August 24, 2004
Thomas Frank, Author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Discusses the Populist Right and How They've Been Fooled by Conservatives, Part II
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BuzzFlash: Although this is a very, very small part of your book, you do, in effect, chastise the Democrats and say they have been so hesitant to use class as an issue, while the Republicans have usurped it as an issue, and successfully so. The Democrats keep saying, we’ll lose if we run on that, while the Republicans are winning running on that.
Thomas Frank: Yes, exactly. And it’s precisely because the Democrats won’t take up that battle and won’t talk that old language of economic populism that Republicans are able to get away with this kind of hallucinatory class world that they live in. The Republicans talk about social class all the time, and it’s delusional. It’s the stuff that Limbaugh and O’Reilly talk about all the time. The Democrats need to challenge that.
The way you challenge it is by talking about the real economic world that we live in. However, doing that would mean turning away or making Wall Street very unhappy and the corporate world very unhappy. That is political death in this day and age because that’s where the money comes from.
Since I moved to Washington, I’ve learned a lot about the ways of the Democratic Party, and one of the things that they are constantly trying to prove is that they are safe to corporate America and that corporate America doesn’t have to worry about them –- you know, Harry Truman threatening to nationalize some industry, or Franklin Roosevelt jacking up the tax on various corporate transactions, or something like that. They want to persuade the corporate world that they’re never going to do that sort of thing again, and so they have sworn off this language.
BuzzFlash: The Republicans have succeeded on the cultural wedge issues –- the let-them-eat-cake approach because, as you point out in your book, they toss out all this raw meat, but nothing ever really changes. Look at the effort to pass the Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which died on the vine.
Thomas Frank: It’s a perfect example of what I describe in the book. They have chosen a cultural battle where failure is a given, where it’s absolutely certain before they even start. And why do that? There’s a hundred ways they could challenge that Massachusetts court ruling if they wanted to, but they chose to go with a Constitutional amendment, the one thing that is absolutely certain to fail.
I argue that failure is but part of the DNA of the cultural wars. The Republicans who have been very, very successful in remaking the economic landscape that we live in don’t deliver on the cultural front. They always lose. Hollywood movies just get coarser and coarser every year. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the conservative world –- that these cultural issues that motivate people by the millions are never won.
BuzzFlash: You point out that this is one of the key characteristics of the pitchfork rebellion in Kansas. The Republicans -– Rush Limbaugh, for instance, is the best example -– fans the flames of making these people feel they are victims of a liberal elite that really doesn’t exist. The people who run Hollywood and who own all the major networks, Viacoms, GE, Disney --
Thomas Frank: Liberals.
BuzzFlash: Disney wouldn’t distribute "Farenheit 9/11." All the people that Rush Limbaugh is denouncing are the networks, and they are run by Republican contributors. It’s like the people who are benefiting from the tax breaks and economic policies of the current Bush administration, and Bush I and Reagan, are really the people responsible for disseminating the cultural dross, if you want to call it that, that the pitchfork rebellion crowd rebels against. And yet there’s a bait-and-switch here because Rush Limbaugh says blame it on the liberal elite.
Thomas Frank: That is exactly right. You’ve raised a number of very interesting points there. The basic idea of victimhood on the right – it’s even worse than Rush Limbaugh. His brother wrote a book and the title is one of these one-word titles that conservatives love: "Persecution." The idea is that Christians are persecuted right here in the U.S. of A. -– you know, right here, right now, Christians are being persecuted by the liberal elite, of course.
The idea is that there is this elite that controls society, and that there’s almost nothing you can do about it. You are powerless and helpless before these people, and they fiddle with your culture. They change what’s on TV, and they change the language however they want. They’re not accountable and there’s almost nothing you can do about it except get mad. This is the conservative fantasy of victimhood -– that they are society’s greatest victims.
This is particularly interesting, given that a guy like Limbaugh and a guy like O’Reilly love to talk about the culture of victimization. Conservative pop culture has the biggest victim fantasy of them all. You raise another very important issue, which is one of the things that I want people to take away from the book, and that is the gigantic contradiction in conservatism that the free market capitalism that they profess to love delivers this culture that they find so offensive and so abhorrent.
The only way they can get out of this contradiction is to imagine a liberal conspiracy that controls things, so they can get free-market capitalism off the hook. All you have to do is talk about this. If the Democrats just talked about this, I think that contradiction could be made unavoidable. And that contradiction is fatal for conservatism, in my opinion.
