on July 19, 2004
I've already reviewed this book, in a sense; my glowing blurb appears on the back cover. Here's a review of the conservative reviewers, from George Will and the New York Times Book Review essayist to the folks on Amazons.
They make an astonishing concession: they grant Tom Frank's main point. He argues that the Republicans have nothing to offer working people on ECONOMIC TERMS. The conservatives don't seem to disagree. They only argue that the Republicans are worth voting for on cultural terms alone, and seek to demonstrate that this is a legitimate way to vote.
This is new. Conservatives used to argue that they had the most to offer ordinary Americans ECONOMICALLY--and ALSO culturally. Now, on economics, they've simply given up. They've tacitly admitted that, for lower income folks at least, cultural conservatism is the party's sole appeal. A sad day for conservatism, and certainly evidence of its political decline.
And of course none of the conservative reviews can deal with the fact that the cultural battles the Republicans choose are bottomless unwinnable sinkholes. That's why I describe conservatives as having punk'd a nation: they offer their voters nothing in return but therapy.
on July 16, 2004
How can it be that substantial segments of the working class have become the allies of elite market conservatives in a largely successful drive to turn the American political system to the right, where government is held to be, at best, undesirable. That is what Thomas Frank seeks to understand. There is no economic rationale to this confluence; it is a subjective, value-driven phenomenon. It seems as though many working people have been subtly persuaded by elites that they must defend or establish a set of values supposedly not shared by morally challenged liberals. But elevating personal values as the chief concern of politics seems to be contrary to American tradition. Call it what you will, value or principle, but the foremost idea of the American founding was a profound belief in freedom: to make all manner of personal choices in life, to participate in self-government, and to be free from subtle and overt coercion from powerful public and private entities. It was a clear rejection of old-world aristocratic and church control of society. Instead, the nation was seen to rest on virtuous, engaged small, independent producers and farmers.
However, as the author points out, it was precisely the slippage of that ideal that spurred the populist movement of the 1890s in Kansas and throughout the South and West. A largely farming population saw the power of large business interests to control prices and to influence the federal government to maintain hard currency policies as destructive of a way of life as independent produces. They advocated for substantial governmental intervention in the economy to combat this loss of freedom. As the author notes, it was a movement of "producers versus parasites." Later, the labor movement became a powerful force in American industry in the post-WWII era precisely because it gave workers at least some voice in their economic destiny, if only over wages and benefits. By 1950, nearly four in ten private sector workers belonged to unions.
Why did the farmers and factory workers of fifty to one hundred years ago not disparage the Progressives, or liberal elites in today's lexicon, who largely drove the sweeping changes of the first half of the twentieth century that curtailed the most significant abuses of large businesses? The author hints at the answer: republicanism, or the philosophy that emphasized the virtues of free producers, still dominated the thinking of most people. Progressive actions were seen as preserving freedoms and not as imposing unwanted values. But "producerism" was already giving way to an entirely new focus. The working class was subtly being persuaded through a massive expansion of advertising in an ever-consolidating mass media that becoming consumers in free markets now defined a good life. Forget the fact that workplace regimes were inhospitable and bastions of control; the opportunity to freely indulge in materiality was touted as more than an adequate replacement for any losses in job satisfaction. Most conveniently for elites, the new vocabulary of markets hid the old hierarchy of capitalists and workers. Now buyers and sellers are seen as essentially equal in the marketplace regardless of differences in resources and actual power to impact markets.
The rise of consumerism and the notion that markets are free and neutral, devoid of power dynamics, aligns perfectly with business interests. Intrusions into the marketplace, such as environmental regulations or labor standards, are now held to be harmful to consumers, as well as businesses. It is routinely suggested that policy makers, now derisively referred to as liberal elites, must have some kind of un-American agenda to interfere with the making, selling, and buying of goods in free markets. Taxes, which fund these specious depredations on the marketplace, are accordingly cut. But a critique of liberal elites based solely on economics is not sufficiently motivating to spur enough voters to support the business agenda. The policies and judgments of liberals, either in or out of government, are now attacked as evidence of a deficiency in morality. With this demonization of liberals, a powerful voting alliance is formed.
Liberal respect and policy implementation for such measures as reproductive freedom, the exclusion of religious symbols from public life, alternative lifestyles, artistic expression, and actual equal opportunity are cast as morally reprehensible intrusions into ordinary lives. This view is pandered to and exacerbated by business elites through think tanks and the media, especially talk radio. But the author shows that it is a cynical position. It is a fact that many business elites share the same cultural background and tastes, as do liberal elites. In addition, it is large corporations that package and sell much of the culture that the working class finds so offensive. But these contradictions go unnoticed. The unrelenting demonization of liberals neatly obscures the tremendous economic costs that the working class has incurred in the new laissez-faire economy. A further irony is that while the business agenda achieves legislative success, the shrill values' debate is relegated to secondary status after elections.
