With his acclaimed wit and acuity, Thomas Frank turns his eye on the 'thirty-year backlash' - the common man's revolt against a supposedly liberal establishment. He charts the Republican Party's success in building the most unnatural of alliances: between blue-collar Midwesterners and Wall Street business interests; between workers and bosses; between populists and right-wingers. Taking the state of Kansas as a paradigm, Frank describes how a place famous for its radicalism became one of the most conservative states in the union. He also seeks to answer some broader riddles: why do so many Americans vote against their economic and social interests? And whatever happened to middle-American progressivism? Frank reveals the true story, showing how voters have been persuaded to elevate 'values' and down-home qualities above hard questions of policy. A brilliant analysis, and funny to boot, What's the Matter with America? presents a critical assessment of the state of America today.
All of this is able to happen because Democrats have either fallen silent about, or moved to the right on, economic issues. The relatively small (or at least muted) differences between the parties mean that many voters aren’t able to draw an informed distinction between them. Thus, they cast their ballots in the areas where they *can* see a difference: social and cultural issues.
I try to read almost everything with a critical eye, but I ended up finding very little here with which to quarrel. That in itself would be reason enough for me to recommend this book; as an added bonus, Franks is witty, direct, and sympathetic to the complaints—if not the choices—of the people he’s describing. The writing is solid; the anecdotes are well-chosen; the tone is exactly right. And because the subject here is a long-term trend, I think the book holds up pretty well today—even though our politics in 2011 are of course very different from our politics in 2004.
I’m not sure how well Franks’ theory explains the Tea Party—they talk about fiscal issues a lot more than most of the people in this book—but then, I think they’re mostly framing the debt as a cultural rather than economic issue. (Real Americans don’t spend money they don’t have, etc.) More importantly, it may be that they’re a little more white-collar than the men and women he’s considering here.
Thomas Frank ponders the fact that, once upon a time, it was considered almost self-evident that the Democratic party was the party of the ordinary working stiff. But that's changed fairly dramatically, especially in places like Frank's former home state of Kansas, where there has been a great and passionate upsurge in right-wing sentiment among people whose economic self-interest would not seem to be in alignment with the Republican's policies of tax breaks for the rich and minimal support for the rest of us. What gives? Frank claims that it's largely down to the far right's politicians who, capitalizing on backlash against the social upheavals of the 1960s, have reframed the conservative vs. liberal dichotomy as a cultural one -- beer-drinking, NASCAR-loving, churchgoing salt-of-the-earth Plain Folks vs. latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, morally permissive, snootily superior elites -- while sidelining the economic issues almost entirely, deliberately focusing attention on such issues as abortion or the teaching of evolution in schools, and away from questions of material benefit.
I am weirdly torn, here, between finding this thesis oversimplistic and perhaps just a little too cynical (although we are talking about politicians, here, so maybe not all that overly cynical) and thinking it's obvious enough to almost not require spelling out. I do think some of his commentary and opinions are more lucid than others (not to mention more sensitively expressed), but overall, I'd say he does have some things to say about the origins of America's current Red vs. Blue conflict that are worth listening to.
Thomas Frank, born and raised in Kansas, goes home and takes a long hard look at the self-destructive wholesale adoption of hard-right, fundamentalist-christian, conservative politics by the plain ol’ folks of the state.
He fills in Kansas’s historical background of Populism and anti-slavery (Republican in the Lincolnesque sense), and shows how today’s politics represent a complete about-face. Through interviews and anecdotes, he vividly illustrates how the “culture war” works, and how in their eagerness to sign up and fight in that war, farmers and working-class people destroy their own way of life.
Frank also takes the Democratic party to task for creating the vacuum conservative Republicans rushed to fill when they completely abandoned their traditional supporters in pursuit of wealthy business owners whose politics were somewhat liberal, thereby taking economic issues off the table and making themselves over into a “Republican-lite” party where moderate Republicans may feel more comfortable as their party continues to become more and more radicalized.
Well worth reading if you want a clear, well-written description how American politics has moved dramatically rightwards. Frank offers no solution, but for most people not high up in the political party hierarchies, there may be no solution save waiting until the parties burn themselves out or wreck the country to the point that revolution becomes a viable and desirable option.
