What's the Matter with Kansas? How conservatives won the heart of America
Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books, 2004
Review score: ***1/2 out of *****

The group I work in is a hot bed of conservatives. One of my colleagues was so ecstatic when George W. Bush made his now infamous aircraft carrier landing on the USS Lincoln that he wanted to put up a picture of our fearless leader in his flight suit. Like raisins in a muffin there are a few of us liberals scattered among the conservatives. One of my fellow liberals once commented that he could not understand why anyone who was not rich would vote for a Republican. Especially under George W. Bush, Republican economic policy has been great for the wealthy and disastrous for everyone else (although some people don't realize this yet).

Thomas Frank is one of the best writers on politics and contemporary events currently working. His writing is compelling, drawing you through his pages. Frank writes with a definite political point of view, but his arguments are carefully constructed and supported. His work is not the empty polemic which is can be found on both the right and the left.

The topic of Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas? is the rise of the right wing conservative power, which in most cases is contrary to the economic interests of those who support it. Frank, who currently lives in Illinois where he publishes a quarterly magazine called The Baffler, grew up in Kansas. He uses the political evolution of his native state of Kansas as an extreme example of how right wing ideology has seized a hold of a large part of the body politic in the United States.

There are states like Texas where right wing ideology is no surprise. Conservative ideology is rooted in the history of Texas and seems to have been there since it was seized from Mexico. Texas is a place where the mythology of the self-made man rules. In contrast to Texas, Kansas has a history of radical progressivism. Kansas was first settled by "free soilers", abolitionists who fought a bloody border war with their neighbors in Missouri a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War (see the book The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders). In the late 1800s and the early decades of the twentieth century Kansas farmers where being crushed first by the railroads (which they needed to reach their markets) and later by the Great Depression. Out of this grew Midwestern populism and what today might be viewed as leftist radicalism. The "plutocrats" and capital power of the East Coast were regularly denounced by Midwestern politicians.

Like a number of Midwestern states, Kansas is struggling. Agricultural consolidation and the rise of huge agricultural corporations like ConAgra have strangled the family farm, which has largely disappeared. The well paying union factory jobs that employed people when they moved off the farm have been under a three pronged assault from automation, offshoring by multinational corporations and foreign competition. In What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank describes his travels through depopulated small Kansas towns. He stands in the middle of once busy main streets and not a car or a person goes by.

Thomas Frank describes the citizens of Kansas as a people who, in the majority, are struggling economically, losing their jobs and health insurance, but turning politically toward the right, where their grandparents turned to leftist populism. Rather than voting for politicians who support taxes for their communities and restrictions on trade to protect their jobs, they vote for tax cuts and politicians for whom the free market approaches a religion.

What ails Kansas is the removal of any economic dimension from political discourse. When a democrat plaintively points out that a set of Republican polices benefit the rich, the Republicans label the complaint "class warfare", as in a previous generation they might have labeled it "communistic". The Republican intent is that the argument ends there, without any discussion of economic issues.

The rise of the right wing in Kansas has taken place, according to Thomas Franks, on the tide the mythology of victimhood at the hands of an imagined liberal elite. Replacing any discussion of the inequalities of capitalism, there are the evil liberals who control our society. Liberals hold working people, who are not educated at elite Universities, in contempt (the irony here is that the Republican icon George W. Bush was gained admission to those same elite Universities on the strength of his family name). Liberals are responsible for the shows on television, the movies and the "liberal bias" of the press (well, except for Fox News, which is "fair and balanced"). According to the bile spewed by right wing backlash writers like Ann Coulter, liberals hate America. No liberal could be a patriot. Liberals want to take away the Bible, teach evolution and "convert" children to homosexuality (liberals support the "homosexual agenda" denounced by Supreme Court Justice Antony Scalia). Virtue cannot be found on the liberal coasts, but only in small town America. Frank points out the irony of the Republican iconography of the small town, which is being destroyed by Republican policies.

The right wing myth about the plots and poison of liberals reminds me of slanderous writings like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, with the Jews being replaced by liberals. Only the "blood libel" suggesting that liberals drink the blood of babies is, so far, missing. Frank points out that the myth of the all powerful liberal is also similar to the old communist propaganda about the evil manipulations of the capitalists (but without the economic dimension).

In Thomas Frank's Kansas the working person battered by economic events lashes out not at the capitalist plutocrats, but at the liberal conspiracy. As economic times get harder, the Kansas voter moves ever more to the right, voting for tax cuts, school vouchers, unrestricted free trade and an expensive war in a country that few of them could have found on the map before the US invaded.

The first two-thirds of What's the Matter with Kansas? makes compelling reading as Thomas Frank's writing and journalism pull the reader through the pages. But I found that the last third dragged. Frank had already made his point and illustrated it with numerous examples. Many voters are voting against their own interests - what is to be done? Only in the epilogue does Frank finally address the failings of the Democratic party and imply a possible solution.

