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Reaching Across the Political Chasm

By Philip Warburg

Billboard along State Highway 24, near the Cloud County town of Miltonvale.
Billboard along State Highway 24, near the Cloud County town of Miltonvale. Photo credits: Philip Warburg

Amidst all the reportage on swing states and swing districts crucial to the 2018 Congressional elections, I recently decided to buck the trend. I ventured instead to a remote community in north-central Kansas where Democrats seldom run for political office and rarely win if they do. In visiting Cloud County, I was hoping to find a few strands of hope that might span the chasm between red and blue America.

“A strong work ethic, a strong Christian faith base, caring for each other, and taking care of our own” are the paramount values guiding life in Cloud County, according to Amy Lange, the enterprising city manager of Concordia, the county seat. Those values resonated throughout my conversations with farmers and ranchers, business leaders, and community service professionals. They are grounded in an ethos reaching back to what State Senator Elaine Bowers reverentially calls “the frontier.”

State Senator Elaine Bowers in her office at the family-owned Concordia Auto Mart.
State Senator Elaine Bowers in her office at the family-owned Concordia Auto Mart.

Though the frontier vanished well over a century ago, guns are a widely accepted way of life in Cloud County and through most of Kansas. Senator Bowers, who welcomes gun-toting customers to her car dealership in Concordia, said her fellow Kansas legislators are not inclined to consider any proposals to restrict the possession of firearms. From a number of people I heard the canard that it’s people, not guns, who commit violent crimes. 

On a woman’s right to choose, the lines are as firmly drawn. Highway billboards condemning abortion as murder set the stage for my conversations. Cabinet maker and innkeeper Duane Warkentin intoned: “God says, ‘I knew you in the womb.’ We believe those unborn babies are people.” I asked: “From the moment of conception?” He answered: “From the moment of conception.”

Duane’s wife Cathy tried to inject some pragmatism into our discussion. “If a woman finds herself pregnant, there are so many options that are available and programs that can help.” One group she cited, Heart Choices, does pregnancy counseling in three local communities. Its website provides a list of risks attributed to abortion, including breast cancer, sepsis, perforation of the uterus, and death. There is no parallel recounting of pregnancy-related risks or the economic and psychological hardships endured by unwanted children and their mothers.

These views were what I expected. When probing attitudes toward immigration, however, I encountered a broader range of opinions. My visit took place amidst the raging debate about separating children from parents caught illegally crossing the border. Duane Warkentin sees no problem with this treatment, likening illegal migrants to ordinary criminals. “If they are so concerned about their children,” he said, “they shouldn’t be committing crimes.” Phyllis Struble, a retired biology teacher, takes a more charitable stance. “The poor little kids! That’s what I’m worried about right now.” When asked what should be done about these children and their parents, her response was unequivocal: “Let them in!” America has long been a haven for immigrants, a tradition that she feels should continue to be honored.

Wayne and Cathy Warkentin, on right, with their daughter and son-in-law Crystal and Al Paredes. Al is a pastor at Scottsville Community Church
Wayne and Cathy Warkentin, on right, with their daughter and son-in-law Crystal and Al Paredes. Al is a pastor at Scottsville Community Church.

While I heard several voices in support of Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy, others acknowledged the gaps that immigrants fill in the Kansas labor force, including the meat-packing industry. When Tyson Foods recently began exploring the possibility of opening a chicken-processing plant in Concordia, some residents of this 95 percent white community objected to the prospect of Somali Muslims and other African immigrants settling in their midst, just as they have been drawn to other localities hosting meat-packing operations. Instead of caving to these apprehensions, City Manager Lange looked for ways to ease immigrants’ adjustment to Cloud County. Consulting with the local Sisters of St. Joseph and the community college, she received offers of help in providing support services, such as English language instruction and coaching on American social norms.

Tyson’s plans remain uncertain, but Lange continues to be forward-looking in her search for new businesses willing to set up shop in Concordia. She prides herself on being part of “a changing of the guard” in Cloud County. Her colleagues in this new leadership cohort include Dr. Adrian Douglas, an African-American woman who is the newly appointed president of Cloud County Community College. Together they meet regularly to discuss the community’s future. “We are looking ten, twenty, fifty years down the road,” Lange told me. “What can stay the same and what is going to have to change?”

City Manager Amy Lange, part of Cloud County’s “changing of the guard.”
City Manager Amy Lange, part of Cloud County’s “changing of the guard.”

One thing unlikely to change is the devout Christianity that runs through Cloud County. In that regard, I was taken aback by the pervasive readiness to overlook Donald Trump’s deplorable—yes, the word does apply here—behavior on so many fronts. “We all know that his style may be a little bit abrasive for some,” Amy Lange admitted. But his business successes inspire her confidence. Never mind about his debasement of women, his shameless philandering, his bold-faced lies, his racist slurs. Repeatedly, people reminded me that we all are sinners who can be forgiven through repentance before God. 

Retired state court judge Tom Tuggle was more forthcoming with his misgivings about Trump’s capacity to govern. “He’s ignorant to the point of being scary with respect to our history and how our government works.”  But then he added: “He’s done and is doing some good things, albeit unorthodox.”

In a rock-solid Republican state like Kansas, the prospects for compromise on issues like abortion and gun control are nil. Yet I came away from Cloud County wondering what other issues might allow us to break through the partisanship that is crippling common sense and dividing our nation. Would it be too huge a leap to forge a bipartisan immigration policy that respects family bonds and refrains from stigmatizing entire nations based on religion? Can we craft a shared strategy for rebuilding America’s crumbling transportation infrastructure? Is there a pathway to redeeming science-based policymaking so that we can address climate change and other pollution threats instead of sidelining them as partisan playing cards?

These questions may gain little traction amidst all the jockeying leading up to election day. Admittedly, I too take heart in the daily flood of phone calls and emails I get from candidates on my side of the political divide. But seeking common ground is as much a part of good governance as staking out partisan claims. The health of our democracy demands as much.


About the Author 

Philip Warburg is a lawyer and writer who lives in Newton. He is the author of Harvest the Wind and Harness the Sun, both published by Beacon Press. Follow him on Twitter at @pwarburg.