflect a well-known type in Kansas: Republicans frustrated by the sharp divides created by the parties, who want to find some space for moderates like themselves and feel they must either switch sides or just escape the parties altogether.

Curtis’ earnest words point to an uncomfortable realization for many Kansas Republicans. Anyone who studies the evolution of political parties knows that their flaws are baked into the way they operate, regardless of ideology. And yet, sometimes there still really are critical elections, where particular parties transform in ways that are deeply troubling. The business of party politics is tawdry, and I respect and wish the best to those who want to find ways to engage without being sucked in. But for now, American politics is inconceivable without competitive parties. If one of those parties changes in ways that you find intolerable, decisions must be made.

The Kansas Republican party is mostly a Trumpist party now. (Props to Sen. Jerry Moran for being an exception.) Many Kansan Republicans are fine with that — but for some others, it poses a dilemma. Alternatives are always appealing, but as with many hard things, such Republicans probably don’t have a way around this partisan reality; they can only go through it, as best they can.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita.


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