What's the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank

frank_whats.jpgThe recent election dramatically renewed my interest in politics, an interest that had been relatively dormant for quite some time. Even when I was attuned to the political world, it was usually limited to a breaking news, current events level of attention. But the recent campaign season had me wanting to dig deeper, think harder about politics in this country. That's why I am about four years late in reading Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, which made big waves in the lead-up to President Bush's re-election. A native of Kansas, Frank's basic quest in the book was to understand how working class people from the heartland, once the radical supporters of John Brown and 19th-century leftist populism, became reliable Republican voters.

His thesis is that Republican politicians perfected the art of cultural warfare, convincing white, working class Americans to vote their outrage about sex, drugs, and rock & roll (and abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, evolution, etc) above their economic self-interest. In the mean time, Democratic politicians ceded the leftist economic agenda in favor of pro-business centrism, thus giving working class people no economic reason to favor Democrats any longer. Thus the Wall Street Republicans obtain working class votes, proceed to cut their own taxes and lower economic regulations that favor their own interests, and suffer no harm at the ballot box:

For decades Americans have experienced a populist 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 irresistibly 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 millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes."

Frank also addresses the conundrum of why these working class voters harbor no resentment that, in addition to their economic interests being flushed, they also seem to make no progress on the cultural front. After all, in the long view, how much progress has been made in the restoration of school prayer, the end of legal abortion, and the suppression of gay rights? Virtually none. Yet they keep giving their vote to the Wall Street Republicans:

As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal. Indignation is the privileged emotion, the magic moment that brings a consciousness of rightness and a determination to persist.

Can there be a better example of this than the late campaign of Senator McCain and Governor Palin? These two brought the reductionist culture wars to a new level, and Palin virtually personifies the concept of indignant anti-intellectualism. It is Christians that are oppressed, Real America that is under attack, and it is some hazy, mysterious, socialist, effeminate, arugula-loving liberal elite that is to blame.

The book's strength lies in Frank's anecdotal journeys through the modern Kansas landscape, such as the travails of once-proudly unionized Wichita, or the rise of conservative Republicans like Sam Brownback and the battle between these "Cons" and the "Mods," the old-school Republicans of the country-club variety. But these anecdotes are all Frank really offers to support his thesis. You won't see any charts in this book, no detailed statistical analysis. At the time it was published, though, the thesis was ready made for Democrats frustrated at a series of unsuccessful elections, and it gained even greater currency with Bush's re-election, attributed by some to Karl Rove's leveraging of anger about gay marriage into Republican votes in Ohio.

Frank's critics, however, say he simply has his facts wrong, and that as nice as the story sounds anecdotally, it doesn't hold up empirically. At the forefront has been Princeton political science professor Larry Bartels, whose lengthy rebuttal challenged a number of Frank's conclusions. Bartels raised the issue again this spring, in the context of Barack Obama's comments about bitter voters clinging to guns and religion (a seeming endorsement of the Frank thesis):

It is true that American voters attach significantly more weight to social issues than they did 20 years ago. It is also true that church attendance has become a stronger predictor of voting behavior. But both of those changes are concentrated primarily among people who are affluent and well educated, not among the working class.

Mr. Obama's comments are supposed to be significant because of the popular perception that rural, working-class voters have abandoned the Democratic Party in recent decades and that the only way for Democrats to win them back is to cater to their cultural concerns. The reality is that John Kerry received a slender plurality of their votes in 2004, while John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, in the close elections of 1960 and 1968, lost them narrowly.

Mr. Obama should do as well or better among these voters if he is the Democratic candidate in November. If he doesn't, it won't be because he has offended the tender sensitivities of small-town Americans. It will be because he has embraced a misleading stereotype of who they are and what they care about.

Well the President-elect certainly won a resounding victory, doing better than any Democratic candidate since LBJ. So who was right? If Frank's thesis is correct, than Obama's victory requires some explanation of how this Democrat turned things around. One possibility is that Obama's victory does not reflect gained support amongst the white working class, but simply the decreasing importance of that bloc with the growth of minority voters and Obama's overwhelming youth appeal. Another possibility is that the economic crisis was severe enough to shock voters back toward their own self-interest, and caused Democrats to re-embrace the economic rhetoric that had been abandoned by the centrists. The latter is Frank's own thesis, which he published in an editorial the day after the election:

Acknowledging class was always difficult for "New Democrats" -- it was second-wave, it was divisive -- but 2008 made retro politics cool again. Watching the Dow get hacked down, seeing the investment banking industry collapse, hearing about the lavish rewards won by the corporate officers who brought this ruin down on us -- all these things combined to make a certain Depressionesque fury the unavoidable flavor of the year. When your mortgage is under water and your neighbors are being laid off, the need to take up the sword against arrogant stem-cell scientists becomes considerably less urgent.

He also suggests that McCain and Palin's over-the-top red meat appeal may have been counterproductive ("a flamboyant pantomime, grotesquely exaggerated in each of its parts"), though whether it has done permanent damage to the tactic is yet to be seen.

The other possibility, of course, is that Frank was wrong in the first place, that Democrats don't have a particular problem with the white working class, and that Obama's sweeping victory demonstrates his across the board appeal, unrestrained by the particular quirks of the Frank focus group. It will likely take a few more election cycles before we can make any kind of firm conclusions. Any single campaign has too many variables, from the quality of the candidates to the campaigns they ran to the question of incumbent effects, and on and on. But I'm sure Frank and/or Bartels will be back with more, soon enough.