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July 26, 2005

What's the Matter With Kansas?

The TPM Cafe's book club is reading Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?. There, Todd Gitlin addresses Frank:

Why would it be unfair to call your book the cleverest piece of vulgar Marxism ever written? It would be no small compliment. The competition is stiff, or at least the entries are myriad.

I'm very surprised that Gitlin would describe Frank's book as "Marxist" in any sense of the word.
Gitlin seems to think that Frank is a vulgar Marxist for claiming that Kansans are mistaken about their fundamental interests:

The big trouble is with your deep premise, which first shows up on the way from page 1 to page 2: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.” The point crops up a few hundred more times in your pages.

The problem lies in those glimmering words, “fundamental,” “interest,” and “wrong.” What’s a fundamental interest anyway? You appear to be a pure utilitarian. People ought to be rational calculators, dammit.

I think Gitlin is missing Frank's point. Ezra Klein is making a similar mistake when he argues that there's nothing's the matter with Kansas.

A lot of people think that Frank is excoriating Kansans for voting against their economic interests. If that were the case, Frank might rightly be accused of condescension. As George Lakoff points out, most people vote their values rather than their economic interests. I know I do.

It's easy to dismiss Frank as an intellectual peddling an obscure argument from false consciousness. In fact, Frank is making a much simpler and more direct argument. Kansas meticulously documents the ways in which Kansans are being fooled by fake populism. Blame marketing, not Marixsm.

It would be one thing if Kansans were making an informed tradeoff between economic self-interest and values. That's basically what upper class Democrats do when they agree to higher taxes in exchange for other social goods. According to Frank, what's wrong with Kansas is that Republicans promise cultural reform but never deliver. Kansans are getting suckered year after year. They don't vote their economic self interest, but they never get the cultural results they're voting for. Frank is wondering why the voters of Kansas keep getting tricked by the platitudes of backlash conservatism.

Backlash conservatism has two pillars: a) Fake class consciousness; b) Culture war saber-rattling.

Think of the backlash as a brand. Behind every successful brand is a core brand idea. What will this product do for you? Or, more importantly, what kind of person will you be if you buy this product? The core brand idea of the backlash conservatism (hereafter, BC) is that the Republican party defends working class values from the scheming, arrogant liberal elite.

Frank's central thesis is that Republicans campaign like culture warriors and govern like robber barons. They've created a self-perpetuating myth. They explain everything that's wrong with the world by appealing to the nefarious and non-existent liberal elite. Allegedly, the liberal elite is so powerful that the backlash conservatives can never vanquish it. Even when the Republicans control all branches of government, they still blame the mythical all-pervasive cabal for everything. This self-sealing belief system provides an endlessly renewable excuse for a culture war stalemate.

The truth is that Republicans are the elite. Their working class cred is phony. George W. Bush is the privileged son of an American political dynasty. He had an easy war, an Ivy League education, and endless bailouts from his fathers' big business buddies. He has an estate in Texas. The media call it a ranch with a straight face, even though he's afraid of horses and he has to borrow his neighbors' cattle for photo ops. Somehow, the Republican message machine managed to trick people into believing that George W. Bush was more authentically macho than John Kerry, a decorated war hero.

Frank emphasizes that the Republican deception goes beyond myth-making. Kansas politicians like Sam Brownback are case studies in backlash bait-and-switch. Brownback and his BC confederates campaign on culture war issues, but they seldom follow through. The backlash has been campaigning on "values" for decades and winning. But what do they have to show for it? Abortion remains legal, the constitutional ban on gay marriage is languishing, the media continue to churn out the "filth" that fuels the backlash.

All this time, the BC-ers have been governing like robber barons--undermining unions, threatening Social Security, and killing rural Americans in a fraudulent war.

Bush's nomination of John Roberts for the Supreme Court is a classic cultural bait-and-switch. During the 2004 election, Republicans across America fired up the base with the promise of a socially conservative Supreme Court. Then, when push came to shove, Bush nominated a slick corporate lawyer whose positions on social issues are murky* but whose allegiance to big money is unequivocal.

*At least by the standards of the Rapture Right.


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As is often the case, Lindsay, you get this exactly right.

I have spent much of the last fifteen years growing increasingly disappointed with Gitlin.

You're right about the estate thing, but to be a teeny bit fair, any plot of land over a certain size is called a ranch in Texas whether animals are raised on it or not. Though most people do keep a cow or two on their ranch for tax reasons.

The Liberal Elite - the Phantom Menace. The fact that you can't see them makes them that much more dangerous.

Damn, you're good.

I've dug Frank since his Baffler days. The problem with Frank is that is he's great at the analytical, but lousy with the prescriptives. His solution to everything is to support the various labor movements, but that doesn't seem to work.

Thanks, guys!

I gotta agree with MK on the prescriptive end of things. In fairness to Frank, he's a historian, not an economist or a political strategist. I'm quite happy to let him stick to broad generalities as far as the solution is concerned. Kansas was a short book. I'm glad he didn't spend too many pages outlining potential solutions. He's a brilliant guy, but it's not really his area of expertise.