Frank points out that the Democrats have moved so far to the right that they resemble moderate Republicans in the era of Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller. Fewer and fewer people now belong to unions (I read recently that only about 6% of the workforce belongs to a union). The decline of organized labor has been matched by the Democratic movement toward business. President Clinton's trade policy was embraced by both the "new" Democrats and the Republicans. In short, the Democrats walked away from the issues that effected the working people. Along with the Republicans they removed economic issues from the political discussion. With economic issues gone, only "social" issues, like abortion, equal rights for women and minorities remained. The Republicans present themselves as the party of "authentic" men and women (think George Bush clearing brush on his ranch and Ronald Reagan splitting fence posts). Republicans, their story goes, are the party that rejects the Godless morality of the liberal elite. This has largely moved the 2004 presidential election from being referendum on economic issues and war to "character" and "morals". If George W. Bush is elected in 2004 most of those who voted for him will have once again voted against their own interests. The huge debt piled up by Bush's tax cuts and the war in Iraq will be paid off by those who work for a salary, not by those who collect capital gains and dividends.

Ian Kaplan
September 2004
Last updated on:


November 6, 2004

George W. Bush's win in the 2004 election is now history. Many who passionately opposed this misleader of the United States are not optimistic about the next for years.

I have a job and a high level security clearance. My job is not going to be shipped to Bangalor India or to China. Nor does it look like there will be any lack of funding. As a senior software engineer who still has a job, I am one of the more fortunate people in the United States. Many of those who voted to return Bush II to the White House are not so fortunate. Where I have medical insurance, many of them do not. While my job is relatively stable and pays well, theirs does not. Once again, they have voted for "values" and directly against their economic interest. Offshore outsourcing was an issue that Kerry raised. Under Bush II there will be few, if any, brakes on moving jobs overseas. Broader and more affordable medical insurance was an issue for Kerry as well. Bush II campaigned entirely on war, fear and "Christian Values".

Thomas Franks editorial Why They Won (New York Times on November 5, 2004) which discusses the absence of any discussion of economics in Republican policy can he found here.

Letters to The Bear at The Bearcave

(My answers are in italics)

Date: Fri, 21 Jan 2005
Subject: Franks

Dear Mr. Bear,

I have to think that Franks and I are living on different planets and breathing air of different atomic composition. Either that, or perhaps he is dead not to notice that Kerry campaigned heavily on job offshoring, that Democrats have been very loudly opposed to SS "reform" , and that by far, the persons who can be counted on most to support all of these things are the hard right. Add to that, that even Franks admits in his "What's the Matter With Kansas" several of the spear-headers promote class warfare on their very own conservative populists as to be appalling.

Just as you think that you and Thomas Franks are living on different planets, I have the feeling that you and I read different books.

I watched all the debates and I closely followed Kerry's campaign (in addition to donating money to and voting for Kerry). So I'm familiar with his stand on outsourcing. But I always thought that it was pretty weak.

Here is a question I have for you: Leaving out a woman's right to reproductive choice and civil rights what does the Democratic Party stand for? This is not to suggest that choice and civil rights are negligible, but it is not much of a platform to build a Party on. In 2004 the Democratic Party platform was "We're not G.W. Bush". That sure was good enough for me. But in 2008 G.W. will be returning to Crawford, Texas. What will the Democratic Party stand for then? It is not enough to just state "We're not the Republicans".

Franks is making the argument that the Democratic Party should adopt a populist platform. A platform for a living wage, rather than WalMart wages. A platform that states that it is not good when one class of people gets rich while others sink and struggle. A platform that is dedicated to building the US manufacturing base.

You also missed his point about "Republican Class Warfare". The Republicans rail against Madonna and Hollywood on one hand while they give them a tax cut with the other. Yeah, give Madonna a tax cut. That'll teach her! Franks' point is that it is all empty rhetoric. It is the language of populism, while the actions shift the costs of society from those who live on investment income to those who work for a living.

However, his [Franks] attacks on the Democratic Party are pure pap.

Until G.W. Bush came along, the Democratic Party under Clinton was Republican Lite. The Democrats sucked up to the same corporate donors. There was, until G.W. Bush, little true difference between the two parties. The Democrats did little more than the Republicans did to side with those who work for a living.

I've voted for a Democrat in every election since 1976 (the first time I could vote). And I was not stupid enough to believe in 2000 that there was no difference between the Democrats and G.W. Bush. I knew then that Bush would be a bad president, although I never could have imagined the kind of damage he would do to our nation.

I see Democrats, like my Senator Dianne Feinstein sucking up to the Republicans and warmly welcoming Condi Rice. I see Senator Joe Lieberman saying in January 2005 that the War in Iraq was a good idea. So as far as I'm concerned, I can only hope that my Party gets a spine and learns to become the Party of opposition to Bush II's policies.

That's what Franks doesn't understand - the Republicans win them because they have hundreds of thousands of churches peddling their propoganda.

Again, you read a different book. In the book I read, Franks fully understands the power of the "Christian Right". Franks mentions that some Republicans are fearful that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe vs. Wade after Bush II appoints a crop of right wing justices. Not only will the Republicans have to reap the backlash as people wake up to a new reality, but the Republicans will have lost their single strongest unifying issue. Without this issue to unify the working Republicans with the Plutocrat Republicans, factions of the Party might discover Populism. Tax cuts for the rich might no longer be possible.

The Bear at the Bearcave

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