The author clearly shows that Kansans should be concerned about the loss of good-paying industrial jobs and the squeezing of family farmers by large agri-business concerns. The rate of unionization has plunged to less than one in ten private sector workers, mostly under Republican administrations. While some modern Kansans express a desire to simply be left alone, that is wishful thinking. The Kansan economy is being drastically eroded right from under their feet. Their economy has truly become "at will" - the unilateral will of large corporations.
The author is best at detailing this puzzling phenomenon. His explanations are perhaps less clear, though still quite edifying. Conservatives contend that it is they that uphold cherished American values. But the U.S. has, for the most part, been a liberal society, intent on preserving the most freedom for the most people. The argument could easily be made that it is liberals, or liberal-minded people, that are the truest representatives of what has traditionally been best about American society.
on July 16, 2004
Frank writes well and assembles some interesting profiles, but he also makes some assumptions typical of certain folks on the left -- mainly, that they know what is better for the "working class" than the working class itself does. He's also banking that his readers will share some erroneous assumptions, based on incomplete or incorrection information, about Kansas.
Never mind the fact that many people -- of all political stripes -- vote for reasons other than pure economic self-interest. But even the economic reality of Kansas is distorted. For example, an earlier reviewer from IL implies Kansas is poor, but Illinois had a 6.4 percent unemployment rate in May; Kansas' was 4.7, almost a point lower than the national rate. Median household income in Kansas is at the national average (2001-2002), while the cost of living is moderate-to-low, depending on exact location, and it costs less to send your kids to college in Kansas than in all but four states -- and they are more likely to graduate than the national average. Only 9 states have a smaller percentage of households living in poverty. We have our problems, but how is that not a pretty good outcome for Kansas -- and particularly the working class that Frank addresses?
on July 19, 2004
What struck me when I read this book was a feature article the New York Times did a half dozen or so years ago where a writer equated Christians as being uneducated and backwards. Something that is so totally false its almost laughable for its obvious ignorance as a statement and exposure of the authors preconceived, non-researched bias.
Same with this book. He seems more upset that his fellow Kansasians (?)march to a different drummer, or are more patriotic and actually believe in a God and attend worship services. He completely ignores the fact Kansas has some well respected universities and that the standard of living and quality of life is far superior to the élitist areas he prefers.
I am a proud Californian whose family has been here since the 1860's so I am not reading What's the Matter with Kansas as a disgruntled Kansasian but as someone who has traveled the United States enough and love the mid west and its values which are a lot like here in the Mother Lode of California where American flags fly from home porches, where prayer before meals is a habit, and where proud to be an American comes easily off ones tongue. And he admits in interviews that "Kansas" is a metaphor for the U.S.A. He has noted that today Kansas is the sort of place where the angry, suspicious world view typified by Fox News or the books of Ann Coulter is a common part of everyday life. Seems he is mad that what he sells isn't being bought.
He also seems bent out of shape that the folks of Kansas (and in my opinion anyone who isn't of his ilk) don't consider FDR a God, and perhaps value eating dinner together, marriages that last, hot dogs, baseball and Moms apple pie. He seems to detest the free enterprise system and the fact that someone may want to make an honest living and GASP get wealthy doing so. To bad he doesn't look to a neighboring state where Warren Buffet one of the countries wealthiest members lives. He wants the reader to believe that Republicans almost never act in the economic interest of the working class, while completely ignoring the documented facts that small business make up the majority of market producing jobs and that it has been the conservatives and Republicans in general who have fought to help the small business owners. He obviously doesn't read the Chamber of Commerce publications.
He also wants the reader to believe that Republicans accomplish little on the cultural front. I suspect he hates Mel Gibson and loves Michael Moore. Well I'm a Republican and I have been on local library and cultural arts commissions and have fought like the other Republicans and conservative Democrats who served with me to better fund the library and arts programs and to great success, due in large part to local small businesses. So the author is full of hot air on this subject!
And talk about talking down to or being holier than thou, he uses words like lunatics and deranged to describe good honest middle Americans who don't happen to agree with what he preaches. Talk about needing to be pushed off his pedestal, the man is an egomaniac in my opinion. To full of himself as my mid-west in-laws would say.
The author also snivels at the fact that the folks of Kansas and most (in my opinion) all American towns and states, don't want his way of life or beliefs. Sorta reminds me of the ivory tower types who don't like the fact that 'we' outside their sheltered domains, don't agree that America is bad, marriage is bad, or that telling the truth is good, and being grateful for each new day is enough.