The crazy has always been strong in Kansas from its early battles against slavery (John Brown, bloody Kansas and civil war turmoil), prohibition and anti-abortion. In its defense, Kansas has been a pioneer in women's suffrage. In contrast to Frank's presentation, Kansas has always been a heavily Republican state. The Democrats mostly served as a safety valve to Republican total control.
Frank notes the declining labor influence on its core constituency. In contrast to the beginning of the 20th century, labor (and the Democrats) have lost the aspirational battle. The poor and the uneducated are neither willing nor able to rise by small self-improvement to middle class status. Instead, they chase the snake oii salesman's dream of fame and fortune - in an American version of Slum Dog Millionaire. In truth, Kansas has accepted a Third World social structure (which is never openly discussed in "all created equal" America), with a tiny elite in segregated suburbia (the Mod Republicans and the well off Democrats) and a struggling lower class, offered a peculiar American version of "panem et circenses". This time, however, the so called Christians do the hunting (their latest victim, Dr. Tiller makes a cameo appearance in the book).
The odd alliance between capitalists, who run the show, and the incited religious, lower class, which provide the votes, puzzles Frank. If Frank had looked beyond Kansas, he would have noticed that this combination is rather common in many broken democracies from Spain's Franco to Italy's Berlusconi to any number of Latin American countries - and even in the Antebellum South. The difference is that the US had a middle class which has been slowly destroyed by this odd coalition. The dismemberment started much earlier than Frank assumes (see Paul Krugman or Elizabeth Warren). Since the early Seventies, more and more risk (education, healthcare, social security) shifted to the individual, while the benefit accrued only to the ultra-rich (such as the Kansan Koch family with its pernicious doublethink tanks). Like many other books, Frank does offer description and analysis but no solutions. The necessary multi-pronged approach is politically not feasible. Kansas, the US and the world suffer the consequences.
A defect in the book is that Frank is woefully inexpert at economics. He is a Roosevelt regulator at heart, who honestly thinks that unions are good for the country rather than just the union members. He also has never seen a government regulation he doesn't like. Nevertheless, he writes well and seldom ceases to be entertaining.
The trick used by conservatives is to create a bete noir in the form of the effete, intellectual liberal elite that is at the heart of all the nation's problems. Conservative pols rail against the corrupting influence of the liberal media, and then lower taxes and deregulate, all to the benefit of the already rich and to economic detriment of the uncorrupted poor and lower middle class.
Frank believes that the conservative politicians do not actually expect or even want to pass socially conservative legislation. He believes that allowing public school prayer and prohibiting abortion would be unconstitutional. Being able to complain about such matters, however, gives them a permanent set of issues on which to run and be elected by galvanizing a distinct portion of the electorate.
Frank is particularly entertaining when he writes about the movement in Kansas to allow the teaching of creationism in the public schools and about extremely conservative "traditionalist" Catholics.
Frank concludes that "American conservatism depends for its continued dominance and even for its very existence on people never making certain [obvious]mental connections about the world....For example, the connection between mass culture, most of which conservatives hate, and laissez-faire capitalism, which they adore without reservation." The feeling of martyrdom or oppression fuels the conservatives' passion. "Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse. It invites us all to join in, to lay down our lives so that others might cash out at the top; to renounce forever our middle-American prosperity in pursuit of a crimson fantasy of middle-American righteousness."
Frank, a native Kansan, takes great pains to trace the rich populist impulse in his home state back to the socially Christian, but economically progressive movements of the Abolitionists and Bryanists. Some of the more colorful characters he speaks with in the book include a female politician famous for lamenting the extension of the franchise to women and a schismatic Catholic who regards the post Vatican II Church as a heresy and has consequently declared himself the true Pope. While I am, of course, pleased to see this subject matter analyzed, what I really liked about this book was Frank's ability to treat his "red" and often nutty Kansans with an empathy and affection that contains not even the slightest hint of condescension.
Now, this is all interesting, but there was a little too much bashing (of both Coulter and the frolics of Hollywood, and of snooty folks everywhere) and a little too little in the way of suggestions for changing the state of affairs. There's a place for personal experience, but I was much happier when he was writing about actual politics than the lessons he drew about snooty folks from not being accepted into a fraternity. That's all well and good for you, sir, but what do we do now? How do you reconcile the activist minority (ultra-religious) with the vast majority of passive voters who go along with the tide of the moment? And once again, I'm a little incensed everyone treats it as a clear-cut red-state blue-state issue. I mean, even if a state went 70/30 for Bush, are we just going to ignore the 30%? We live in a plurality democracy, yes, but even if the majority wins that doesn't mean you just write off the minority and say "well, they're all kooks out there. What can you do?" I have relatives in Wisconsin and Kansas and Oklahoma and other parts mid-westerly. I can tell you they are good folks and just as reasoning as you or me!
