What’s up with Kansas?

At long last: a review of Thomas Frank’s latest book. I realize that most of you who are really interested in this sort of thing probably read it ages ago, but if not, allow me to highly recommend it. If you read it last year, you may be interested to see the post-election afterword Frank added to the paperback edition. He is currently working on a follow-up book on the theme “so, what can we do about Kansas?”

Thomas Frank has done it again with What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. We all watched as working class Americans flocked to the polls in 2004 to elect a President who had promised to remove what remained of their social safety net, apparently on the grounds that his government would be more in line with their religious views, but what no-one has managed to adequately explain to date is just why people would ignore their manifest self-interest so completely. Or, as Frank puts it in his inimitable style:

This situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal. For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the songs of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of [the well-to-do enclave of] Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes." (p. 109)

One feels a sense of relief that Frank just happens to come from Kansas, understands all this, and is offering to explain the inexplicable. It’s not long before he starts proffering theories: in short, Frank blames this on Clinton’s policy of “triangulation”, which effectively removed many significant differences between the economic policies of the two parties. This left them vulnerable to Republican efforts to win voters based on social policy. Since opinions on issues such as queer rights, abortion, and evolution tend to be correlated to income and education levels, which in turn are related to class, it was largely working class voters who formed the “backlash” which left to form the newly devout Conservative wing of the Republican party. Frank predicts that moderate Republicans will gradually be pushed into the Democratic party, and once there will further its shift to the right on fiscal policy. The ultimate effect will be a government in which neither major party places any controls on laissez-faire capitalism.

Frank views these calls for regressive social policies as deliberate charade, and as proof cites cases in which Republicans have campaigned on, say, curbing profanity in the mass media, but then voted against bills which would regulate the culture industry due to avowed faith in market populism as the correct solution. He points out that real change on several fronts of the culture war would be difficult to accomplish — for example, overturning Roe v. Wade would require replacing members of the US Supreme Court — but then concludes that their outspoken advocates are knowingly setting themselves with impossible tasks in order to ensure that their followers will always be with them (ironically, John G. Roberts, Jr. was nominated to the court as I was reading this).

Frank compares this with the tendency of some governments in the Middle East to emphasize nationalism (and/or destruction of the state of Israel) before basic poverty reduction, thus allowing themselves to remain in power while expending little effort on domestic problems. Instead of taking concrete measures, such as actually forcing Hollywood films to become more pious, conservative Republicans rail against a shadowy cabal of all-powerful latte-drinking, Volvo-driving elite (which Conservatives conveniently define by consumer tastes and not income, thus exempting their own rich). This is interesting. It explains why so many churches across the US spent their time ranting against gay marriage, when nobody was actually proposing to implement it. Why get people riled up about something that’s not likely to happen anyways? Because if you convince them that their lifestyle faces a clear and present danger, they’ll flock to your side. Just play on people’s fears before the election and pass the occasional, largely symbolic bill to placate the masses afterwards, and you’ll be re-elected to more or less do as you like for another four years. (Frank reports that Prohibition crusades served a similar purpose for politicians of the time.)

Frank does sometimes over-correct for the contemporary trend to ignore class by dismissing everything else. Actual Conservative gains in the culture wars (such as restricting funding of social service agencies and international development NGOs which distribute information about abortion) are never mentioned. In fact, Conservatives have made important gains in the culture war, impacting the daily life of many. He is right to say that their effects are often overshadowed by measures such as tax cuts, but his single-mindedness is a little frustrating.

Some of the most interesting passages of this book come as Frank demonstrates the forgotten art of historical context. He does this well (his doctoral thesis in history became The Conquest of Cool), and this book is no exception. Here, he compares the conservative backlash to the pro-slavery forces of the mid 1850’s who fought the Eastern abolitionist migrants that had settled Kansas in order to contain the western spread of Missouri, a slave state. Interestingly, these militants, who considered abolitionism an imposition of East coast university elites, were generally unable to afford slaves themselves. They instead fought for a principle — one which primarily benefited large Southern plantation owners, in that by expanding the potential area for slave ownership, they kept demand and prices for slaves high, thus maintaining the paper values of large estates. (The armed struggles between these groups eventually led to the US Civil War.)

If you believe Frank, we’re in for dark days ahead. He rattles off a list of US-wide chains that started out in Kansas, and mentions how marketing firms like to float new products in the state, because it’s just so, well, average. His point is that ideas which do well in Kansas, tend to do well elsewhere (his examples include Prohibition and the US Civil War). If the meat packers and Boeing line workers of Kansas have taken to the new conservatism in droves, and every poll shows that they have, a large part of the rest of the US is likely to follow, unless and until the Democratic party can bring itself to campaign on a progressive fiscal policy, loss of soft money campaign donations be damned.

…can somebody tell me why I spend so much time reading about the internal politics of a country in which I’ve never lived? I should spend more time studying the history of Québec or something. Next time.