Sunday, November 28, 2004

Is Anything the Matter With Kansas?
My father passed along a copy of Thomas Frank's very popular new book, What's the Matter With Kansas?, which, judging from his slot in the New York Times Book Review this week, has catapulted him into the mainstream punditocracy. For liberals aching to understand how George W. Bush could possibly have been returned to the White House, this isn't a bad place to start.

Frank's thesis is fairly simple -- modern conservatism is 19th-century populism in reverse. It harnesses cultural anger and resentment toward an imagined "liberal elite" to serve the economic interests of the upper class. It is thus a movement beset by a terrible, but mostly unseen paradox, in that working stiffs all over the country are voting for politicians who promise to ban abortion and gay marriage, but ultimately end up cutting income taxes and abolishing the estate tax. People in Kansas, and by extension the rest of America, are voting against their clear economic self-interest in order to advance a culture-war agenda foisted upon them by the likes of Jerry Falwell and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. Frank focuses almost exclusively on the politics of Kansas, his home state, along with a few choice conservative authors and public figures, like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and David Brooks. He also bears a pretty mean grudge against the Democratic Leadership Council -- the DLC -- and Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Gary Hart, among others.

In his portrayal of the Kansas "Cons" (as opposed to the Rockefeller Republican "Mods"), Frank's analysis is priceless, detailing for his audience any number of small-town loons and dreamers, from state politician and anti-evolution crusader Kay O'Connor to a man who had himself elected as the pope to protest the Vatican's capitulation to liberalism. And though he doesn't offer us much in the way of statistical evidence, he paints a pretty compelling portrait of a state in both demographic and economic decline. Like many of the states of the Midwest and Great Plains, more people are leaving Kansas than arriving, in large part because its small towns have been devastated by the decline in small farms and businesses, which Frank argues have been replaced by Wal-Mart and corporate agriculture. It is not a pretty picture, and Frank ends the book by depressingly hinting that Kansas-style politics may soon be coming to a multi-plex near you, since trends in his home state often metastasize and infect the rest of the country.

The primary trouble that Frank is going to run into is that he assumes his economic predilections are no-brainers. He writes:

For decades Americans have experienced a popular uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas, we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistably against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes."

I'd be the last person on Earth (well, ok, maybe not the last) to defend GOP economic policy, which some respected experts believe is leading to "economic armageddon", but Frank has to acknowledge that there are aspects of conservative economic philosophy which appeal to the working classes, and which tie in to the party's appeal to the masses against the arrogant liberal elite. This idea of the government taking your taxes and sending it to "government schools" and radical artists, to "welfare queens" and tax cheats, is rather powerful stuff, moreso than Frank would like to acknowledge. And if you buy into the supply-side philosophy, there isn't so much of a disconnect, of a Marxist "false consciousness" aspect, to working-class support for the Republicans, than the author might like to imagine. People, in general, don't like paying taxes, both because most Americans don't fully understand all the services that government (often silently) performs, and because one party or the other is always telling them it's unjust.

Frank's book would be much, much stronger, if he took this argument head-on instead of pretending that it either doesn't exist, or else is so patently false as to be obvious to any right-thinking observer. I happen to believe that progressive taxation is just and productive, and that the lower and middle classes get much, much more back from their taxes than they put in, but this isn't something that goes without saying. Likewise, the case against free trade is far from clear, as is the case against Wal-Mart and corporate farming. I hate Wal-Mart and I'll never set foot in one of them, and I'm also not much for corporate farms, but to most Americans, these are just devices to make the goods they buy cheaper and more widely and conveniently available. If Frank is going to undermine these notions, he has to make the case, with statistics, stories, and logic -- of the same quality and scope that he applies to the many diseases of Kansas politics. Without them, his book is just a polemic -- an entertaining and worthwhile one, but a polemic just the same.


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