I'm all for economic populism, but it seems to me that the Dems' problem is style, not substance. If we had a message machine like the Republicans, we wouldn't have to set our sights on any particular policy platform. Obviously, I'm not trying to detract from the non-strategic benefits of economic populism. Economic justice is a core Democratic value, and a core small-"d" democratic value, too. I'm just not convinced by Kansas that any policy solution can solve our problem. Frank seems to be saying that our problem is primarily one of image. No policy solution seems to be necessary or sufficient to solve the dilemma he describes in the book.

That said, I'm a proud member of a union household, and I want to stand with labour on general principle. I just don't think Frank gives an especially persuasive strategic case for my agenda. It's not that he's unpersuasive--it's just his real strength is in diagnosis rather than prescription.

Excellent post, Lindsay, and I think you're right about Frank's major thesis. As a side point, I would argue that we tend to give too much credit to the "Republican message machine." It's true that Kerry is a war hero and Bush is a child of privilege, but Bush has a personality that will come across to most people as more "authentically macho" than John Kerry's. A big part of the Democrats' problem is that we don't nominate people who make good candidates in general elections -- can't give the Republicans too much credit for that.

(Cross-post with Sean.)

I agree that the Republican message machine isn't all powerful. On the other hand, it's hard to know how someone like Kerry might have been viewed in a more reasonable media climate. Or, maybe more importantly, how someone like Wes Clarke or Howard Dean might have done. I think the Republicans would have managed to feminize and marginalize even our most "macho" candidates. They would have smeared Wes Clarke in much the same way as they smeared McCain. Howard Dean would have been dismissed as a draft dodging, stridently hysteric rich kid.

Wow, props from Lindsay. Cool.

I stand with labor too, of course. However, labor is infiltrated by moles much in the way the DLC is. Not to come off too conspriratorial, or anything.

Granted, but I'm not sure how that changes anything. To start, Todd is arguing that Frank doesn't understand the people he's talking about, which is totally different than my argument that Kansas isn't poor and we shouldn't be surprised it runs Republican because, point of fact, voting Republican has not proved itself harmful to the Kansan economy.

In fact, my point is almost a perfect inverse of Frank's. Just as you say that Republicans don't deliver on the social stuff (save on the margins: PBA, FMA, DOMA, etc), Democrats don't deliver on the economic promise save, again, on the margins. The EITC is great, and no one'will catch me casting mean looks at paid family leave, but we're somehow pretending that, culture and economics being equal, Democrats deliver more on economics than Republicans do on culture. We don't. At least not lately. And Kansas's demographics are a perfect example. It's a richer state with less unemployment, higher incomes, and fewer uninsured than the majority of states including many run by Democrats. That was the point of my post -- that Frank is blind to what Democrats actually provide, and thus too quick to calculate that poor conservatives are getting a raw deal.

Incidentally, I have a newer, fresher ciritique of the book here. I'm just chock full of reasons why Frank is wrong...

The International Socialist Review's review of Thomas Frank's book: The Red, the Blue and the Ugly.

Major point: Frank is sloppy about class analysis, and misses that the base of conservative activist groups is middle class, not working class.

Re "..but we're somehow pretending that, culture and economics being equal.."-
Hello, strawperson. (What was it that Freddy of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers said?.. "Good pot will get you through times with no money, better than money will get you through times with no pot".)

"..Democrats deliver more on economics than Republicans do on culture. We don't.."
Well, then, maybe let's turn that around- and say that "Democrats deliver more Real culture than Republicans do on Real Economics". How do you like the tax cuts in a time of Artificial (but interminable) War? Where shall we send the mess of pottage with YOUR name on it?.. into what bright future? Where would Kansas be without that beautiful Farm Bill, etc etc? Who pays? WHO CARES? Just keep that border porous as long as we need meatpackers! (etc)

"..At least not lately.."-
Thanks- (FDR smiles, a little, and wishes Clinton had simply gone for "Single Payer" simplicity...)

"..And Kansas's demographics are a perfect example. It's a richer state with less unemployment, higher incomes, and fewer uninsured than the majority of states.."-
How DO they dodge the bullets? It must be Culture, man.. or maybe it's the Weather... are they a net gainer or loser of population over the last decade? Who's leaving?.. and who's staying?
Frank is right, (& Lindsay, also) the same way that Bill McKibben's right in the recent Harper's ("what's the matter with suburban Christians?"); but it doesn't go far enough. Beneath the "culture backlash" brand there is an unspoken threat: "You're doing OK, right?.. and you WANT to be OK- right? Well, then, you'd better be on OUR side in this- because we're taking names- and God's on our side... you get my drift"?
We, the People, are owned by Our Stuff- our Prosperity for its own sake, our Second Homes and Boats & Cars & (etc). So much to Protect! So easy to be kept Fearful! Is that Culture? Is it Economics?.. or Bushwa?

