August 23, 2004
Thomas Frank, Author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Discusses the Populist Right and How They've Been Fooled by Conservatives
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
One of the nicest things about BuzzFlash, as compared to book reviewers, is that we only have to write about and offer books that we like. After all, why would we want our readers to buy premiums that they wouldn't be interested in?
But even as we have the good fortune to read so many great books, we even have the more thrilling experience of occasionally coming across a relatively unpublicized book that dazzles us. (We are deluged with books, DVDs, CDs, and novelty items to consider as premiums.)
First, you need to understand the basic premise of "What's the Matter." A young journalist, Thomas Frank, returns to his home state to ponder how Kansas -- once a hot bed of agrarian populism -- had evolved into a red state that epitomizes how middle class white America has been seduced by the lure of the right wing. It is a Republican Party/Swindler leadership that exploits the residents of fly-over country into self-cannibalizing themselves by supporting an ideology that dooms them to diminishing job opportunities and lower wages.
Think of Ronald Reagan (although an Illinois native) as Frank observes, "If Kansas is the concentrated essence of normality, then this is where we can see the deranged gradually become normal, where we can look in that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American face -- class president, quarterback, Rhodes scholar, bond trader, builder of industry -- and realize that we are staring into the eyes of a lunatic."
Kansas is a political land of Oz where looting executives of a company called Westar practiced the maxim, "socialize the risk, privatize the profits."
Frank sees Kansans exploited by Republican hucksters who then blame the woes of the underpaid and overworked on Eastern liberals. It's a demagoguery that can only continue spiraling downward until it implodes.
But Frank doesn't spare the Democrats: "The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice 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 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."
This guy is music to BuzzFlash's ears.
But don't expect a happy ending. As Frank concludes, "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."
A brilliantly written analysis of how the snake oil salesmen of the Republican Party sold out their wares in Kansas -- and in far too many states in America. Because Frank is writing both about the State of Kansas in specific -- and about its symbolic political implications.
After describing how the 1998 Kansas State Republican Party Platform turned into a document pledging the party to fringe "cultural divide" goals and a series of pro-plutocracy laws, Frank lays it out as clearly as an Alpine stream.
"Let us pause for a moment to ponder this all-American dysfunction," surveying the fanatical flotsam and jetsam of the document. "A state is spectacularly ill served by the Reagan-Bush stampede of deregulation, privatization, and laissez-faire. It sees its countryside depopulated, its towns disintegrate, its cities stagnate -- and its wealthy enclaves sparkle, behind their remote-controlled gates. The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention. But what do its rebels demand? More of the very measures that brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place.
"This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible."
"What's the Matter with Kansas" is a small masterpiece of political-sociological analysis by a young, masterful essayist who clearly, in this book, has found his zone.
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BuzzFlash: "If Kansas is the concentrated essence of normality, then this is where we can see the deranged gradually become normal, where we can look in that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American face – class president, quarterback, Rhodes scholar, bond trader, builder of industry – and realize that we’re staring into the eyes of a lunatic."
Your book explains that statement. It’s a kind of shocking statement in many ways -- it could be Ronald Reagan you’re talking about, that head of the Rotary Club.
Thomas Frank: That’s very good. The image that I was thinking of when I wrote that was John Brown. It was a famous painting in Topeka, a mural of John Brown. Every kid in Kansas gets brought to Topeka to see it. John Brown is three times life size, holding a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, with this wild look in his eyes. Behind him, soldiers of the two Civil War armies slaughter each other. That’s what I was going for -- that image of Kansas.
BuzzFlash: But you’re going for that image now with the right wing.
Thomas Frank: Yes, exactly. And the people that I’m talking about are the kind of people that I went to high school with that are pillars of the community, all these leaders of civic life. Then you start thinking about the ideas that prop their world up, and the ideas that make it all possible, and that these ideas are quite mad. Another image here, Heart of Darkness, is what I’m thinking of.
My last book, "One Market Under God," was about the new economy and the cultural climate of the late 90s -- the celebration and the feeling that we had finally achieved some transcendent economic state, and that we had solved all the problems facing mankind. There was this free-market consensus among everybody in society that nobody disagreed any more on economic issues, and all the dissent was a thing of the past. When you think about the way that world is presented, it’s very orderly. It’s like the advertisements on CNN where everything is in its place, and everything hums along beautifully, and the office is working just fine. My suggestion here is that it’s not that way. But the ideas that are actually making all this possible are foolish and harmful, and even crazy.