The book in my opinion is nothing more than sour grapes. Sour grapes that those who don't buy his faulty logic and theories are willing to say so and walk away. Oddly enough as he denounces middle American values and the good old American buck, yet he himself doesn't seem to turned off to hawk his book and make a hefty return himself. In my family his type is called a hypocrite.
What's the Matter With Kansas?, comes from a famous 1896 essay by William Allen White.
on July 18, 2004
First off, I ask readers who claim genuine objectivity to check out the excellent review of this book in National Review's June 28, 2004 edition (p48). NR is definitely the conservative stalwart's publication, but I found the review to be a fair assessment (read the final paragraph as proof). Once I read Mr. Frank's book, I had a better understanding of the angle he was coming from (bent considerably to the left). When finished, I came away with this: he's ticked off that the dumb masses of Kansas have been duped into having the nerve to hold values (God, Pro-Life, Gun Protection) that are diametrically opposed to the Democrats, and even though the Republican Party appeals to a Kansan's values, the fact that poor people could vote Republican is ridiculous, and strange at best. And so someone like Mr. Frank, who is canted towards the Marxist ideal, will never understand why Americans with lower incomes would ever vote Republican. Because, how economically useless are 'values?'
I think the voting trend makes sense, for this one simple reason: Marxists/Leftists/Socialists/Liberals/Democrats - WHATEVER their current disguise du jour - thrive on the poor and disaffected, and utterly depend on their vote. This despite the fact that most of the Donkey Party politicos were born, bought into, or stole fabulous wealth (Kerry+Edwards = over $1 bil in personal wealth; what an emotional tie they must have to their constituents!). Yet, c'mon people, poor folk DON'T WANT TO BE POOR!! The American demand for independence transcends one's yearly net income. Yet even Mr. Frank's book title hints at his impatience with independent thought ("Don't you all get it? Are you that stupid?" - what a compelling technique for unity!) Rather than lament, as he does, the question of why in hell would the poor vote overwhelmingly Republican, a better question might be to ask which party's polices will help one the most in the long run.
Without the poor and dependent, the Democrat's days of influence would end abruptly, since once a voter has gained economic independence (read: freedom) through private wealth, Republican policies traditionally are more attractive (granted, their record here is weakening with each new Fiscal Year). Democrat policies are by far a greater drain on the middle and upper class than Republican. Mr. Frank spends hundreds of pages denying this truism, yet voting records don't lie (but fat bearded 'documentarists' do). Without the poor, Dems would be homeless. So why would they ever support policies that help people create wealth and independence? Such policies would be political suicide for leftists.
Human nature will always seek freedom, it's in our genetic and spiritual makeup; therefor the policies (fiscal, educational, even spiritual) Mr. Frank evidently holds dear in his compelling yet flawed "What's The Matter With Kansas" will always, ultimately, fail.
Still a worthy book to peruse if you can get it for free.
on July 17, 2004
Tom Frank was born and bred in America's heartland, growing up in the prairie state of Kansas. He ventured off to Chicago in pursuit of an education in political science and secured a doctorate from the University of Chicago, one of the land's leading academic institutions.
Something puzzled Frank greatly about the state where he grew up and the prairie land of his roots in general, and once he had the knowledge under his belt from all that hard work securing his doctorate in Chicago he returned home in an attempt to resolve the doubt in his mind. What puzzled the bright young guy from America's prairie land was the rigidly inflexible voting pattern of support for Republican conservatives.
The reason for Frank's puzzlement was that this was an area where the economy had gone into the tank, where farmers were losing their properties as swiftly and frequently as the wind blew, and scarcely anybody else appeared to be doing much if any better. Frank discovered the reason was that the Republicans had taken control of the social issues, which assumed preeminence in the minds of the voters as opposed to bread and butter economic issues. The irony, according to Frank, is that the issues successfully backed by cultural conservatives to sway prairie voters do not figure to ever secure adoption. Frank does not expect prayer in the schools to become a reality. He feels the same about former Alabama Justice Moore's effort to place a Christian religious statue on the public property of the state capitol. In Franks's view, it is the effort that counts with voters, just as long as the cultural conservatives properly showcase their efforts, making it appear they are giving their all on behalf of their causes.
Another irony cited by Frank is that on one issue where Democrats could possibly have established potentially successful separation from Republicans was in the area of international trade, one that is a sore point what with many Kansans losing jobs as a result of such trade policies. Instead, he ruefully notes, the Clinton administration took a pro-NAFTA stance, losing a golden opportunity to make headway in Republican prairie states.