Lindsay's got it exactly right; backlash conservatism is a sales/con job.
I've always been particularly amused by tender-palmed Wall Street darlings like Reagan and Bush posing as bronco-bustin' saddle tramps. Please. I live where you can smell sagebrush. I notice that lately the real cowboys are like any other agricultural labor in the West: they're Mexican and they're used to hard work.
My great grandfather was a rancher. He bought his first herd in Tacoma and drove it over the Cascades to the Okanogan Valley in a blizzard. I just don't think Dubya is made of the same stuff.

Is economic justice a small-d democratic value? I always thought of it as more a small-r republican value.

Economic justice has never been a republican value, small r or capital R.

Really? I'd think of Cass Sunstein as a proponent of small-r republicanism, and he seems pretty big on economic justice.

In fact, sense modern republicanism exists less as a cohesive movement or school of thought than as a counterpoint to Lockean liberalism, I'd say the economic justice is among its motivating factors.

Excellent post. I'm astonished that so many people make Gitlin's silly attack on Frank -- the whole book explicitly says these voters are getting conned on what they say they want. I thought it was especially ridiculous for Gitlin to call Frank an elitist who just doesn't hang with the peeps. Yuck.

Nice to see someone defend the value of description too; "so what's his answer?" is a pretty common copout.

I haven't read Ezra's recent attacks, and I'm sure they're great; but Frank is quite clear that the particularly poor and marginalized areas of Kansas, that have gotten screwed over economically, are voting Republican.

Lindsey Bierstein: "it's hard to know how someone like Kerry might have been viewed in a more reasonable media climate. Or, maybe more importantly, how someone like Wes Clarke or Howard Dean might have done."

I suppose it depends on what you mean by a more reasonable media climate. My guess is that in a more reasonable media climate, Kerry would have been viewed as privileged (Yale/Skull&Bones), a militarist who wants to prolong the war in Iraq, with an extremely conservative voting record in the Senate, when he showed up at all. I have no more faith in Clark or Dean.

I also don't see our "media climate" as that unreasonable, because I don't expect corporate media to have anything but a corporate bias. Mass media are going to be corporate, since we're not likely ever to have something like the BBC in the USA. The problem could be mitigated somewhat if the FCC weren't encouraging ever greater concentration, but it would still be a problem. I have no great nostalgia for network news in the 60s, and the New York Times has always been criticized for its biases.

As far as I'm concerned, we have a great media climate nowadays, because there are plenty of non-corporate media with different biases that are readily available if you're interested. There was never really any excuse for being misled about Iraq, for instance: the information was available without a lot of digging. I see no point in fantasizing that the corporate media will ever be "objective." "Restoring objectivity" to the corporate media is like "restoring democracy" to Iraq. It's up to the reader / viewer to use the media critically, not to hope for an infusion of truth that he or she can passively receive.

The last time Gitlin hung with the peeps was never.

Cas Sustein, very big in GOP circles. Not.

"..I'd say the economic justice is among ..(republicanism's) motivating factors.."
(Posted by: Eli)-
Instead of 'economic opportunism'? hmmm...
(from Duncan) "..'Restoring objectivity' to the corporate media is like 'restoring democracy' to Iraq.."-
Well put. ^..^

Gitlin's criticism affects ignorance of Franks' book completely. He appears not to have absorbed much of it and Lindsay has simply restated the point of the book, which seemed fairly obvious to me. However, there is a more interesting aspect of the GOP strategy that I think is quite interesting.

Frank's examination of GOP politicking ought to be looked upon with a view towards this administration's goals in Iraq. It is the same tactic writ large in the Middle East, though somewhat shifted. Instead of promises of "values" and fighting the liberal elite, the White House and, by extension the GOP, are now posing as the deliverers of freedom and democracy, which will defeat evil, when we know the true interest there is an imperial economic hegemony and energy source security. Just as for Kansas and other "values" voter states, the cant of "freedom" glosses over the true agenda but it doesn't take much to see what is really going on. Essentially, the strategy is the same on both levels: obfuscate an agenda of economic plunder with a wash of phoney good intentions.

Remember that Kansas has a history of electing populist, female Democrats to the Governors mansion. Currently the Blues-Lovin' Martini-swillin' God-Love-Her Kathleen Sebelius holds the office.

In the late 80's and early 90's, it was Joan Finney, who once grew so impatient that her driver hadn't shown up to deliver her to the hill that she marched off the mansion grounds, hopped a fence, and hitched a ride with a farmer in a pick-up truck to the state capital to take the Republicans in the statehouse to task. She got her way on that issue, I do believe.

Kansans love sending women like that to Topeka to clean house and keep the state power-structure balanced. Kansas is one of the most educated states in the country. A high percentage (approximately 40%) of the adult population of the state hold bachelors degrees.

Jayhawkers are contradictory creatures, I have lived among them on three or four occasions. I have never figured them out, but I respect them.

"Kansas is one of the most educated states in the country."

If this is true, why in God's name does that idiot state put up with the nonsensical bile drummed up about evolution somehow not being sound? Clearly there is an educational lack somewhere.

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