WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS – THOMAS FRANK

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As much as I hate blogs, I need to get this part out of the way up front. What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
made me feel dumb. Not dumb like some of you familiar with the premise
of the book might be thinking (that I went along with the culture war
politics of the last two decades and as a liberal Democrat turned my
back on the working class). No, I feel dumb because I should
have written this book. Or a book very similar to it, seeing how I’ve
only been to Kansas once, and Caney, Kansas at that (where the streets
are lined with… bricks). But for years and years I have been trying
to articulate the theme of author Thomas Frank’s impressively
well-written call to arms; wealthy, cruel Republicans play off the fear
and ignorance of the poor and uneducated in order to get themselves
(the moneyed elite) lower taxes, deregulation, lax environmental
regulations and increased corporate welfare. I’ve been too busy jacking
off–or whatever the hell it is I do–to even spend a few hours trying
to cess out a more well-formed and articulate argument. It all just
makes me more and more aware of my morality and rapidly approaching
demise, and my lack of a significant legacy. Luckily for us, instead of
having to think about my pathetic existential crisis, you can purchase/check out Frank’s Kansas book and learn for yourself just how fucked up America is. And don’t kid yourself; this country is really fucked up.

Here’s the basic premise of Frank’s book: In Kansas (and really
the rest of the country) religious conservatives have overtaken the
Republican Party at the grassroots level. Having been abandoned by the
Democratic Party during the sixties in favor of Rainbow Coalition,
urban cultural politics, these rep-Cons (Frank’s term for conservative,
working-class, bible-loving former Democrats that now vote Republican)
stewed in their own religious fervor–which apparently is especially
feverous in Kansas and has been since the state’s radical
founding–until they became a massive Jesus-infused political force and
began chucking rep-Mods (Moderate, socially liberal, old school
Republicans) out of office. And here’s the rub. The rep-Cons, for a
variety of reasons, fully support the rep-Mods economic ideas
(ideals), even though that way of thinking, economically speaking, is
analogous to a slave supporting slavery. As Frank puts it, “By
separating class from economics, [those leading the cultural backlash]
have built a Republican friendly alternative for the disgruntled
blue-collar American.” This of course is the only way that a man like
George W. Bush, whose father is not only practically a billionaire, but
a man who was a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman
of the Republican Party, Ambassador to China, Director of the CIA, Vice
President for eight years and the God damn President for 4, appeals to many as a Washington outsider.
To me and you, it is incredible! W was in Skull & Bones!!! But
somehow, to the denizens of the “red states,” Bush Jr. is one of them.
It is insane.

Frank claims, and I agree, that people have become so blinded
by single-issues (like abortion or gun-rights) that they hurt
themselves by trying to follow their conscience. Worse than that, they
hurt their children as well as others from their same social-strata.
Here’s what’s going on. There are certain “values” issues very near and
very dear to the hearts of rep-Cons. Mentioned again and again in Kansas
are abortion, evolution being taught in the classroom, prayer in school
and gay marriage. Now, here’s the thing. All of those are really
Supreme Court issues (fine, not so much evolution, but hang on) and so
the nut job, Jesus lovin’ political hacks (Senator Sam Brownback
anyone?) and novices that Kansas is sending to Washington can’t
actually get rid of abortion. They can’t get prayer into public
schools. They can’t actually ban gay marriage. And they can’t legislate
away evolution. But, what they can do, and what they do
do, is to give huge tax breaks to the already wealthy, destroy the farm
subsidies that have kept family farms in Kansas out of the hands of
giant, corporate mega-farms for the last half-century, deregulate every
industry including the once dominant aircraft industry in Wichita so
much so that half of the city’s well-paid, unionized Boeing
employees were laid off between 1999-2002 (Boeing is the largest
private employer in Kansas), and ship the rest of the jobs overseas or
get underpaid migrant labor to fill the positions. And this is what
they do to the people who elected them! Imagine what they do to enemies…

Again, en masse, the working poor of Kansas are electing politicians that make their lives worse.
And the people are doing it gleefully, out of their own free will. So
they think. Frank ends the book with this sobering and well-put idea,
“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 else on the planet.” Most notably he
points out, the culture that they hate so much, is free-market driven.
Britney Spears sells only because of the market, not
because some Jew professor at Harvard thought it would piss off people
in Kansas City and Topeka. They just don’t see that connection.

Frank calls this marriage of business and worker (or “the
robbers and the robbed”) “the French Revolution in reverse.” The larger
term for this insanity is “the backlash,” the line of thinking ushered
in by Reagan and his nauseating “Reagan Democrats” (OK, fine, really it
was Barry Goldwater, but Reagan just picked up his torch and ran with
it). Angry white men, upset over a culture that has passed them by (and
this has to do with the Democratic Party essentially forfeiting its
working-class base) and everywhere seeing signs of “latte-drinking,
Volvo-driving, bi-coastal sushi eaters” ruining their way of life and
undermining their middle, or “real,” American ” Frank refers to this never-ending string of complaints as the plen-T-plaint.