*ahem* sorry for the outburst! But the point of it is, this book is a quick read and rather interesting if somewhat flawed. If you read one 2004 political book, read Don't Think of an Elephant, but if you read two, What's the Matter With Kansas is a good second course. Let the righteous indignation begin!
Franks is no less critical of Democrats and their abandonment of essentially classist arguments in favor of some "third way," that is about nothing.
A good book, written with wit.
Frank lays out the self-destructive policies that have pushed the backlashers, as he calls them, in Kansas, and the effect is felt (and threatened) nationwide.
“Cupcake Land is a metropolis built entirely according to the developer’s plan, without the interference of angry proles or ethnic pols as in nearby Kansas City. Cupcake Land encourages no culture but that which increases property values; supports no learning but that which burnishes the brand; hears no opinions but those that will fatten the cupcake elite; tolerates no rebellion but that expressed in haircuts and piercings and alternative rock. You know what it’s like even though you haven’t been there. Smooth jazz. Hallmark cards. Applebees. Corporate Woods. “ – p. 49
“Ironically, the farm is where Americans learned their first lessons in the pitfalls of laissez-faire economics a hundred years ago. Farming is a field uniquely unsuited to the freewheeling whirl of the open market. There are millions of farmers, and they are naturally disorganized; they can’t coordinate their plans with one another. Not only are they easily victimized by powerful middlemen (as they were by the railroads in the Populists’ day), but when they find themselves in a tough situation – when, say, the price they are getting for wheat is low – farmers do not have an option of cutting back production, as every other industry does. Instead, each of those millions of farmers works harder, competes better, becomes more efficient, cranks out more of the commodity in question … and thus makes the glut even worse and pushes the prices still lower. This is called an ‘overproduction trap,’ and it can only be overcome by a suspension of competition through government intervention. Such intervention is what the Populists and the farmers’ unions fought for decades to secure; it finally came with the New Deal, which brought price supports and acreage set-asides and loan guarantees. For agribusiness, however, farm overproduction is the ideal situation. From their perspective, lower farm prices means higher profits and even greater power in the marketplace. Overproduction and all-out competition between farmers are thus to be encouraged by all available political means.” – 64
“…to believe that liberalism is all-powerful gets conservative lawmakers off the hook for their flagrant failure to make headway in the culture wars, but it also makes for a singularly negative and depressing movement culture. To be a populist conservative is to be a fatalist; to believe in a world where your side will never win; indeed, where your side almost by definition cannot win. Where even the most shattering electoral victories turn out to be hollow, and the liberal stranglehold on life can never be broken.” – 125
“Understanding themselves as victims besieged by a hateful world absolves conservatives of responsibility for what goes on around them. It excuses them for their failures; it justifies the most irresponsible rages; and it allows them, both in politics and in private life, to resolve disputes by pointing their fingers at the outside world and blaming it all on depraved liberal elite.” -159
“When markets flex their muscles, it is productive, organic, democratic; when government know-it-alls take the wheel, power becomes destructive, top-down, arbitrary, and tyrannical.” - 165
“The deafness of the conservative rank and file to the patent insincerity of their leaders is one of the true cultural marvels of the Great Backlash. It extends from the local level to the highest heights, from clear-eyed city council aspirant to George W. Bush, a man so ham-handed in his invocations of the Lord that he occasionally slips into blasphemy. Indeed, even as conservatives routinely mock Democrats for faking their religious sentiment, they themselves plainly feel so exempt from such criticism that they wander blithely in and out of the land of hypocrisy, never pausing to wonder if their followers are paying attention.”
“American conservatism depends for its continued dominance and even for its very existence on people never making certain mental connections about the world, connections that until recently were treated as obvious or self-evident everywhere on the planet. For example, the connection between mass culture, most of which conservatives hate, and laissez-faire capitalism, which they adore without reservation. Or between the small towns they profess to love and the market forces that are slowly grinding those small towns back into red-state dust – which forces they praise in the most exalted terms.” -248