BuzzFlash: That’s what we specialize in -- opposing the hypocrisy of the Republican Party. The Democrats, as you point out, have generally been silent on this.
Thomas Frank: They’re not too interested in this.
BuzzFlash: Are you familiar with the linguist George Lakoff from Berkeley who talks about framing, and how the Republicans are tremendous at framing issues?
Thomas Frank: Yes.
BuzzFlash: What they’ve in essence done is create this massive distraction and shifted the world view of people into victimhood, and this distracts them from the economic issues.
Your book is marvelous, because as a reader I feel that even though I disagree with the pitchfork rebellion and everything about it, that these are basically decent people. They aren’t evil. They’re being manipulated, perhaps, by evil people. You describe one guy who works as a bottler on an assembly line, and he led the anti-abortion movement in his spare time.
Thomas Frank: The first I’d heard about this guy was I read a denunciation of him on page one of the local newspaper, an editorial calling him names. And I thought: Wow, that’s amazing. Who is this guy? He turns out to be a mine worker at a bottling plant.
BuzzFlash: He basically created the anti-abortion movement in Kansas, which led to the takeover of the Republican Party by the pitchfork rebellion. He’s just this working-class guy who was on a mission.
Thomas Frank: In some ways it’s a very inspiring story, and it’s the kind of thing that you just don’t hear on the left any more. It’s the sort of story I’ve been looking for all my life.
BuzzFlash: You don’t agree with what this guy goes for, but you admire his gumption and his tenacity.
Thomas Frank: Absolutely. It’s the very thing that I’ve been looking for all my life and I finally find it. And by God, it’s the people that I disagree with the most.
BuzzFlash: Shouldn’t that tell the Democrats something in terms of motivation and populism? I mean, this guy is a working-class populist for the right. He had an idea. He believed in it. He went around the state organizing in his free time, all the time supporting himself as an assembly-line bottler.
Thomas Frank: That’s what the Democrats used to be about 50-60 years ago. That’s who they were. That’s who the labor movement was in this country. If we don’t recover that, I think the Democrats are done for as a party. They have to be able to tell stories like that of their own.
As for the portrait of Kansas, there’s a sort of Hieronymus Bosch thing going on -- that’s another image. As you say, I admire their tenacity and how hard they worked and the effects that they’ve achieved. But those effects have been to make life worse for themselves and people like them. There’s one state legislator that I interviewed, a woman who is from a very working-class walk of life. She sort of made headlines around the country for saying that whatever amendment it was that gave women the right to vote, that this was a bad idea, that this shouldn’t have had to happen.
BuzzFlash: She’s a happy grandmother and very happy to be subservient to her husband.
Thomas Frank: She’s a state legislator who thinks that women voting is probably not a good idea; she denied ever saying this when I talked to her. It’s controversial there that she says she didn’t say it. The newspapers quoted her saying it. But, yes, she’s a state legislator, votes all the time, and she thinks that it’s a bad idea that women have the right to vote. That’s what I’m talking about -– Hieronymus Bosch. A crazy world, that nightmare world.
BuzzFlash: You end on a sort of despairing note -– that this is not going to get better. It’s sort of self-immolating since the victimhood will continue because of the cultural values that the Republican leaders, Bush and Cheney type, use to manipulate these people. It’s like the war on terror. There’s no end, so you just keep stoking the coals. And you keep spiraling down economically as you see in terms of family farms and industry.
Thomas Frank: And as long as that anger –- you know, these people should be angry. They have a right to be angry about their situation in life, and they have a right to be angry about the culture. What’s funny is that the Republicans supply them a way of being angry about these things that doesn’t fix the problem –- it just makes the problem worse. But it’s very satisfying. They get to listen to their favorite radio show, tune into Fox News. Get very, very angry. Get out and mobilize, go marching down the street, and then propose solutions that only make the problem worse.
BuzzFlash: Or there no solutions to the perceived problem?
Thomas Frank: It’s a cycle that feeds on itself. And the only way it’s going to be interrupted is for the Democrats and the labor movement or somebody like that to bring back the old-school populism, which, as we discussed, that’s going to be very difficult. I wish that would happen, but it’s going to be very difficult. And so it feeds on itself and gets worse.
BuzzFlash: I don’t recall you using the word demagoguery. But that’s how we look at it in terms of what people like Karl Rove do, what Lee Atwater did, what Frank Lutz the pollster does, what Newt Gingrich does -- they keep emotionally distracting people.
