What’s the Matter With Kansas?

By Thomas Frank

Just a year ago we were all hearing a lot about the juggernaut that was conservative publishing. Well, the bombastic rhetoric and moral posturing are still there for those with an appetite for it, but now there are at least some more thoughtful antidotes available. One of the best of these is Paul Krugman’s collection of op-ed pieces written for the New York Times: The Great Unraveling. Krugman’s focus is on George W. Bush’s economic policies, and his important Introduction, “A Revolutionary Power”, makes a powerful case for “just how awesome a sea change has taken place in the domestic political scene.” This new radicalism has Krugman genuinely puzzled:

I should admit at this point that I am not entirely sure why this is happening – why we are now faced with such a radical challenge to our political and social system. Rich people did very well in the 1990s; why this hatred of anything that looks remotely like income distribution? Corporations have flourished; why this urge to strip away modest environmental regulation? Churches of all denominations have prospered; why this attack on the separation of church and state? American power and influence have never been greater; why this drive to destroy our alliances and embark on military adventures?

Just why is America so angry? Why, in John LeCarre’s formulation, has it “gone insane”?

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? is one stab at an answer.

Frank begins by making it clear that the question What’s the matter with Kansas? is really the question of What’s the matter with America? He sees backlash politics – that is, the appropriation of populist, progressive resentment to promote a regressive, reactionary agenda – as an “all-American dysfunction.” “This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible.”

The mystery lies in the fact that the backlash is essentially perverse. Why do so many poor Americans vote against their own interests in electing conservative politicians? The answer is that they are victims of a bait-and-switch. Energized by cultural issues, the backlash base of Red Americans (that’s “red” as in Republican) turn out in droves to vote for a party intent on their destruction:

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 special 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.

Frank is a good Marxist insofar as he sees economic and class conditions as fundamental, culture as secondary. But backlash conservatism is economically blind, and it is that way on purpose. Mass culture is a creation of economic elites, and the development of class consciousness isn’t in their interest.

The hijacking of progressive populism that has replaced “capitalism” with “liberalism” as the enemy of the people is an important subject. And Frank’s insights are often excellent. As usual, he seems to have read every right-wing commentator and pundit under the sun (and on the Internet), and he has no trouble dispatching their propaganda. But since Brooks, Coulter, Limbaugh and company are propagandists (messengers uninterested in reality), this isn’t much of an achievement. More valuable is his account of the psychology of backlash victimhood. Right-wing cultural causes, like the resistance to teaching evolution in schools, are lost causes because losing confirms the existence of a conspiracy of all-powerful liberal elites, and stokes the anger and insanity. Backlash proles are not only subservient but downright masochistic.

This isn’t a perfect book. Frank’s brief account of his own conservative salad days make him seem a bit of a self-important drip. His awkward coinage “Plen-T-plaint” for the all-adhesive sense of indignation among Red Americans indicates a lack of real wit. His field research should have been fleshed out, and less attention paid to marginal figures like the Pope of Kansas and hard-to-verify sources like conservative listservs.

But these are minor faults in what is a very important work. The “mystery of America” Frank is probing is one that will occupy future historians a great deal. What’s the Matter with Kansas? is one of the first places they should go to look for answers.

Review first published online June 29, 2004. This review was posted online the day after Canada’s federal election. In that election the province of Saskatchewan – the cradle of progressive politics in this country – overwhelming voted Conservative. The NDP (the party that was born out of the old CCF) was shut out. Shades of Kansas.