excerpts from the book
What's the Matter with Kansas?
How Conservatives Won the Heart
by Thomas Frank
Metropolitan/Owl Books, 2004,
... the Great Backlash [is] a style of conservatism that first
came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying
and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism
emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with
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. And it is these economic achievements-not the forgettable
skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars-that are the movement's
The backlash is what has made possible
the international free-market consensus of recent years, with
all the privatization, deregulation, and deunionization that are
its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue
to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles
fail and their libertarian schemes don't deliver and their "New
Economy" collapses. It makes possible the policy pushers'
fantasies of "globalization" and a free-trade empire
that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance.
Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus
in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines
preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.
The Great Backlash has made the laissez-faire
revival possible, but this does not mean that it speaks to us
in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right
of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the
great chain of being. On the contrary; the backlash imagines itself
as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted,
as a righteous protest of the people on history's receiving end.
That its champions today control all three branches of government
matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest
people on the planet does not give it pause.
In fact, backlash leaders systematically
downplay the politics of economics. The movement's basic premise
is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern-that
Values Matter Most, as one backlash title has it. On those grounds
it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans
of the New Deal to the standard of conservatism. Old-fashioned
values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once
conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they
care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations.
Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state,
reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally
facilitated the country's return to a nineteenth-century pattern
of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the
backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable,
historic harm to working-class people.
The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ,
but they walk corporate. Values may "matter most" to
voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money
once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon,
absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion
is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture
industry is never forced to clean up its act. Even the greatest
culture warrior of them all was a notorious cop-out once it came
time to deliver. "Reagan made himself the champion of 'traditional
values,' but there is no evidence he regarded their restoration
as a high priority," wrote Christopher Lasch, one of the
most astute analysts of the backlash sensibility. "What he
really cared about was the revival of the unregulated capitalism
of the twenties: the repeal of the New Deal.
This is vexing for observers, and one
might expect it to vex the movement's true believers even more.
Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and
mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return
their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth
try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote
to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote
to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization.
Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive
electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs;
receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking.
Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security
privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive
a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever
before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of
power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining. _____
Backlash theorists,(as we shall see) imagine
countless conspiracies in which the wealthy, powerful, and well
connected-the liberal media, the atheistic scientists, the obnoxious
eastern elite-pull the strings and make the puppets dance. And
yet the backlash itself has been a political trap so devastating
to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical
of stringpullers would have had trouble dreaming it up. Here,
after all, is a rebellion against "the establishment"
that has wound up cutting the tax on inherited estates. Here is
a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the
rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of
working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and
liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise
of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public
Like a French Revolution in reverse-one
in which the sansculottes pour down the streets demanding more
power for the aristocracy-the backlash pushes the spectrum of
the acceptable to the right, to the right, farther to the right.
It may never bring prayer back to the schools, but it has rescued
all manner of rightwing economic nostrums from history's dustbin.
Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties
(the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural
price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their
guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism
(Woodrow Wilson's estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt's antitrust measures).
With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire
Anti-intellectualism is one of the grand unifying themes of the
backlash, the mutant strain of class war that underpins so many
of Kansas's otherwise random-seeming grievances. Contemporary
conservatism holds as a key article of faith that it is fruitless
to scrutinize the business pages for clues about the way the world
works. We do not labor under the yoke of some abstraction like
market forces, or even flesh-and-blood figures like executives
or owners. No, it is intellectuals who call the shots, people
with graduate degrees and careers in government, academia, law,
and the professions.
The Republicans today are the party of anti-intellectualism, of
rough frontier contempt for sophisticated ideas and pantywaist
book-learning. Harvard Hates America, screamed an early backlash
classic, and today's GOP hates Harvard right back. Today's Republicans
are doing what the Whigs did in the 1840s: putting on backwoods
accents, telling the world about their log-cabin upbringings,
and raging against the over-educated elites. (Even George W. Bush,
Yale '68, has complained about how Easterners regard his Texas
cronies "with just the utmost disdain.") The symbols
of aristocracy have to be trashed so that the real lives of the
aristocracy might be made ever more comfortable.