BuzzFlash: You draw quite a complicated picture here. I’ll summarize it as a reader, and you as the author can correct me. You have here basically a lower middle-class revolt against cultural values, a revolt in Kansas that you identified beginning with the anti-abortion movement there in the beginning of the 90s; that’s when they began that road to assume control of the Republican Party.
Thomas Frank: Yes, that’s when they picked up momentum and really got going.
BuzzFlash: And this is a group beyond anti-abortion. This is kind of the core crossover vote for the Republican Party -– many of these people would vote Democratic on economic issues, but the Republican Party has captured them in the cultural wars. In Kansas, they took over the Republican Party from the Republican elite. You grew up in Mission Hills --
Thomas Frank: Right.
BuzzFlash: -- with the kind of corporate Republicans who probably share more of the "cultural values" of the Democrats, if we define those as being pro-choice, pro-gun control. So there was this sort of "pitchfork rebellion" against the Republican elite. Then you had the Democrats who’d basically been wiped off the map in Kansas.
Thomas Frank: They’re marginal players. They’re still around, and I’m friends with those people, so it seems to me they’re completely gone.
BuzzFlash: Politically you wouldn’t call them very much of a viable force in Kansas.
Thomas Frank: No, not much.
BuzzFlash: And you have senators who are extremist – you know, Brownback and Roberts, total Bush administration kind of army, following the marching orders.
Thomas Frank: Brownback is a real piece of work. Actually, Roberts is not as bad; Roberts is an old-school Kansas Republican who has had to take on the coloring of conservatism in order to survive but –
BuzzFlash: But he’s completely loyal, and he has supported Bush.
Thomas Frank: Brownback, though, is outflanking Bush on the right. Brownback is like one of the great thinkers of the –- he’s a very interesting man.
BuzzFlash: It’s a complicated picture. Your point is, in Kansas you’ve had a rebellion based on the so-called cultural wedge issues -- though you say at this point that the pitchfork rebellion among the middle class and the working class, it’s as though they went to Mission Hills and said, we’re mad as hell so we’re going to cut your taxes -- meaning the taxes of the wealthy.
Thomas Frank: Yes, that is precisely what has happened.
BuzzFlash: You use Westar as an example of a Kansas company that became involved in an ethics issue that, of course, got buried -- a public utility that basically fleeced the investors -- and that Kansas is emblematic of how the wealthy elite of the Republican Party, the people who support Bush and Cheney, use cultural wedge issues to basically fleece the working class, and they happily march along.
Thomas Frank: That’s the only part of your summary that I would probably take a little bit of issue with, in the sense that that there’s no overt scheming by these people.
BuzzFlash: Now when you say "these people," who are you referring to?
Thomas Frank: I mean the conservatives have in some ways persuaded themselves that they’re very much responsible for their own situation. I don’t like to -– you know, I think they should be held accountable.
BuzzFlash: You’re talking about the pitchfork rebellion in Kansas.
Thomas Frank: I like that image, by the way -– the pitchfork rebellion. That’s totally what it is. There is a class revolt there on the right, and this is just very hard for people to get their heads around.
BuzzFlash: And you point out here that the Republicans at Mission Hills, for lack of a better phrase, are country-club Republicans who look down on these upstarts: Where did this trash come from? Why are they taking over our party?
Thomas Frank: And there’s incredible hostility the other way. When I would tell people that I was from Mission Hills, conservatives -- the pitchfork folks -- you should see the reaction. They’re extremely suspicious and hostile to those people.
BuzzFlash: One of the marvels of your book is I think you, unlike many writers who talk about people who are from a different class, you seem to empathize with the pitchfork rebellion. Not that you share their values, but you respect them as people. There’s a heavy-set woman who became one of the leaders, and you really create a sympathetic portrait of her and of most of the people. You don’t patronize them. You respect them as people. You let them have their say even though you disagree with where they’re coming from.
Thomas Frank: Absolutely. That was entirely my strategy in this book to let them have their say and try to understand them rather than just be contemptuous of them –- which, by the way, is how the local media has dealt with these people.
BuzzFlash: With contempt?
Thomas Frank: Oh, absolutely.
BuzzFlash: Because the people that run the papers are the Mission Hills people and the elite Republicans versus the working-class.
