June 27, 2004


Cashing In on Culture Wars, The Right Marches On: a review of What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Frank (Kevin Canfield, NY Observer)

Mr. Frank’s thesis goes like this: American conservatives have spent the last few decades orchestrating the "carefully cultivated derangement of places like Kansas," the author’s native state. With its dark brilliance for inciting moral outrage among the working and middle classes—the very people who are hurt when the G.O.P.’s economic programs favor the rich—the right has minted a generation "of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in Midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life …. "

It is, in Mr. Frank’s words, a right-wing "backlash" against the liberal establishment, and its grip on the nation’s heartland—the "red states" on the electoral maps—helped to assure the election of George W. Bush. [...]

Mr. Frank traces the recent rightward tilt of Kansas politics to 1991, when conservatives throughout the Midwest were galvanized by the so-called Summer of Mercy, a series of acts of civil disobedience meant to prevent abortions. The local authorities handed victory to the protesters when they encouraged abortion clinics to close for a full week—an act that, to some pro-lifers, "represented a bona fide miracle." The pro-life movement finally had something to show for its efforts: "This was where the Kansas conservative movement got an idea of its own strength; this was where it achieved critical mass."

Emboldened to press on other issues—school curricula, farm deregulation, changes in the tax structure—conservatives have pushed states across the Midwest ever further to the right. Consider Kansas: Today its two Senators, Mr. Brownback and Pat Roberts, are among the most conservative lawmakers in Washington, and in 2000 Mr. Bush won the state by a greater margin than native son Bob Dole did in ’96.

The proof of the right’s real genius is not getting power in the Midwest, but keeping it. It has done so, Mr. Frank writes, through the "systematic erasure of the economic." In other words, conservatives have amped up the volume on cultural matters while ignoring the fiscal well-being of the working and middle classes. Preoccupied by the abortion debate or the fight against the teaching of evolution in public schools, Kansans, Mr. Frank argues, ignore what the government might do to help their pocketbooks. Instead, many vote with a mind toward fixing our land’s "crisis of the soul."

"Out here," Mr. Frank reports, "the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, farther to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the C.E.O., and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower."

One would like to think this is self-parody, but apparently not. You can probably search all of human history and not find any nation at any time that has enjoyed a better economic run--from the top to the bottom of the society--than the U.S., has over the past twenty years, but especially since we won the Cold War in 1991. It has been a period of high economic growth, real wage growth, minimal unemployment, low taxes, zero inflation, etc. and at the end of the day the American people have a staggering net worth of over $45 trillion. Now, Mr. Frank and Mr. Canfield are right that in order to achieve the massive financial gains of this epoch it was necessary to demonize and destroy the nostrums of the Left--unionism, nationalization, population control, Darwinism, etc.--but it was those ideas that gave us the '70s and the Europeans their dying society. Yet they can't figure out why the gravitational pull of our nation is towards the Right?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2004 2:08 PM

To a committed leftist, there can be no debate, no other side of the argument. If you disagree with them, you are simply wrong. Since conservatism represents many of these "wrong" methods of governance, the success of the last few decades occurred in spite of this rightward shift that they perceive. Yet to anyone with another worldview, this article indeed reads like parody.

Posted by: Michael Gersh at June 27, 2004 2:32 PM

There is a distinction that leftists don't get. There are basically two ways that people can become wealthy. One is to produce goods, services, information, or ideas that others value, and voluntarily contract with you to provide. A second is to appropriate wealth from others who already have it. When government provides legal frameworks to promote contracts and enterprise, it helps currently wealthy people but also helps people who are not now wealthy but could become so more easily through this framework. When government restricts competition or makes sweetheart deals with pals with taxpayers' money, it helps certain currently wealthy people, but hurts people who are not wealthy. Speaking overly broadly, folks in Kansas like the first, not the second.

Posted by: at June 27, 2004 5:09 PM

How does destroying Darwinism facilitate economic growth?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 27, 2004 8:48 PM

If Mr. Frank truly believes that Kansas only became conservative and Republican after 1991, then he must have lived in a Kansas other than the one I am a native son of. After all this is the state that gave us John Brown, Alf Landon, and prohibition.

Posted by: MB at June 27, 2004 9:07 PM

I also like how this guy parachutes in from a place like Washington, DC, where billions in government programs have bought absolutely nothing (except bad schools, busted-up families, etc.) and then seeks to pass judgment on those stupid Kansans who have a functional economy and society.

Posted by: Melissa at June 28, 2004 12:36 AM

I don't know specific figures, but does the 80's-90's growth period really beat the post-WWII era that lasted until the late sixties?

That era had high unionism and spectacular growth, especially for the working and middle class. Something the 80's and early 90's lacked. Only under Clinton's 2nd term did we see real income growth for lower income Americans.

If I'm wrong, seeing the real figures are always appreciated.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at June 28, 2004 3:28 AM

Chris - Yes, recent growth rates are much higher than '50s-60s growth. 4% vs 2% per year.

Posted by: pj at June 28, 2004 8:13 AM

I don't know any white person that would be
generally categorized as "working-class" that thinks in terms of "working-class interests". I guess it must be more than just
Kansas that suffers from this psychosis.

Actually based on the general performance of
religious schools and overall income levels
of chuchgoers religious conservatives must
not be totally ignorant of economic matters.

The truth is a conservative society can have SOME DEGREE of all of the following, "unions, anti-trust and public ownership" and still
eschew affirmative action, extreme environmentalism, abortion and radical leftism
in general.

Posted by: J.H. at June 28, 2004 9:09 AM

And one assumes you only know white people, there on the compound.

Posted by: oj at June 28, 2004 9:17 AM

"Carefully cultivated derangement" is a terrific phrase.

Though I think the author's attention ought to be directed to derangement of another kind.

Clearly, he's "not in Kansas, anymore."

(But one wonders with bated breath whether "I'm Deranged, You're Deranged" will be the book that captures the soul of the new millenium....)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 28, 2004 11:01 AM

It's the twenty-first century, and they still haven't come up with a better rationalization than "false consciousness"?

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at June 28, 2004 12:02 PM