Much has been invested in this war against
intellectuals: in addition to all the familiar best-selling denunciations
of life on campus, conservatives have built counter-institutions
and alternative professional associations from which they denounce
the claims of traditional academia; they have set up think tanks
that support writers strictly for partisan reasons; they publish
pseudo-scholarly magazines that openly do away with the tradition
of peer review.
All this has not come without a certain
amount of pain for old-fashioned Republicans who, like so many
of our Kansas Mods, are often highly educated suburban professionals
and no strangers to intellectual achievement. Expertise is something
such people deplore only when it is wielded by government bureaucrats
or interfering liberals. But having spent decades unleashing the
ferocious language of anti-intellectualism on federal commissions
that, say, want to study the effects of their businesses on the
groundwater, these Republicans are now chagrined to find the same
language turned on them for, say, believing in the theory of evolution.
Here, too, the old-fashioned Republicans are reaping the whirlwind,
trapped by the success of their own strategies.
Hence the situation in Kansas, where the
most prominent conservatives, themselves an assortment of millionaires
and lawyers and Harvard grads, lead a proletarian uprising against
the millionaires, lawyers, and Harvard grads-and also against
the doctors, architects, newspaper owners, suburban developers,
Land the corporate types who make up the moderate faction.
The Cons ... rank and file - and also certain of their leaders,
including their candidate for governor in 2002-typically have
no college degrees at all. For many of them, higher education
is part of the problem, the institution that generates all these
damnable know-it-ails in the first place.
Leftists like to explain the disaffection
of working-class people with public education as a natural reaction
to the patriotism, conformity, and civility pushed by what they
call the "ideological state apparatus." The object of
education, according to this view, is to police class boundaries
by transforming most kids into unquestioning drones while selecting
a small number of others for management positions. Kids from blue-collar
homes are supposed to know intuitively that this is the case,
and they respond accordingly, cutting class and getting high and
listening to The Wall over and over again. A more nuanced version
of this critique, the 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me, points
out that high school American history textbooks give "a Disney
version of history": heroic, egalitarian, jam-packed with
progress, and almost entirely free of class conflict. Teaching
such an "Officer Friendly" account of reality, the author
concludes, is merely to "make school irrelevant to the major
issues of the day."" The kids know bullshit when they
Of the many barking idiocies to which Kansas proudly affixed its
good name over the last decade and a half, the most memorable
by far was the 1999 decision by the State Board of Education to
delete references to macroevolution and the age of the earth from
the state's science standards.* So perfectly did the move fit
the larger cultural set piece of Rubes versus Reality that the
national media could not resist. They descended on the state in
multitudes and commenced immediately to file stories alternately
deploring and scolding. The cynical mocked Kansas on the late-night
talk shows. The moralistic reprimanded Kansas on the editorial
pages. The contemplative found in Kansas a timeless illustration
of fundamentalism's tragic inability to accept or understand our
advanced secular world.
As every high schooler knows, fundamentalism
had taken this route before. The nation had laughed Nebraska Democrat
William Jennings Bryan into the grave for it after the Tennessee
"Monkey Trial" in 1925. Embracing biblical creationism
has been synonymous with backwoods cluelessness ever since. "It
is not often that a single state can make a whole continent ridiculous,"
wrote George Bernard Shaw after the trial, "or a single man
set Europe asking whether America has ever really been civilized.
But Tennessee and Mr. Bryan have brought off this double event."
To ask for a rematch on this battlefield
was to embrace a legacy of folly, ignorance, and humiliation.
For let's say the opposing team granted the Cons' request, allowed
the rematch, agreed to let their doctrine-"young-earth creationism,"
"Intelligent Design," whatever it was-take the field
against the massed critical scrutiny of professional science.
All the Cons had to look forward to in such a case was certain,
That prospect did not deter the Cons.
For them the importance of the evolution issue arose not so much
from the possibilities it offered to change the way Americans
thought as from the allegorical resonance of the gesture. And
like the abortion controversy or the jihad against gangsta rap,
the battle over evolution seems almost to have been designed to
keep Kansas polarized, keep its outrage levels high and its Con
pot boiling, while changing the way things are actually done not
a bit. The combat was purely symbolic; the board only changed
high school standards, the general guidelines for teaching science.
At no point did the board outlaw evolution or mandate the teaching
The real object of their anti-evolution gambit, I believe, was
not getting Kansans right with God but getting themselves reelected.