Thomas Frank: They also don’t understand the social issues – abortion and that sort of thing. In fact, in some ways, they deliberately misunderstood these things and thought that these people were demanding a return to segregation and stuff. They had very strange reactions to this. Look, I’m as pro-choice as they come, and I disagree with these people just right down the line on political issues. But I also understand that you can’t just blow them off like that. You can’t just misunderstand them that way. That’s not only unfair; it’s stupid.
BuzzFlash: The Republican Party, certainly under Karl Rove’s tutelage but back to Lee Atwater, has brought these people into the tent, though it doesn’t really respect them. Then you paint a portrait of a Kansas in which the number of family farms is dwindling, the working-class jobs are being outsourced, and the people most impacted by this are among the most loyal social conservatives and Republican voters. As the Republicans implement economic policies that hurt these people – this is at the heart of your book – they continue to vote for them.
Thomas Frank: Yes. That’s sort of the mystery. I’ve been thinking about this and talking about this with a lot with people lately. One of the biggest reasons is that the Democrats aren’t there complicating the picture -- and we’ll come to that in a minute -- but the other thing is that it’s very hard to understand these policies, because these aren’t things that just Bush has done. These are things that have been going on since Nixon, or at least in earnest since Ronald Reagan. And these policies have made a huge difference in the lives of these people. But it’s hard to say that this is because of the Republican standing right in front of you, like a guy like Sam Brownback, because you can listen to what he’s saying, and he’s saying things that you agree with.
Maybe in theory you think that the idea of a free market is okay, but nobody’s out there making the case for the other side –-- that we made a wrong turn back in the 70s and 80s, and that we shouldn’t have gone down the road that Ronald Reagan took us down. Nobody is making that case. Even the Democrats don’t argue that anymore. So it’s very hard for these issues to become something that you talk about. They’re off the table. They’re not up for discussion in Kansas or in many other places in America.
BuzzFlash: One of the ironies here is Kansas has a rich progressive history, particularly in agrarian populism vs. the robber baron railroads. You spend a lot of time discussing this -– you went back and retrieved editorials from those times. And, in a way, you’ve got a populism on the right now.
Thomas Frank: That’s exactly what’s going on. I should be right up front here -- my sympathies are very much with the old-time populist movement. When I was in graduate school, that was one of the first things that I studied, and it was like a discovery for me that my home state ever had this kind of radicalism. I didn’t even know that when I was growing up there. They never talk about that. So I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for the original populism. There’s no question that the right wing speaks the populist language and mobilizes the same demographics, the same people, that the old populism motivated. But it does so for precisely the opposite issues.
BuzzFlash: Not economic, but social issues.
Thomas Frank: Well, world view issues, belief issues, value issues. But the economic issues always get attached on there.
If we could go back to the last question for just a second -- when I would ask people about the economics question, about what’s happening to the state and what’s happening to the small farms and stuff like that, it’s as though they hadn’t thought about them. They weren’t things that they had considered. They certainly weren’t things that they had argued about in the political realm.
After the book came out, I was on a radio show in Kansas City, and the host had somehow coaxed a conservative state senator into phoning in the show to argue with me. We started talking about this stuff, and the host said, could it be that free-market policies have been a mistake for Kansas? And the senator was just dumbstruck by that. She’s like: What do you mean?
It’s like everybody thinks the free market is good -– everybody. There’s no question about it. So I launched into one of my things about anti-trust or something about Wal-Mart and how free-market policies have been really destructive. And she didn’t have an answer. It just had not occurred to her. These things are not up for debate. That was the response that I consistently got from these people.
BuzzFlash: You framed this in your book. The populist right -- not the wealthy right, but the populists, the people that are being hurt economically by the Bush administration policies and so forth – have a world view that’s, as you describe it, kind of monolithic. It all fits together, and if you take any of the bricks out, it might collapse. Therefore, they accept everything.
Thomas Frank: Including the free market.
BuzzFlash: Without analyzing its impact on them. It’s an extension of their faith, and the Republican Party represents that world view. So even if they’re being hurt by the economic policies, it doesn’t affect their faith because faith is something that’s unquestionable.
Thomas Frank: That’s a very good way of putting it. It is all part of a world view that fits together very precisely. Now there are certain places where this world view – where I think, with a strategic attack, the Democrats could break that coalition apart. In fact, I have no doubt that they could.
Click here for Part II of our interview with Thomas Frank.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Get your copy of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" from BuzzFlash.com.