Frank states that the sole area of his current political focus is with economic issues. He urges progressive Democrats to tailor them more to the home spun folks of the nation's heartland, as well as to make a case pointing out the importance of bread and butter issues as opposed to focusing on cultural matters that will never be implemented into law.
on July 17, 2004
It's very interesting to see the book's detractors on this forum, many of whom have clearly not read it, saying *exactly* the things Frank predicts they will, as if from a familiar, shopworn script.
I agree with the reviewer who said that the key to this problem is that many of these voters have been convinced that social issues are more important than economic ones. Contrary to what others have insinuated, it's not that these individuals disagree with progressives on economic issues, but that they are goaded into thinking that whether they are able to own an AK-47 is more important than whether they will be able to afford a life-saving operation for their sick child. A healthy, well-educated child will grow up empowered and less likely to want or need that AK-47, and that's the connection that is critical, but difficult, to make.
Frank implies the answer to this problem while not tackling it explicitly. It is combatting the anti-intellectual, anti- "elitist" rhetoric, repeated again and again and drummed into the brain, that soon overshadows everything else. We can see it aped right here in this forum, by people who think that living in the Northeast or buying a hybrid car automatically makes you an elite, while the true elites undermine others' ability to make it on a level playing field and then laugh all the way to the bank. It is not about big vs. small government, it is about government (of whatever size) privileging the haves at the expense of the have nots.
Excellent, thoughtful, insightful book.
on July 16, 2004
As a lefty myself, I was emotionally drawn into this book. I have thought long and hard about how regular, so-called "conservative" people could become so riddled with opposing views. Conservatives want the government out of their lives, unless it has to do with prayer and sex; then they want an aggressive theocracy. Conservatives want small government, unless it's weapons; then the more the merrier. They call for personal responsibility, unless it's the president leading us into a bogus war; then it's okay to pass the buck onto the CIA.
Frank fleshes out the biggest whopper of them all: how can people who detest the "elite" continually vote for the richest, most powerful corporate chieftans, who then turn around and wreak havoc on the very communities that conservatives say they care about? And Frank's answer is right on target. Republicans strip the economics out of everything and run on the culture-war ticket. They promise an overturn of Roe-v.-Wade, but then deliver a capital gains tax cut for billionaires. And the rubes eat it up because the Dems have abondoned working-class constituents to chase corporate dollars like their more well-heeled GOP brethren.
This is best book I have read so far on the psyche of the conservative rank and file. Well worth the money.
on July 16, 2004
I got clued in to this book when I read a recent column of Nicholas Kristof's in the New York Times that mentioned it. I picked it up expecting the ultimate expose on how conservatives have managed to con the working class to vote for them. The book is a great read, chock-full of detailed stories about Kansas political life and all sorts of colorful figures. I'm really impressed at the close-up detailed work that Frank has done: attending charismatic church services, interviewing locals, connecting the past 150 years of Kansan history with current trends. I certainly came away from the book with (a) a better understanding of Kansas; (b) a better understanding of right-wing politics; (c) a lot of good stories to tell people (the self-elected Pope comes to mind...).
Where the book doesn't quite deliver as well is in its central thesis. The main question: why do working-class Americans in the Midwest consistently vote conservative, against their economic interests? Frank certainly provides ample evidence that they ARE indeed voting against their economic interests. He also argues, convincingly, that they're really voting on "cultural" issues like abortion, gun control, school prayer, evolution in classes (as opposed to the richer moderate Republicans who vote on economic issues). But he doesn't explain the following question. If the ground-level politics of Kansas have inverted over the past hundred years, then something must have persuaded the everyday working-class voter that voting on "culture" is more important than voting on economics. What was it that persuaded them? Franks never really answers this question. And that's what I want to know!
on July 14, 2004
Thomas Frank makes the classic liberal-elite blunder, that is, anyone who buys into the conservative message is an idiot and a victim. If Frank was not so blinded by his own 'moral' and 'intellectual' superiority, and his fixation on 'economic' issues, he might be able to see that the Democratic Party -- the party that (literally) ruled our nation for 40 or 50 consecutive years -- has been corrupted by cultural immorality. It was no coincidence that the Republican Party took over during the early years of the Clinton administration. I, for example, was a lifelong Democrat (like my Father and Grandfather before me), and I voted for Clinton in 1992; but within the next couple of years I began to realize that the Democratic Party had become morally bankrupt -- that there was no longer any room in the party for social conservatives. In 1996 I voted against Clinton (and the Democratic Party), and I will continue to campaign and vote against Democrats (and liberal Republicans), until hell freezes over if that what it takes, until this nation's moral integrity is restored. Forget your 'economic' message, Frank. My soul is not for sale. I recommend this book only because it provides good insight into the clueless mindset of a classic liberal-elitist.