As we have seen, conservatives grandstand eloquently on cultural
issues but ) almost never achieve real-world results. What they're
after is cultural turmoil, which serves mainly to solidify their
base. By r deliberately courting the wrath of the educated world
with the evolution issue, the Cons aimed, it seems, to reinforce
and to sharpen their followers' peculiar understanding of social
class. In a word, it was an exercise in anti-intellectualism.
In the seventies, and especially while the war was still going}
on, the victimhood of Vietnam vets often had a leftist cast to
it. The vets saw themselves as victims then because their love
for their country had been manipulated in the service of a pointless
and even an obscene cause. The Johnson administration's "best
and brightest," drafted from the corporate world, were manufacturing
corpses the way they made cars or appliances, and selling the
slaughter with a form of patriotism as hollow as the TV commercials
of the fifties.
Like everything else, however, the political
valence of Vietnam-related martyrdom has been switched. What you
hear more commonly today is that the soldiers were victimized
by betrayal, first by liberals in government and then by the antiwar
movement, as symbolized by the clueless Fonda. The mistake wasn't
taking the wrong side in the wrong war; it was letting those intellectuals-now
transformed from cold corporate titans into a treasonable liberal
elite-keep us from prevailing, from unleashing sufficient lethality
on the Vietnamese countryside. Conservatives like Barry Goldwater
made this argument at the time, of course, but it took decades
for the idea to win the sort of mainstream audience it has today.
This may be conservatism's most striking cultural victory of all,
a perfect inversion: the fifties-style patriotism that was once
thought to have victimized the Vietnam generation is today thought
to be a cause that is sanctified by their death and suffering.
What their blood calls out for is not skepticism but ever blinder
In the seventies conservatives came to
believe that the legacy of Vietnam was the "Vietnam syndrome,"
a debilitating fear of sending in the troops lest lives (and votes)
be lost. A more obvious legacy these days is the ferocious new
militarism in which setbacks in the field are routinely blamed
on liberals in Congress and in the media, and in which it is thought
to be socially acceptable for old soldiers to revel in their brutalization
and even to boast about their personal kill-skills. (Example:
the popular "sniper" bumper sticker that threatens,
"Don't run, you'll only die tired.")
All that a soldier wants to do is fight,
according to this understanding, and the more violently the better.
Training him and sending him off to battle isn't a hideous imposition;
it is natural and even noble. To support our men in uniform is
to let them see combat. Such a viewpoint denies the age-old conflict
between officers and enlisted men that is documented by every
war novel ever written, and instead identifies the lowliest of
foot soldiers unproblematically with their commanders, who assuredly
do pine to give their soldiers that chance to fight. Applied to
the historical Vietnam War itself, this way of thinking implies
that the army suffered no disobedience, no griping, not even any
of the jolly countercultural troublemaking seen in feel-good war
films like Good Morning Vietnam. Dissent was the sole province
of Le hippie traitors at home.
The deafness of the conservative rank and file to the patent insincerity
of their leaders is one of the true cultural marvels of the Great
Backlash. It extends from the local level to the highest heights,
from clear-eyed city council aspirant to George W. Bush, a man
so ham-handed in his invocations of the Lord that he occasionally
slips into blasphemy. Indeed, even as conservatives routinely
mock Democrats for faking their religious sentiment, they themselves
plainly feel so exempt from such criticism that they wander blithely
in and out of the land of hypocrisy, never pausing to wonder if
their followers might be paying attention. Laura Ingraham, a right-wing
pundit renowned for appearing on the cover of the New York Times
Magazine in a sexy miniskirt ten years ago, today denounces Hollywood
elites for wanting to tear down "traditional values. 116
Ann Coulter poses as a journalist. Bill O'Reilly poses as a proletarian.
Hawkish politicians great and small pose as hardened war veterans,
while dovish politicians who are actual war veterans are accused
of weakness. Rush Limbaugh, that unwavering scourge of the drug
addict, turns out to be one himself. The careers of Newt Gingrich,
Henry Hyde, Bob Barr, and Enid Waldholtz are all tainted by revelations
of foulest hypocrisy. And yet the suspicions of the rank and file
are not aroused. The power of their shared vision of martyrdom
is sufficient to overcome any set of facts that are merely material,
Liberalism may not be the monstrous, all-powerful conspiracy that
conservatives make it out to be, but its failings are clear nonetheless.
Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant
to huge portions of its traditional constituency, And we can say
that liberalism lost places like Shawnee and Wichita with as much
accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.)
This is due partially, I think, to the Democratic Party's more-or-less
official response to its waning fortunes. The Democratic
Leadership Council (DLC) the organization
that produced such f as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman,
and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget
blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent,
white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The
larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations,
capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything
raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and-more
important-the money of these coveted constituencies, "New
Democrats" think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice
position while making endless concessions on economic issues,
on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization,
deregulation, and the rest of it. Such Democrats explicitly rule
out what they deride as "class warfare" and take great
pains to emphasize their friendliness to business interests. Like
the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As
for the working-class voters who were until recently the party's
very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to
go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues
than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshiping
country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where's the
soft money in that?
This is, in drastic miniature, the criminally
stupid strategy that has dominated Democratic thinking off and
on ever since the "New Politics" days of the early seventies.
Over the years it has enjoyed a few successes: the word yuppie,
remember, was coined in 1984 to describe followers of the presidential
candidate Gary Hart. But, as political writer E.J. Dionne has
pointed out, the larger result was that both parties became "vehicles
for upper-middle-class interests" and the old class-based
language of the left quickly disappeared from the universe of
the respectable. The Republicans, meanwhile, were industriously
fabricating their own class-based language of the right, and while
they made their populist appeal to blue-collar voters, Democrats
were giving those same voters-their traditional base-the big brush-off,
ousting their representatives from positions within the party
and consigning their issues, with a laugh and a sneer, to the
dustbin of history. A more ruinous strategy for Democrats would
have been difficult to invent. And the ruination just keeps on
coming. However desperately they triangulate and accommodate,
the losses keep mounting.
Curiously enough, though, Democrats of
the DLC variety aren't worried. They seem to look forward to a
day when their party really is what David Brooks and Ann Coulter
claim it to be now: a coming-together of the rich and the self-righteous.
While Republicans trick out their poisonous stereotype of the
liberal elite, Democrats seem determined to live up to the libel.
Such Democrats look at a situation like
present-day Kansas and rub their hands with anticipation: Just
look at how Ronald Reagan's "social issues" have come
back to bite his party in the ass! If only the crazy Cons push
a little bit more, these Democrats think, the Republican Party
will alienate the wealthy suburban Mods for good,(and we will
be able to step in and carry places like Mission Hills,)along
with all the juicy boodle that its inhabitants are capable of
throwing our way.
While I enjoy watching Republicans fight
one another as much as the next guy, I don't think the Kansas
story really gives true liberals any cause to cheer. Maybe someday
the DLC dream will come to pass, with the Democrats having moved
so far to the right that they are no different than old-fashioned
moderate Republicans, and maybe then the affluent will finally
come over to their side en masse. But along the way the things
that liberalism once stood for-equality and economic security-will
have been abandoned completely. Abandoned, let us remember, at
the historical moment when we need them most.
There is a lesson for liberals in the
Kansas story, and it's not that they, too, might someday get invited
to tea in Cupcake Land. It is, rather, an utter and final repudiation
of their historical decision to remake themselves as the other
pro-business party. By all rights the people in Wichita and Shawnee
and Garden City should today be flocking to the party of Roosevelt,
not deserting it. Culturally speaking, however, that option is
simply not available to them anymore. Democrats no longer speak
to the people on the losing end of a free-market system that becoming
more brutal and more arrogant by the day.
The problem is not that Democrats are
monolithically prochoice or anti-school prayer; it's that by dropping
the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans
they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues
like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal
would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns. We
are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about
class-in a coded way, to be sure-but where Democrats are afraid
to bring it up.
Democratic political strategy simply assumes
that people know where their economic interest lies and that they
will act on t by instinct. There is no need for any business-bumming
class-war rhetoric on the part of candidates or party spokesmen,
and there is certainly no need for a liberal to actually get his
hands dirty fraternizing with the disgruntled. Let them look at
the record and see for themselves: Democrats are slightly more
generous with Social Security benefits, slightly stricter on environmental
regulations, and do less union-busting than Republicans.
