My high school history teacher once told us that politics (or I suppose history in general) is a pendulum—that the order of things is one way until slowly it isn’t anymore, and that this new order is only temporary until the previous status quo comes back again. At the time I thought this a rather interesting way of explaining the trajectory of existence, and a fairly straightforward factoid to remember for the midterm. Only a decade later do I really get how much it also happens to be true.
Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? came out in 2004, but for all intents and purposes could have been written today, or five years from now. While the book focuses primarily on the last few decades, it indirectly hammers home the pendulum point; history will, for better or worse, repeat itself. We just happen to currently be in a particularly disappointing part of the pendulum swing.
There’s a part of me that feels like I’m the last person on earth to read this book, but knowing that’s never actually the case, here’s a brief summary: Basically Frank set out to assess how middle America in general, and his home state of Kansas in particular, has transformed itself into a bastion of Republicanism, even though conservatives’ belief in the infallibility of the free market is exactly what’s resulted in a reduction in quality of life for the very people that populate middle America. (Whew.) I wish I could sum up every point Frank makes in a few easy-to-read/entertaining paragraphs, but the reality is that this is a heavily researched book, with a lot of interesting points and a lot of infuriating realities. It answers a question (or at least attempts to) that I think many of us have been asking ourselves for the last few years, and in such a way that at the end you feel simultaneously informed yet depressed, knowledgeable yet resigned. This may be an at-times infuriating phenomenon, but it’s not a new one.
What I like about Thomas Frank is that he skillfully avoids doing what so many of us want and like to do: simply assume middle America is too dumb to realize their mistake. It’s hard not to at least occasionally feel that way when low-income workers in Alabama are clamoring for policies that will only hurt their own interests, or when listening to tirades from conservatives about a “liberal elite” that is nothing if not just as wealthy and just as educated as the Republican politicians (and business leaders) the conservatives support. I certainly struggle personally to reconcile this universally accepted idea that people like Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann are down-home “folksy” common-man types, compared with elitist smarty-pants Obama, who supports laughable things like “separation of church and state” and “science.” But Frank takes a much higher road than I could, focusing instead on the explicit skill with which the Republican party has transformed itself into the party of the persecuted, pouncing on Democrats’ inability/refusal to bring up real economic issues for fear of igniting “class warfare,” and adding in their own healthy dash of culture clash.
There are a lot of great points in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but given today’s political environment, this is the one that resonated with me. Less than a month ago, Herman Cain doubled down on his position that “it’s your fault” if you’re unemployed (but obviously only if you’re at Occupy Wall Street; otherwise it’s Obama’s fault) and yet Republicans manage to simultaneously shout from the rooftops that it’s the Democrats who are starting a class war. For all of the GOP debates I’ve watched (approximately 3,487), I have yet to see someone ask this question (which is too long for me to tweet at them):
“Over the course of their lifetime, one person will make $1 million and another will make $100 million. How do you reconcile the respective abilities of these two people to provide themselves and their families with an acceptable quality of life?”
So accustomed are we with politicians talking about all Americans as though they’re the same that I feel like we’ve stopped thinking about how fucking bizarre that is. We aren’t all the same: Some of us work in offices and some of us clean them; some of us own limos and some of us drive them; some of us buy $5,000 blouses and some of us sew them. Why we can’t have an economic conversation that acknowledges those differences without it being seen as a declaration of “class war” is beyond me. And seemingly beyond Thomas Frank.
Anywho, my goal here wasn’t to get all political. Although I try to see things from both sides of the aisle, I’m a 20-something Brooklynite, so it’s fair to assume that I generally come down left of center. Reading What’s the Matter of Kansas?, if nothing else, made me feel slightest more sane for that, slightly more reaffirmed in my suspicion that what’s going on in the country right now is at least slightly batshit. It’s just not new.
Throughout the book, Frank talks a lot about conservatives’ genius focus on the un-winnable culture war, their railing against abortion and atheism and smutty television and all manner of things that a) they have no intention of changing when actually in office and b) are in many cases created by the very big businesses they claim to love so much. As a true fan of smut, I can say that this was for me the book’s most fun irony. Is that gay kid on Glee ruining the collective psyche of your precious middle-America children? Take it up with News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, who will make $33 million this year and most assuredly votes Republican. Pop culture is a product of capitalism, and the free market like Jersey Shore.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? is full of interesting commentary like this and, whether or not you agree with everything in the book, it’s hard to argue that Frank hasn’t done his due diligence—I had to turn to the book’s 20+ pages of end notes at least every five minutes (which was, for the record, annoying.) If you do consider yourself a liberal (notice how I’m saying liberal instead of “intelligent” or “sane”), much of this will feel like preaching to the choir. But that doesn’t make it any less informative or interesting. Sometimes being in the choir is nice.
TITLE: What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
AUTHOR: Thomas Frank
PAGES: 310 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: One Market Under God, The Wrecking Crew
SORTA LIKE: The World is Flat meets Fear of Falling
FIRST LINE: “The poorest county in America isn’t in Appalachia or the Deep South.”