What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank (Review)

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For years the battle raged across my family’s kitchen table. My second-generation, inner-city, working-class parents complained angrily about welfare fraud, affirmative action, the coddling of criminals, too-welcoming immigration policies, and overly generous foreign aid, while honest, hard-working Americans like themselves, “born in this country,” couldn’t get a break. My older brother sometimes joined them but mostly sat back and enjoyed my exasperation as I, the college boy, insisted shrilly but unpersuasively that all their anecdotes were just exceptions, that liberal policies were essentially fair and rational, and that instead of blaming the unfortunate they should make common cause with other little people against the rich, who, for some reason, were completely off their radar screen. Fortunately, the habits of a lifetime kept them from ever voting Republican. But what Thomas Frank calls “the Great Backlash” had won their hearts.

The central electoral phenomenon of the last thirty-five years has been the movement of working-class and lower-middle-class voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Some were Nixon Democrats, who supported the Vietnam War or were outraged by its more flamboyant opponents. Some were Wallace Democrats, who objected to busing or affirmative action and resented the pointy-headed judges and bureaucrats who imposed them. Some were Reagan Democrats, who wanted to feel good again after Jimmy Carter had informed them of their malaise. Some were anti-abortion Democrats, mobilized after Roe v. Wade by a newly assertive Catholic and evangelical Protestant leadership, or anti-Hollywood Democrats, offended by television’s reflection of changed attitudes to sex and authority. All had once felt a traditional allegiance to the party of FDR and the New Deal, which had been their charter of inclusion in American prosperity. No longer.

Instead, they now vote for the party that has engineered their exclusion. Real wages in the United States have stagnated since 1980; the tax burden on wage earners has increased; fewer jobs provide adequate health or retirement benefits; the percentage of working people protected by unions has declined precipitously; unemployment benefits are less generous; and the federal government’s finances are so gravely impaired that Social Security and Medicare benefits may well be reduced and/or delayed, beginning with the next generation of retirees. At the same time, financial profits and the income of the richest Americans have increased dramatically. That most of the blame for all this can be laid at the door of Republican tax, labor, regulatory, agricultural, antitrust, and trade policies has not shaken the allegiance of these working-class and lower-middle-class Republicans. It is, for some reason, completely off their radar screen.

The apparent blindness of the backlashers to their self-victimization has long made many of us crazy. Tom Frank has gone home to get to the bottom of it. Instead of shouting futilely across the kitchen table, he has turned his quarrel with his home state into a brilliant book, one of the best so far this decade on American politics.

Kansas has a radical past. It was first settled by Free Soilers, supported by New England abolitionists, to prevent slavery spreading west from Missouri. Later in the century the Populist movement flourished in Kansas, sweeping elections statewide. One US senator whom they voted out of office complained that “for a generation, Kansas has been the testing-ground for every experiment in morals, politics, and social life.” A classic political essay ridiculing the Populists, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, gave Frank his title. Even after Populism’s defeat, Kansas kept the faith: the famous Socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, was published there.

A century later, Kansans are still raising hell. But they’ve given up fighting the “money power” that obsessed their Populist and Socialist forebears. Now they’re fighting for the money power. The descendants of the Eastern bankers and tycoons who drove 19th-century farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers off the land or into bankruptcy are ConAgra, Boeing, and Wal-Mart, who are turning farmers into sharecroppers, eliminating union jobs, and laying waste the small-town culture that conservatives claim to cherish. But they are doing this without a peep of protest from the fired-up grassroots activists who have taken over the Kansas Republican Party. On the contrary: populist radicalism in Kansas today, though its originating causes are moral and religious, is fervently anti-government and pro-free market, even as market forces devastate Kansas’s social and economic landscape.