The gigantic error in all this is that
people don't spontaneously understand their situation in the great
sweep of things. They don't just automatically know the courses
of action that are open to them, the organizations they might
sign up with, r the measures they should be calling for. Liberalism
isn't a force of karmic nature that pushes back when the corporate
world goes too far; it is a man-made contrivance as subject to
setbacks and defeats as any other. Consider our own social welfare
apparatus, the system of taxes, regulations, and social insurance
that is under sustained attack. Social Security, the FDA, and
all the rest of it didn't spring out of the ground fully formed
in response to the obvious excesses of a laissez-faire system;
they were the result of decades of movement building, of bloody
fights between strikers and state militias, of agitating, educating,
and thankless organizing. More than forty years passed between
the first glimmerings of a left-wing reform movement in the 1890s
and the actual enactment of its reforms in the 1930s. In the meantime
scores of the most rapacious species of robber baron went to their
reward untaxed, unregulated, and unquestioned.
An even more telling demonstration of
the importance of movements in framing people's perspectives can
be found in the voting practices of union members. Take your average
white male voter: in the 2000 election they chose George W. Bush
by a considerable margin. Find white males who were union members,
however, and they voted for Al Gore by a similar margin. The same
difference is repeated whatever the demographic category: women,
gun owners, retirees, and so on-when they are union members, their
politics shift to the left. This is true even when the union members
in question had little contact with union leaders. Just being
in a union evidently changes the way a person looks at politics,
inoculates them against the derangement of the backlash. Here
values matter almost least of all, while the economy, health care,
and education are of paramount concern. 3 Union voters are, in
other words, the reverse image of the Brownback conservative who
cares nothing for economics but torments himself night and day
with vague fears about "cultural decline."
Labor unions are on the wane today, as
everyone knows, down to 9 percent of the private-sector workforce
from a high-water mark of 38 percent in the fifties. Their decline
goes largely unchecked by a Democratic Party anxious to demonstrate
its fealty to corporate America, and unmourned by a therapeutic
left that never liked those Archie Bunker types in the first place.
Among the broader population, accustomed to thinking of organizations
as though they were consumer products, it is simply assumed that
unions are declining because nobody wants to join them anymore,
the same way the public has lost its taste for the music of the
Bay City Rollers. And in the offices of the union-busting specialists
and the Wall Street brokers and the retail executives, the news
is understood the same way aristocrats across Europe greeted the
defeat of Napoleon in 1815: as a monumental victory in a war to
While leftists sit around congratulating
themselves on their personal virtue, the right understands the
central significance of movement-building, and they have taken
to the task with admirable diligence. Cast your eyes over the
vast and complex structure of conservative "movement culture,"
a phenomenon that has little left-wing counterpart anymore. There
are foundations like the one operated by the Kochs in Wichita,
channeling their millions into the political battle at the highest
levels, subsidizing free-market economics departments and magazines
and thinkers like Vernon L. Smith. Then there are the think tanks,
the Institutes Hoover and American Enterprise, that send the money
sluicing on into the pockets of the right-wing pundit corps, Ann
Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, and the rest, furnishing them with what
they need to keep their books coming and their minds in fighting
trim between media bouts. A brigade of lobbyists. A flock of magazines
and newspapers. A publishing house or two. And, at the bottom,
the committed grassroots organizers like Mark Gietzen and Tim
Golba and Kay O'Connor, going door-to-door, organizing their neighbors,
mortgaging their houses, even, to push the gospel of the backlash.
And this movement speaks to those at society's
bottom, addresses them on a daily basis. From the left they hear
nothing, but from the Cons they get an explanation for it all.
Even better, they get a plan for action, a scheme for world conquest
with a wedge issue. And why shouldn't they get to dream their
lurid dreams of politics-as-manipulation? They've had it done
to them enough in reality.
American conservatism depends for its continued dominance ) and
even for its very existence on people never making certain mental
connections about the world, connections that until recently were
treated as obvious or self-evident everywhere on the planet.
Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse. It invites
us all to join in, to lay down our lives so that others might
cash out at the top; to renounce forever our middle-American prosperity
in pursuit of a crimson fantasy of middle-American righteousness.
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