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September 18, 2004

What's the Matter with Kansas (Review)

What's the Matter with Kansas?
Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books

Thomas Frank wonders why working class Kansans vote Republican. Here are some possible explanations for this puzzling phenomenon:

1. That's just what Kansans have always done

Wrong. Kansas history belies that explanation. Kansas was, and still is, a hotbed of radicalism. Today's Conservative Movement is a backlash against the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. But Kansas has much deeper tradition of populism and participatory democracy. For most of the 20th century Kansan populism was left wing. Its leaders ranted against the "Eastern money power" and the "Wall Street bankers." [Edit: That should read, "For most of the 19th and much of the early 20th century..."]

It might seem odd that the grandchildren of leftish populists now flock to the party of Money Power and Wall Street--with their anti-elitist fervor undiminished. It's not that Kansans have gotten any less populist. Today, they champion the power of ordinary people against a different elite. According to the new populism, it doesn't matter how much money you have, or what sort of work you do. What matters is your cultural authenticity. To wit, whether you're a "regular guy." Kansans have transferred their resentment from their bosses to some dimly imagined cadre of sneering professors, journalists, and Hollywood producers.

2. Maybe they think they're voting their economic self-interest

Maybe working class Kansas vote Republican because they're free market stalwarts. Maybe they are resolute in the face of deindustrialization, rural poverty, farm foreclosure, falling wages, social dislocation, and unemployment. Maybe they expect the free market to give them back everything they've lost with interest. Maybe they hope that Republican economic prosperity that will make the high paying jobs come back, the small towns revive, the farmers return to the land?

Unlikely. Frank argues that the Conservative Movement is self-consciously indifferent to class and economics. According to a popular Movement slogan: "Values Matter Most." They don't mean the values of free enterprise or free trade. Instead, they are obsessed with cultural issues like abortion, gun rights, and the debauched media that spews filth into their homes.

3. Maybe they're the hapless dupes of cynical big business overlords

No. It's not nearly that simple, Frank argues. The Kansas Republican party changed in the 1990s. Traditionally the self-avowed business elite ran the Kansas Republican Party. Fiscally, they were conservative. Culturally, they had a lot in common with other members of their socioeconomic stratum. They were proud of their Ivy League degrees, their tailored suits, and their country club memberships. They were men of faith, but they attended mainstream churches and respected the separation of church and state. Most old guard Kansas Republicans were even pro-choice. Thomas Frank is the son of that moderate Kansas Republican elite, and he remembers the old days well.

Then something changed. An authentic working class movement sprung up and and took the Kansas Republican Party by storm. Abortion was the issue that galvanized Kansas Cons. Frank gives a great social history of Operation Rescue's "Summer of Mercy" and its lasting impact on Kansas politics.

What followed was a quasi-hostile takeover of the Kansas Republican Party. It was a drama in many acts. Initially, the moderate Republicans (Mods) hated the Cons and told them to go form their own damned party instead of ruining the GOP. Gradually, the Mods realized that the Cons had a lot to offer. The fervent cultural conservatives had a vision, a drive, a base, and lots of working class cred. Eventually, the Mods and the Cons found some sort of modus vivendi: more brimstone on the campaign trail, more upper class tax cuts in Washington.

In a very real sense, the Kansas Cons have been tricked, though. Their Republican officials campaign like Cons but govern like the big business stalwarts they've always been. The Conservatives seem oblivious to the fact that Republican economic policies hurt the very way of life they seek to conserve. Nor do they seem to mind that their Republican leaders keep losing the culture war. Abortion remains legal, Hollywood never cleans up its act, Darwinists go unpunished while poor Justice Moore is forced to take his Ten Commandments on the road. You'd think the Cons would demand results. In their indifference to the market, it doesn't occur to them that the culture industry is a profit driven enterprise that bombards them with filth in order to make money. Instead, they lash out at flaky liberal starlets.

Republicans are running out of excuses. They already control all three branches of government. Some Conservative Republicans have been running on the "values" platform for years. So why are we still living in a cultural cess pool? The answer, according to the cons, is that liberalism is an insidious malevolent force that undermines America culturally, rather than economically or politically. Liberals mock and demoralize and desecrate. They marginalize and victimize conservatives at every turn. Their power is ineffable but all-pervasive. So, the Cultural Conservatives just get angrier and more determined to vote for anyone the liberals hate.

So what's really the matter with Kansas?

Short answer: the habit of subsuming economics to "culture." This tendency is nearly universal in America. David Brooks has made a career out of it. The habit is reinforced whenever we repeat the red state/blue state metaphor. Americans aren't comfortable talking about social class, especially not in any way that suggests that one class might benefit at the expense of another. If culture is everything, there's no reason a factory worker from Witchita shouldn't trust another regular guy, even if that guy owns the factory. In the culture wars, they're on the same side.


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The thing is, though, that Republican elites for the most part aren't on the same side. As Frank correctly points out, the bible-thumping rhetoric is largely just window dressing. [Read More]


1. The Dems are the part of Wall St. Did you not notice Robert Rubin? Do you think anyone at Treasury _wanted_ the return of the budget-busting Reaganites? Have you heard Clinton's US Trade Rep., Charlene Barshevsky(sp?), talk about international trade, and intellectual property protection? The Rethugs are Military, Industry and now, as I will argue, God, which is not the same thing as Wall St., which is generally populated by rational people.

2. If the media has brainwashed them at all, it is the oft-repeated mantra that free markets mean everyone is richer. They aren't completely ignorant, they do know that the US Gov't wastes money. This is the kind of thing that Frank expected the latest corporate fiascos to fix, and it did, a tiny bit.

3.a. "An authentic working class movement..." Baloney. It was manufactured by political elites who exploited a simple, "what's wrong with all liberals" position, namely...

b. Abortion <-- That's the Christians talking. Roe V Wade protects medical privacy, but for the masses, it is translated as "Democrats are baby-killers." Plain and Simple Kansas Ruminate.

This happened in Texas, too, 1994. Molly Ivins writes about it in "Shrub : The Short but Happy Political Life of ..."

I think I saw Frank give a Book TV talk on "One Market, Under God." He was a lot of fun for me, but his suit was too big, making it look the costume it was.

Based on my experience with small-town Minnesota (red part of blue state) rural fear of the city is a major force. Small towns form their own little worlds which are threatened by nebulous outside forces. This particular us-them frame trumps economic interests and tend to be very weak on analysis. Most small-towners have no idea what our actual power structure is and know nothing much about anyone wealthier than local businessmen.

The Republicans have succeeded in identifying Democrats with the outside forces, defined as non-whites, sexual minorities, lewd entertainers, drug addicts, cynical leftist academics, etc. Since all these groups are usually Democrats, that's plausible. But the cultural-politics definition of the Other, as you said, is deception, since it allows the Republicans to draw attention away from their own identification with the big-money market forces which are squeezing the small towns.

In order to make my explanation work, you have to classify Wichita as a small town, which it isn't by census definition. It's not so much size as insularity -- I've heard things about Cincinnatti that make it seem that this dynamic is working.

One reason smalltowners feel less economic resentment is that their comparisons are local and they don't realize that their local standard is low compared to urban and suburban America. For example, no one in my home town gets teeth crowned -- at a certain point the tooth is pulled for ~$100-200 instead of getting a $1500 -- 3000 crown. (Numbers are guesses). Even in the local middle class.

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