What’s Really the Matter with Kansas?

Part Five in a series on America’s conception of Democracy.

I lived in New York City for several years and in the state of Kansas for a similar duration. They are two of the eight American Nations I’ve had the good fortune to observe firsthand. (Colin Woodard posited a total of eleven.)

These experiences led me to the unconventional thesis that debates about our democracy can be distilled to down two places. America can be described as “Kansas versus New York City.”

This pairing might strike you as asymmetrical: One is a state; the other is a city. But each represents a development pattern: Kansas is rural; NYC is urban. They reside on either side of a duality that sits at the heart of some important upcoming decisions about the future of our democracy.

The conflict between urban and rural has simmered under the surface of America’s decision-making process for years …… with urban/suburban interests gradually gaining power. Now, an inflection point has been reached. Will metro areas accumulate so much power that rural spaces lose political self-determination, in a weird case of life imitating The Hunger Games? Or will the pendulum swing the other way?

These questions lie beneath the electoral college debate. Kansas is one of the few states (Wyoming, Vermont, and Montana are similar) where population centers remain small: the urban vote is dwarfed by rural priorities. Conversely, in the state of New York (like Illinois, Oregon, California, and others) one or more metropolises dominate political decision-making.

This can be described as sets of parallel contrasts ……

…… Rural versus urban

…… States versus cities

.….. Distributed versus concentrated populations

…… Distributed versus concentrated political power

These pairs function like synonyms: Distribution, rural, and state on one side versus concentration, urban, and metropolitan on the other.

Another duality parallels them, too. But its commonality goes unnoticed ……

…… The electoral college versus popular presidential election.

It’s no coincidence that the abolish activists mostly reside within concentrated coastal metro regions, while electoral college defenders are ensconced in flyover states. For verification, witness the figures who demand electoral college change, like NYC representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former New York Senator Hillary Clinton. A recent bill to abolish the college was sponsored exclusively by representatives of major population centers, mostly on the east and west coasts.

This pattern was established decades ago when America shifted to the direct election of senators. The seventeenth amendment was promoted as “more democratic.” In practice, however, it caused rural areas to lose agency. Much local and regional control was ceded to a corporate-influenced east coast metropolis.

Like before, today’s direct election activists frame their message as “seeking better democracy.” But the outcome would lead to another grant of power to densely-populated areas. Political power itself would become more centralized.

The elites of New York, and their allies, seek to disenfranchise distributed power. The first blow was struck by the seventeenth amendment. The next effort is against the electoral college. They hide the stick of concentrated power behind a carrot of direct democracy.

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