Friday, November 4, 2011

What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America / Thomas Frank -- N.Y.: Henry Holt, 2004

It's been seven years since Thomas Frank published What's the Matter with Kansas?, so the media frenzy -- if you can call it that -- is over, but the basic political relations described in the book remain; indeed, they may have become more pronounced. Frank provides us with a careful examination of conservative politics in Kansas and he suggests that it reflects -- in an exaggerated way -- conservative politics throughout the U.S. Roughly stated, Frank's thesis is that the working class population of Kansas has become hopelessly distracted by hot button social issues and have been fooled into voting for politicians who are undermining their economic interests. The thesis is not without merit; however, Frank's working class Kansans may not be so unaware as he suggests.

What's the Matter with Kansas describes the peculiarities of the state's politics starting from its founding in the 1850s up through the progressive era, but only as background for a description of how it changed from the 1970s to the present. According to Frank the critical juncture was in the early 1990s, when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) took over the national Democratic Party. The DLC abandoned any pretense of acting on behalf of the working class and openly sought support from business. At the same time, conservatives pundits began a relentless attack on liberals through print and radio broadcasts, portraying them as effete snobs who hated the working class and sought to destroy everything that is good about America. Furthermore, capitalizing on a population already disposed in favor of the pro-life movement, Operation Rescue selected Wichita as the epicenter of its protests against legal abortions. Operation Rescue mounted an extremely effective grassroots organizing campaign in Wichita and through out the state. All of this sparked a massive wave of political activity inside the Kansas Republican party, sweeping out the more moderate business class Republicans and installing a new generation of conservative Republicans in political posts from Senator on down to the lowest Republican party offices.

The political struggle, however, was not really between conservative Republicans and Democrats, but between conservative Republicans (the "Cons") and more moderate republics (the "Mods"). Frank describes at length the hostility that the Cons had toward the Mods, but is amazed by the Cons' inability to recognize that the policies that they were endorsing increased the economic strength of the Mods and were economically disastrous for the Cons. Frank's amazement is the weakest element of his analysis. While he makes occasional gestures toward explaining the Cons' disregard for their economic situation, he more often simply finds the Cons' behavior foolish and irrational. Despite growing up in Kansas, Frank seems unable to genuinely think about politics from within the world view of the Cons. This may be due to his own upbringing in a Mod suburb of Kansas City or simply to his inability to think sympathetically about with the people he is describing. He makes very little effort to consider the Cons as rational people acting on principles that he does not share.

Republican doctrine has long opposed taxes and regulation. They are seen as alien impositions on the main business of America which is, of course, business. Taxes and regulations are merely ways by which the productive elements of society are made to support and defend the politically powerful, but unproductive, elements. If one sees the main activity of life as making a living within the constraints of a system of fair rules, then such a point of view is reasonable. Surely, many if not most working class people in Kansas find making a living an all consuming activity, this is particularly true of people who are self-employed or sell their labor job to job. For them, taxes (no matter how progressive) are an obstacle to getting ahead and regulations limit the kind of economic activity that they find necessary to remain employed or in business.

In addition to this, the ideology of individualism and fair play trump any appeal that government assistance for the disadvantaged might hold. Material well-being may certainly be an important value for the conservative working class, but if earning what you acquire is a greater value, then taxation, regulation, and social programs are likely to be seen as undermining that more important value. What may be missing in this analysis is the importance of equal opportunity and in the case of Kansas working class, they may feel that the degree of inequality of opportunity is not so great as to justify liberal programs like affirmative action, housing assistance, and food stamps.

There is quite a lot in What's the Matter with Kansas that deserves careful attention, but working class Kansans deserve a more sympathetic and deeper analysis of their behavior.

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