Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, Part I

I've finally found time to read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas and I have to say that it's a really great book. I can't recommend it strongly enough, people. First of all, it's very well written. Frank's story of the destruction of agriculture in Kansas reads better than any mystery novel. The book is extremely funny, very well-researched, and beautifully structured.
Using the example of his native state, Kansas, Frank sets out to answer the question that has kept many people puzzled all through the Reagan years and both Bush administrations: why do the people who lose the most when Republicans come to power keep voting Republican? The author analyzes the enigma 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 landsslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life." The strangest part about this is that, somehow, many people have convinced themselves that "they're voting Republican in order to get even with Wall Street." So how did the conservatives manage to reduce their most staunch supporters to this kind of blindness?
The Republicans, says Frank, emptied politics of any economic content and instead filled it up with an endless debate revolving around the issues of culture war. The economic hardship caused to Kansas by the Republican policies produces more rage on the part of the people, rage that can be used to turn them even more conservative: "Strip today's Kkansans of theeir job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and the next thing you know they're protesting in front of abortion clinics." Who cares about the economy, when you can conveniently vent your rage on abortion-promoting homosexuality-loving free-love-extolling snobby Liberals?
The representatives of the religious right see themselves as constant rebels who are engaged in an uprising against thee all-powerful liberal state. They believe that the state remains liberal even when the Republicans take hold of all branches of power and put their representative in the Oval Office. What is it that these rebels demand? "More of the very measures that have brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place."
In order to sustain this political fiction of being lone rebels against the all-powerful liberal machine, the Republicans pick causes that are guaranteed to cause moral outrage but that can never be fully resolved. We can never go back to the kind of gender relations that existed in the 50ies. It's impossible to turn back the clock on the achievements of the movements for civil rights. But that, says Frank, is kind of the whole point: "The issues the Cons emphasize seem all to have been chosen precisely because they are not capable of being resolved by the judicious application of state power." Having no tangible, material results in this endless struggle against the fictitious liberal power is a great thing. It means that the conservatives will be able to provoke and milk the moral outrage of their supporters for a long time to come.
With the popular support of the people they aim to dispossess, the Republicans easily implement any and all policies that end up serving the rich snobs the conservative movement claims to despise: "The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege... They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills... and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. 'We are here,' they scream, 'to cut your taxes.'" Sounds hilarious, doesn't it? When we remember, however, that this is exactly what happened, Frank's narrative becomes a little less funny.
(To be continued...)


Joe said...

"What's the Matter with Kansas?" has been adapted into a documentary feature film, with Thomas Frank's participation. If you're interested check it out at

Clarissa said...

Thank you, Joe. I had no idea there was a documentary. Now I will be on the lookout for it.

Tom Carter said...

Hmmm. I've read about the book, but looks like I'll have to read it. I wonder if there's an argument on the other side?

Clarissa said...

There are many people who disagree with his vision of Kansas. I couldn't say who's right because I've never been there. But the book is so funny, it's a pleasure to read.