Book Review: Thomas Frank – What’s the matter with Kansas?

First published: 2004 Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, LLC
Rating: Times read: once

…I also know Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miner safety. The very idea that they care more about coal miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming, Massey energy CEO Don Blankenship says here a year before a horrible mining accident. And it has to be true, because he has literally wrapped himself in an American flag.

What is the matter with Kansas is apparently also ailing West-Virginia, and the despicable Don serves as a nice illustration of the continuing relevance of a book that was first published in 2004 and that I came across a few weeks ago.

In What’s the matter with Kansas? author Thomas Frank argues that the Republican political movement in Kansas has been hijacked by ultra-conservatives who deliberately use cartoonish distortions of cultural issues and fake outrage to further an agenda that in the end is more about funnelling money to big business and their own pockets than the sanctity of marriage, abortion or creationist ideas. And that the Democrats have largely let it happen by failing to force the discussion back to economical issues that will directly impact Kansan voters. He shows how over the course of a century, populism in Kansas has shifted from being a left-wing phenomenon to being a right-wing phenomenon.

To a relative outsider to the U.S. like me (I moved here just a month ago), the book has been an interesting read. Frank is witty when he shows how hollow the red vs. blue stereotypes are when follows up a quote from conservative author David Brooks describing people from coastal metro Blue areas,

Very few of us know what goes on in Branson, Missouri, even though it has seven million visitors a year, or could name even five NASCAR drivers…. We don’t know how to shoot or clean a rifle. We can’t tell a military officer’s rank by looking at his insignia. We don’t know what soy beans look like when they’re growing in a field.


One is tempted to dismiss Brooks’s grand generalizations by rattling off the many ways in which he gets it wrong: by pointing out that the top three soybean producers -Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota- were in fact blue states; or by listing the many military bases located on the coasts; or by noting that when it came time to build a NASCAR track in Kansas, the county that won the honor was one of only two in the state that went for Gore. Average per capita income in that same lonely blue county, I might well add, is $16,000, which places it well bewlow Kansas and national averages, and far below what would be required for the puttin on of elitist or cosmopolitan airs of any kind.

The book is also fascinating when describing politicians than I’ve never heard of and likely never will hear from again, like Todd Tiahrt

From the Wichita Eagle: His social views are what most people talk about. But his thinking on economics is what company officials aare more interested

Or Sam Brownback

Brownback had been chosen for the post [of Kansas secretary of Agriculture] by the state’s largest agricultural interests- by the heads of the very industry he was charged with overseeing. For example, when he made limits on dangerous herbicides voluntrary, Brownback was acting as government regulator, but the kind of regulator conservatives approve of, the kind who answers to private industry instead of the public.

It is however unfortunate that after some time Frank has made his point, but keeps on going, occasionally scraping the bottom of the barrel for examples to support his case. The chapter antipopes among us, where he introduces a guy called David Bawden (or Pope Michael I. as he prefers to call himself), a complete lunatic by any standard, for us to read about and mock, is a low point in the book.

Nevertheless, the book is still highly relevant today. Although Obama won the election, a lack of understanding on the left on how to explain or deal with a phenomenon like the tea partiers shows this relevance. However unsanitary (Tancredo at tea party: why don’t send Obama back to Kenya?) just plainly weird or actually corporate (just like Frank could have predicted it would be), the answer is economical. Following Thomas Frank, there would be only one way to answer the incoherent cry for attention from the tea partiers:

While Republicans trick out their poisonous sterotype of the liberal elite, Democrats seem determined to live up to the libel.

Such Democrats look at a situation like present-day Kansas and rub their hands with anticipation: Just look at how Ronald Reagan’s “social issues” have come back to bite his party in the ass! If only the crazy Cons [conservatives within the Kansas Republican movement] push a little bit more, these Democrats think, the Republican Party will alienate the wealthy suburban Mods [moderate Republicans] for good, and we will be able to step in and carry places like Mission Hills, along with all the juicy boodle that its inhabitants are capable of throwing our way.

While I enjoy watching Republicans fight one another as much as the next guy, I don’t think the Kansas story really gives true liberals any cause to cheer. Maybe someday the DLC dream will come to pass, with the Democrats having moved so far to the right that they are no different than old-fashioned moderate Republicans, and maybe then the affluent will finally come over to their side en masse. But along the way the things that liberalism once stood for -equality and economic secutiry- will have been abandoned completely. Abandoned, let us remember, at the historical moment when we need them most.

There is a lesson for liberals in the Kansas story, and it’s not that they, too, might someday get invited to tea in Cupcake Land. It is, rather, an utter and final repudiation of their historical decision to remake themselves as the other pro-business party. By all rights the people in Wichita and Shawnee and Garden City should today be flocking to the party of Roosevelt, not deserting it. Culturally speaking, however, that option is simply not available to them anymore. Democrats no longer speak to the people on the losing end of a free-market system that is becoming more brutal and more arrogant by the day.

The last sentence is the key here of course, when it comes to answering the tea party. And if the Obama administration finally starts to take on Wall Street, it will not be a moment too soon.

I started this review by quoting the Despicable Don on global warming, so let me end there as well. Thomas Frank also helps in understanding why it is that so many people plainly refuse to listen to a reasonable exposition of the facts showing why global warming is real, a refusal coming with an amount of hostility which baffles scientists.

Anti-intellectualism is one of the grand unifying themes of the backlash, the mutant strain of class war that underpins so many of Kansas’s otherwise random-seeming grievances. Contemporary conservatism holds as a key article of faith that it is fruitless to scrutinize the business pages for clues about the way the world works. We do not labor under the yoke of some abstraction like market forces, or even flesh-and-blood figures like executives or owners. No, it is intellectuals who call the shots, people with graduate degrees and careers in government, academia, law, and the professions.
Today this kind of anti-intellectualism is a central component of conservative doctrine, expressing in glorious brevity the unifying theme of nature beset by overweening artifice, The corporate world, for its part, uses anti-intellectualism to depict any suggestion that humanity might be better served by some order other than the free-market system as nothing but arrogance, an implied desire to redesign life itself. The social conservatives, on the other hand, use anti-intellectualism to assail any deviation from a system of values that they alternately identify with God and the earth-people of Red America. Just who the hell do these conceited eggheads think they are?

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