In reading this, the thing I don’t understand is if you take an individual like this Kansas state senator who thinks women shouldn’t have the right to vote, or has been quoted saying as much, and who thinks women should be subservient. She’s a nice person and so forth. OK, that’s your life. You be subservient to your husband. But don’t impose it upon me. The thing that’s so scary about this populist rebellion is that the Republican Party uses for its economic goals, or it’s a distraction to achieve its economic goals. But the pitchfork rebellion really wants to assert a world view on other Americans. That’s what I find scary. They claim victimhood, but their goals are really to assert their values on the nation as a whole – i.e., Christian values.
Thomas Frank: Yes, that’s true.
BuzzFlash: And there’s a fundamental paradox there.
Thomas Frank: Right, sometimes they say they want to be left alone. But what they mean by being left alone is you do it my way.
BuzzFlash: If you want to send your kid to a Christian school, go ahead. If you don’t want to watch television because it’s corrupt, don’t watch television. I don’t see how America is stopping them from living a godly life as they see it. In some ways, and this is an extreme comparison, they’re not that different from the Taliban. They want a state that reflects their personal values. And yet America was founded on being a secular state that respects the rights of individuals to pursue their own values.
Thomas Frank: Look, I totally agree with that interpretation. The only reason I don’t go into that side of things in the book is because these people have had so little success in getting anything done -– in actually changing the culture -– that I’m not really afraid that they’re ever going to be able to inflict their values on me. But yes, of course, if they were ever able to do it, it’s monstrous. They want to remake this country as a Christian nation -– it’s absolutely contrary to what American democracy is about.
BuzzFlash: Let’s take that issue of message framing, particularly how it relates to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the DLC. Do the Democrats take a deep gulp and finally say yes, this is class warfare. You started it. And we’re going to come to the defense of the people in the middle and working classes.
Thomas Frank: They have to do that. I think they have to do it for their own self-preservation. They have to do it if they want to win elections. I think that’s one of the reasons why they brought a guy like John Edwards on board. Kerry does not talk that language. Kerry does not have the populist touch. But Edwards does, and I think they realized that. But I’ve been arguing for years that the Democrats will have to come around to this for self-preservation. I was just talking to a friend of mine here in New York last night, and she disagrees. She thinks they would rather lose than move to the left. They would rather die as a party than move to the left. Maybe she’s right. Certainly the DLC would -– they would sooner become Republicans than move to the left.
I have a friend, Rick Perlstein, who wrote a book about the Goldwater campaign in ’64. It’s a very interesting book with a lot of lessons for liberals and for Democrats, in the sense that Goldwater didn’t have a prayer, but his politics are now normal. Goldwater, at the time, was regarded as being beyond what was acceptable, saying things that were outrageous and maybe even crazy, and he lost in a huge landslide. Today, Goldwater would be a moderate Republican. In fact, by the end of his life, he was a moderate Republican, because his ideas had become so mainstream and were so widely accepted.
Democrats need to be able to challenge the existing system in that way. Progressives have to be able to do this. Democrats -- who knows? Progressives have to take up this kind of challenge. They have to find their Goldwater -- somebody who can get things moving in the right direction.
BuzzFlash: If the Democrats find that sort of passionate leadership that can reframe the issues, they may bring over these people who have been part of the pitchfork rebellion because it’s speaking to their interests. But right now, the Democrats aren’t speaking to their interests.
Thomas Frank: I think that’s absolutely true. I think that you could very easily win a lot of these people over if you were to talk about class issues in an economic sense. In fact, this guy told me in Wichita, which is a city that used to be Democratic -- when Clinton signed off on NAFTA and basically signaled that he accepted the whole Reagan economic agenda, that was the moment when he could no longer vote Democratic. Because of the values questions, he was already sympathetic with the Republicans. But on his material self-interest, he voted Democratic. But once the Democrats gave up on that, they had nothing more to offer him.
BuzzFlash: So if you have the Democrats basically forming a consensus position on economic policy, which has been the case with so many having supported the tax cuts and NAFTA, you’re really left with incremental differences. If I’m a Christian American and I have a value structure, that’s pretty much what I have to vote on.
Thomas Frank: Exactly.
BuzzFlash: Thank you very much, Thomas Frank. Great book.
Thomas Frank: It’s been a wonderful interview. It sounds like you’ve really understood the book. You’re one of the first interviewers who has.
BuzzFlash: Well, it’s a great book. Obviously a lot of people are reading it, and I think you’re contribution to this reframing process hopefully will meet with some success on the Democratic side. If not, welcome to Hieronymus Bosch.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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