excerpts from the book

What's the Matter with Kansas?

How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

by Thomas Frank

Metropolitan/Owl Books, 2004, paper


... 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 greatest monuments.

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 education.

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 twentieth century.

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 see it.

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, humiliating defeat.

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 of creationism.

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 patriotism.

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, merely true.

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 the death.

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.

Politics watch

Index of Website

Home Page