Much of the book is given over to Frank’s respectful, bemused portrayal of these counterintuitive Kansans. Some are opportunists, steering their political careers before the prevailing ideological wind. (Senator Sam Brownback, for example, though undoubtedly righteous, seems also to have a remarkable eye for the main chance.) Some are crackpots, like the ultra-ultra-orthodox Catholic man in a farmhouse on the prairie, elected Pope by his five followers. Most are earnest, thoughtful, unselfish, and hard-working. To none of them, however, does it ever seem to occur that untrammeled capitalism may not ultimately be conducive to godliness, tradition, and community. Family farms and the small towns they supported disappear into the maw of Archer Daniels Midland, thanks to Republican-authored agricultural deregulation. Tyson and Cargill build vast feedlots and slaughterhouses in western Kansas, staffed by low-wage immigrants with few benefits and comparatively free of pesky meat inspectors and occupational-safety monitors, thanks to Republican-imposed budget-cutting and anti-union policies. Boeing, the largest employer in Wichita, threatens to move, so the state legislature votes the company a $500 million interest-free bond issue, despite the worst budget shortfall in Kansas history and with predictable effects on teacher salaries – thanks for this corporate blackmail to Republican (and Democratic) free-trade policies. But none of this shakes the grassroots rebels’ devotion to the free market. “Out here,” Frank observes incredulously, “the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and the next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.” [p. 68]

Why, we liberals splutter, this amazing obtuseness? What’s the matter with these Kansans? A non-rich Republican is already a puzzle; and surely these noisy champions of stability and other old-fashioned values can’t help noticing that what laissez-faire means, at least for little people, is that everything solid melts into air? Why haven’t they stayed and taken over the Democratic Party, where they belong, or at least thrown the plutocrats out of the Republican Party, leaving them to wander in the political wilderness where they belong?

The answer, apparently, is anti-intellectualism. Grassroots conservatives have convinced themselves – with a great deal of help from what David Brock’s important new book calls “the Republican noise machine” – that secular intellectuals form a class (yes, the fabled “New Class”) with designs on state power and popular liberties. The ravages of the market, in this view, are a misfortune, a kind of natural disaster; but the impositions of state power are potentially something worse: a tyranny. Making money is natural, therefore innocent; thinking is artificial, therefore dangerous. A Great Depression is natural and self-limiting; a New Deal is artificial and self-expanding. No doubt the tremendous residual power of anticommunism in the American mind helps explain this prejudice, for although the New Class theory finds practically no support in American history, where the state has nearly always been thoroughly subordinate to business, it does find considerable support in the dire history of Leninism, which was, after all, a tyranny of intellectuals.

A war against the “money power” is a class war; a war against intellectuals is a culture war. Frank’s dissection of the contemporary culture war – of the indefatigable insistence of backlashers and the hucksters who claim to represent them that the government take action against abortion and the teaching of evolution, against gay marriage and gangsta rap, against pornography and “Piss Christ,” but never against predatory corporations or on behalf of their victims – is superb, the best since Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling (1989). And his prose, as many have noticed, descends from Mencken’s:

"The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meat-packing. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining."

Who or what is to blame? Is this purely a scam, or does it also show up a failure of our democracy? Clearly, the legions of the backlash are being duped. They have no reason to ally with the business party, where, as Frank says, their “cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends.” [p. 5] But just as clearly, their anger deserves to have democratic expression, even effect. Cosmopolitan Nation readers may consider them benighted, even bigoted, but surely the poor sods should be able to wage culture war if they want to without screwing themselves (along with the rest of us) economically. Our two-party system makes this difficult, though. If backlashers shed their free-market delusions and became economic populists, they would no longer be welcome in the Republican Party. But would they, as cultural conservatives, be welcome in the Democratic Party? And if they made themselves welcome, even became a majority, where would cultural liberals go? The fact is, a polity with more than one vital, contentious, and persistent issue may not be well served by a two-party, winner-take-all electoral system. Liberals learned this recently (at any rate those liberals who did not stop with blaming Nader). Conservatives may learn it soon.

For all its ruinous consequences, the right-wing culture war can at least claim the merit of having called forth that peerless magazine The Baffler, the Baffler anthologies, Thomas Frank’s previous books, and this book. What’s the Matter with Kansas? should at last make Frank a national figure. That would go some way, perhaps, toward redeeming the intellectual honor of a country that has lionized David Brooks and tolerated Ann Coulter.



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George Scialabba