What's right with Kansas.

Author:Nuechterlein, James
Position:What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America - Book Review


By Thomas Frank Metropolitan 306 pp. $24.

The outcome of last November's election was a long time in the making. It is clear, in the easy wisdom of hindsight, that the Democratic Party's descent into its present minority status began more than thirty-five years ago. Starting with Richard Nixon's narrow capture of the White House in 1968, Republicans have won seven of ten presidential elections. (They had lost seven of the previous nine.) More significantly in terms of party standing, their marginal pickups in the House and Senate that year presaged their eventual emergence by the 1990s as the majority party in Congress. For those of us who grew up in a political America in which Democrats dominated Congress as a matter of course, it is stunning to note that Democrats are today numerically weaker in the House than they have been since the days of Harry Truman and in the Senate since before the Great Depression.

I cannot claim that I foresaw all this at the time. But there was a small moment that struck me then and that in retrospect grows in significance. It was a few days before the 1968 election, and the polls showed Hubert Humphrey trailing Nixon. Humphrey gave the kind of finishing speech that all Democratic candidates, especially those in trouble, had been giving since the days of Franklin Roosevelt: vote for the Republicans and you're back to unemployment, bread lines, and general economic disaster. In its familiarity, the speech hardly registered with me. But the next morning I ran into a student at the university where I was teaching who was quite perplexed. He was basically of liberal persuasion, but as a child of the prosperous postwar era he was at a loss concerning Humphrey's argument. "What was that stuff about Herbert Hoover all about?" he wondered.

That was for me a revelatory moment. For young people, at least, the Depression no longer mattered, and this had obvious implications for the long-term development of American politics. If memories of the 1930s would no longer determine political outcomes, what would? What we today call cultural issues were not so much at the forefront of political sensibility as they would later be, but Nixon strongly benefited from his "law and order" appeal. Liberals called it a code term for racism, but most Americans, appalled by urban riots and burgeoning crime rates, took it at face value and responded accordingly. That was a foretaste of politics to come. Indeed, foreign-policy issues for the moment aside, it is not too much to say that the Democrats' current electoral dilemma boils down to this: their old economic issues no longer work, and on cultural issues they lose. That very large generalization requires extensive unpacking and elaboration.

We might begin by recasting policy differences in a more general context. It is commonly noted that in any argument the side that determines the terms of debate is already well on the road to victory. And the fact is that on all the big questions Republicans currently have the initiative and Democrats must do the best they can playing defense. For most of the middle to early-late years of the twentieth century, matters were reversed. On economic issues, the Republicans were the "me too" party: they would, in the aftermath of the New Deal, do all the good things the Democrats did, only more efficiently and less intrusively. Now, after Ronald Reagan rewrote the rules of political debate, it's backwards: the Democrats find themselves promising to follow Republican market initiatives, only with more heart and less human cost. Liberals don't like it, but they have learned to agree, rhetorically at least, with Bill Clinton's famous declaration that "the era of big government is over."

So also with cultural issues. The degree to which moral and cultural differences determined last November's results is hotly debated, but everyone agrees that to the extent that they did matter, they overwhelmingly helped the Republicans. Liberals find it necessary to deny recurring suspicions that they are antinomians, moral relativists, and secularists set on removing religious values from the public square. Their discomfort with cultural issues is reflected in their protests that matters such as partial-birth abortion, school prayer, or same-sex marriage are not proper items for political debate; they are rather "wedge issues" that conservatives illegitimately bring into the public arena in order to divide the nation (read: in order to cost Democrats votes). A party whose response to a whole category of issues is to say, in effect, "we'd rather not talk about it," is a party that has allowed the opposition to flame the terms of discussion.

The Democrats' current political dilemma has hardly gone unnoticed. One influential, if controversial, take on it, Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, gained a lot of attention before the election, and its thesis has been widely referred to (if not always with proper attribution) since. As his subtitle indicates, Frank believes that what's the matter with Kansas is what's the matter with America. And what's the matter with America (at least on domestic issues; he does not discuss foreign policy) is almost everything.

Frank's thesis is that all across the nation--especially in the so-called red states--millions of impoverished or relatively impoverished Americans are voting and acting contrary to their genuine interests. They are unhappy with developments in America, but rather than direct their anger against the corporate economic powers that are doing them dirt, they have instead been diverted to conservative cultural issues--race, crime, moral decay, homosexuality, guns, abortion, feminism, anti-Americanism, and on into infinity--that are largely irrelevant to their lives. Worse, in allying themselves with conservative interests, people at and near the bottom wind up supporting economic causes--privatization, low taxes, deregulation--that objectively do them harm.

No one can say that in presenting his endlessly repeated thesis, Frank is guilty of excessive subtlety. American politics, in his view, has gone beyond the irrational to the demented: "People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests."

Out of this "derangement," Frank says, has come a "Great Backlash," a movement of self-deluded conservative populism that in the end "may well repeal the entire twentieth century." Frank offers a description of his home state and its politics that, applied to the nation, is apparently meant to terrify us all.

In its implacable bitterness Kansas holds up a mirror to the rest of us. If this is the place where America goes looking for its national soul, then...

To continue reading