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What is the matter with Kansas?
The deranged state of U.S. politics

Review by Joe Allen | October 22, 2004 | Page 13

Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Metropolitan Books, 2004, 320 pages, $24.

IN THE 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush won McPherson County, Neb.--the poorest county in the U.S.--with over 80 percent of the vote.

This wasn't an isolated case. The story of McPherson County is the same for large parts of the Great Plains--particularly the state of Kansas, where industrial decline, the death of family farming and the rise of gigantic agricultural corporations should have led to a rebellion against the rich and powerful.

Instead, it led to a right-wing backlash that has made the rich incredibly richer and allowed the Republican Party (a particularly right-wing, evangelical version of it) to dominate politics through large swaths of the Great Plains. Meanwhile, the people who voted for these right-wing policies--workers, farmers and the declining middle class--are left poorer and angrier than ever before, but still voting Republican.

For Thomas Frank in his new book What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, this is the central mystery of American politics today. It has led to what he calls the "deranged state of American politics," where "people [keep] getting their fundamental interests wrong." Why? To answer this question, Frank takes us on a well-written and lively political and economic tour of his home state of Kansas.

A little over 100 years ago, Kansas had a very different reputation. It was a bastion of the Populist movement, where corporate greed and economic crisis sparked a revolt against the rich and powerful. "Raise more hell, not corn" was the battle cry.

A hundred years later, in the 1990s, came the downfall of the middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans who dominated state politics, and the triumph of the right-wing, evangelical wing of the Republican Party, led by current U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback.

The driving force behind this triumph, for Frank, was not the rich and comfortable of the affluent Kansas City suburbs that he grew up in--it is the working class itself. As he puts it, "It is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters around explosive social issues--summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art--which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends."

The end result of this is that "Kansas has got the hell-raising farmers and the class-conscious workers, all right, but when they come sweeping through the state legislature, clearing out the old guard, what they are demanding is more power for Wall Street, more privatization." The effect of this backlash is not confined to the Great Plains, "This derangement has put the Republicans in charge of all three branches of government," Frank writes. "It shifts the Democrats to the right and then impeaches Bill Clinton just for fun."

While people can learn a lot about the dreadful effect of the anti-abortion movement on state politics and the gut-wrenching changes that globalization has had on agricultural and aircraft industries in Kansas from Frank's book, his belief that working-class people are responsible for the right-wing state of American politics is simply bizarre.

Take, for example, the following passage from Frank's book: "The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant...They are massing at the gates...while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demand. 'We are here,' they scream, 'to cut your taxes.'"

C'mon, can one really believe that working-class people in this country are angry that the rich pay too many taxes?

This is not to say that individuals or small groups of working-class people not only vote Republican but also participate in various conservative campaigns to restore school prayer, criminalize abortion and ban gay marriage. But is this a sign of their "class consciousness," as Frank would argue, or lack of class consciousness--since they are primarily the victims of these Republican-sponsored policies?

There is a tendency in Frank's book to portray issues like abortion, school prayer and other conservative social issues as simply campaign tricks to hide a reactionary, pro-corporate economic agenda. While there is an important element of truth in this, he never really explains why these issues rouse such emotion and can get people to vote against their own interests.

Doesn't any discussion of affirmative action, equal rights for women and gays, or religion in public life raise question about the very way our society is organized, and where individuals see themselves in it? Isn't that why these issues produce such emotional appeal?

Frank infers that if a straightforward class appeal were made on economic issues, it would do away with much of the support for right-wing Republicans. This might be true to some degree. Yet it misses the point. Unless there's a class-based party that fights for the economic interests of the working class and for the rights of the oppressed, the Republicans and the Democrats can keep people voting against their interests.

While Frank's book should be read and debated, it's too bad that it resuscitates some of the silliest stereotypes of working-class people. The emergence of working-class struggle and a class-based political party in the future will do a lot more to cure the deranged state of American politics.

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