Sunday, October 10, 2004


Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? is a book I'd been looking forward to reading for quite a while. Its topic, proclaimed in its subtitle--How Conservatives Won the Heart of America--is a crucial one, and the excerpt I read in Harper's looked good. In fact, I was so eager to read it that I wound up paying a dollar to rent the library's rental copy. Upon reading it, though, I was quite disappointed. There is undoubtedly some truth to Frank's thesis, but his presentation of it is both overdrawn and unsupported by evidence.

Briefly, Frank's argument is that what turned the working class conservative is what he calls the "backlash," by which he means not a racial backlash but a cultural backlash. This backlash asserts that the media, universities, and courts are controlled by a liberal elite which sneers at average Americans while claiming that it knows what's best for them better than they do, but which actually works assiduously to undermine and corrupt the heartland, Christian values held by real Americans, thus leading to social chaos. By repeating this claim endlessly, conservatives have successfully diverted the working class's anger at its growing immiseration from its proper target, corporate capitalism, to the supposed liberal elite. But the conservatives succeeded only because of two factors. First, mass culture really is unspeakably vulgar and really does sneer at the working class, though the responsibility for this lies not with any "liberal elite" but with the media's corporate owners. Second, Clinton and the "New Democrats" abandoned the Democratic Party's traditional role of defending the working class's economic interests, thus taking economic issues off the political agenda and leaving the working class with only the cultural realm as an outlet for its justified anger.

Frank is good at mocking this backlash; but he presents no evidence that it is this backlash which caused working-class conservatism, or even that the backlash has affected the working class at all. This lack of evidence is not surprising, as we never see Frank talking to ordinary voters. As far as I can tell from the book, all his interviews are with activists and career politicians. Nor does he have survey data to compensate for this lacuna.

In fact, to the extent that the evidence he collects bears on his thesis, it undermines it rather than supports it. His sole "test case," which makes up the bulk of the book, is the takeover of the Kansas Republican Party by extreme conservatives in the 1990s, and the ensuing civil war within the party between conservatives and moderates. But his account itself makes clear that the force driving Kansas conservatism--or at least its leaders and activists--is fundamentalist Christianity. Frank himself places the origin of the rise of extreme conservatism in Kansas to the campaign of anti-abortion protests in Wichita in the summer of 1991. And again and again in his account, the issues that excite Kansas conservatives--abortion, evolution, school prayer--are those which excite the religious right. In contrast, Frank provides little evidence that Kansas conservatives are particularly worked up about mass culture, except when it supposedly attacks religion or evangelical Christians. Frank doesn't deny the role of religion, but he implicitly, and occasionally explicitly, tries to subsume it within the "backlash." This maneuver is unconvincing, though: while fundamentalism may sometimes speak the language of the backlash, holy righteousness is quite different from wounded working-class pride.

Frank's methodology is questionable as well. Much of his effort is devoted to showing that the conservative faction of the Kansas Republicans is in general less affluent than the moderate faction. But even if this is the case, it doesn't follow that those working-class voters who have switched from Democratic to Republican predominantly identify with the conservative faction. Both the conservative and moderate factions may, and very likely do, consist mainly of people who have always been Republicans.

Frank's principal (and virtually only) foray into quantification illustrates this problem. He picks out several electoral wards in Johnson County which "in comparison to the surrounding county, had relatively low housing values and/or per capita income," and several with "relatively high housing values and/or per capita incomes," and examines the results in these wards of three Republican primaries pitting a moderate and conservative, finding that "the lower-income wards ... generally chose the more conservative Republican candidate, whereas the higher-income wards almost always chose the more moderate candidate" (p. 275, n. 22).

There are a couple of problems with this, aside from Frank's drawing broad conclusions from a single county. In the first place, he doesn't provide any income or housing value statistics for any of these wards, so we don't know if they're working class or not; he admits himself that Johnson County is "considerably wealthier than the rest of Kansas," so the fact that some wards have a lower income relative to the rest of the county means little in itself. More fundamentally, all his test elections are Republican primaries. Those with lower incomes are less likely to vote in primaries; one would expect this effect to be stronger in Republican primaries. And those who have recently switched parties would presumably be even less likely to vote in primaries. So from these electoral results, we can't conclude anything about the conservative faction's working-class support.

Frank's failure, despite his claim, to establish "how conservatives won the heart of America" is the book's main, and crippling flaw. But there are a couple of secondary flaws. Here is Frank's description of mass culture:

"Ordinary working-class people are right to hate the culture we live in. They are right ot feel that they have no power over it, and to notice that it makes them feel inadequate and stupid. The 'Middle Americans,' after all, are the people the ads and the sitcoms and the movies warn us against. The are the prudish preacher who forbids dancing, the dullard husband who foolishly consumes Brand X, the racist dad who beats his kids, the square cowboy who is gunned down by the alternative cowboy, the stifling family life we are supposed to want to escape, the hardhat who just doesn't get it." (133-134)

I am admittedly not up on contemporary mass culture. But, while Frank's description undoubtedly has elements of truth, I suspect that it's overdrawn and one-sided. Is mass culture really so relentlessly anti-"Middle America" as Frank makes out? It seems hard to believe, if only because commercially it would make little sense to write off a large part of one's market. And the implied picture of "ordinary working-class people" here also seems skewed: might not some of these ordinary working-class people actually identify with the kids who just want to rock and roll, rather than the fuddy-duddy parents? There's a distinct resemblance between Frank's picture of humorless, square, upright "ordinary working-class people" and the "two Americas" discourse that Frank rightfully mocks.

Finally, there is Frank's denunciation of the Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council for abandoning economic liberalism, thereby leaving the working class adrift without a party to represent its interests and allowing conservatives to appeal to it on cultural grounds. Frank isn't as simple-minded about this as some leftists, who assert that economic populism is a sure-fire recipe for electoral success which the Democratic Party has inexplicably turned its back on. But his attacks on the DLC still fail to grapple with the inconvenient fact that the only Democrats to have won a Presidential election since 1964 have been in the DLC mold. (And I don't say this out of sympathy with the DLC's positions; I consider myself an economic liberal.) Frank also fails to acknowledge that part of the reason for conservatism's success has been its ability to persuade ordinary Americans--including a substantial portion of the working class--that it would in fact benefit them economically: his index contains no entries for "inflation," "taxes," or "welfare," none of which could be left out from a full account of "how conservatives won the heart of America." (There is an entry for "income tax," which lists four references; but none of these references suggest that working-class people might conceivably dislike paying taxes, just as rich people do.)

In short, What's the Matter with Kansas? is an entertaining book, and one that makes some good points in passing. But it's not the book it claims to be, and it's not the book we need.

Michael Berube (there should be accents over both e's in Berube, but I don't know how to do them) has a series of posts on the book here, here, here, and here, focusing on Frank's stance towards popular culture, which Berube is critical of, though he likes the book as a whole more than I did.

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