Everything seems to piss conservatives off. And they react by
documenting and cataloging their disgust. The result is what we will
call the plen-T-plaint, a curious amassing of petty, unrelated
beefs with the world. Its purpose is not really to evaluate the hated
liberal culture that surrounds us; the plen-T-plaint is a horizontal
rather than vertical mode of criticism, aiming instead to infuriate us
with dozens, hundreds, thousands of stories of the many tiny ways the
world around us assaults family values, uses obscenities, disrespects
parents[…] It offers no resolution, simply reminding us that we can
never win. The plen-T-plaint is the rhetorical device that makes Bill
O’Reilly’s TV show a hit, as he gets indignant one day about the Insane
Clown Posse and gets indignant the next about the Man-Boy Love
Association [NAMBLA].

So, now you got all these whiney, bitchy dudes who can’t stand the
fact that their daughter’s jeans ride so low, and they blame Bill
Clinton and his friends for it and they vote Republican, and the newly
elected politician then drafts legislation that takes away the voter’s
overtime pay and cuts deep into his healthcare. Now, as Frank says,
“the backlash seems so improbable and so self-contradictory that
liberal observers often have trouble believing it is actually
happening… these two groups–business and blue-collar–should be at
each other’s throats.” But, savvy rightwing think tanks have so totally
co-opted and honestly stolen the language needed for this type
of class-warfare debate to take place, that discourse is not only
difficult, it is non-existent. Instead, “liberal elites” are painted as
boogey men who do everything in their power to rob and destroy the
American heartland. So, these people vote “Republican in order to get
even with Wall Street.” Yes friends, it is bizarro-land. Another quote
from Frank re-sums the main theme of the book and does it beautifully,
if not tragically. I also want to stress that I think the following is
one of the very most important ideas being discussed in 2004.

But on closer inspection the country seems more like a panorama of
madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar
patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life
chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of
devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will
never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class
guys in Midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a
candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform
their region into a “rust belt,” will strike people like them blows
from which they will never recover.

What’s the Matter with Kansas is an excellent book and a
surprisingly fast read considering how much info and how many ideas
Frank manages to cram into its 250 pages. There are two main beefs I
have with it, but both of them are omissions, rather than errors or
incorrect statements/modes of thought/analysis. For the most part,
Frank is dead on. My first complaint would be how inherently
anti-Capitalist this brand of church and state politics is, this
“backlash.” Yes, I said anti-Capitalist. Anti-Adam Smith, at any
rate, a figure that I’m sure most mod-Reps have masturbated to at one
point or another. See, Smith felt that the best form of Capitalism was
one where everyone worked for his or her own best interests. It must be
stressed that Smith meant the people’s own best economic
interests, not “values,” or “What Would Jesus Do,” or any of that non
class-struggle horseshit. I’ll quote Smith a bit from his The Wealth of Nations:

Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most
advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his
own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in
view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather
necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most
advantageous to the society…

He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest,
nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of
domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security;
and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be
of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this,
as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end
which was no part of his intention.

And look! The above is even where the whole laissez-faire (invisible
hand), zero regulation, state’s rights, small government crap took off
from. And this is what Red state people swear allegiance to (by the by,
one really cool thing Frank does is to debunk the whole “Red state,
Blue state” myth. He quotes the hideously anit-intellectual David
Brooks as saying that Red staters, “know what soy beans look like when
they are growing in a field.” Besides the absurdness of that comment,
Frank points out that Brooks fails to mention that the three biggest
soy bean producing states were all Gore-voting Blues in the 2000
election, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.) Again, though, Smith was
talking about the invisible hand of a government that sets up
environmental regulations, anti-trust laws, work week limits, overtime
wages, sick and family leave, establishing strong schools, etc. Not the
invisible hand of God, which is how the plen-T-plaint folks see it. So,
what I am saying, is that Frank should have lambasted all these
wrong-thinkers for being un-capitalistic, un-American, really (of
course I know “un-American” is an empty phrase that means as much as
“un-Czech,” but I’m hoping that Frank was aiming his book at the
heathen, not the converted). Of course, it would be hard to convince a
whole bunch of folks who have never read Adam Smith, that by working
against their own best economic interests they are hurting the country.
Hence, the outrageously high price of ignorance. I feel Frank should
have talked more about this.

My other complaint is as follows: Frank introduces us to Tim
Golba, a factory worker on the bottling line of a Pepsi bottling plant;
a self-described, “little old blue-collar worker.” But this blue-collar
worker has managed to turn Kansas from one of the more liberal leaning
rep-Mod states during the early 90s to the third most rep-Con state in
the union (behind “Big Oil” Alaska and Utah) today. Why did he do it?
Turns out that Golba is really upset about abortion. It is a major sin.
God hates abortion. Golba profited none from all his hard work, save
for knowing that he has made God really happy; he has stood by the
Lord’s principles. So, once again, God is hurting people. As Frank so
softly phrases it;

Ignoring one’s economic self-interest may seem like a
suicidal move to you and me, but viewed a different way it is an act of
noble self-denial; a sacrifice for a holier cause.

But what Frank never comes out and says that it is God, the
very belief in this imaginary being who supposedly created the earth
and the heavens and love and the universe and puppies and yet is totally fixated on how many times a day you jack off,
this blind-belief is what is wreaking havoc in our country. Not because
the wall between church and state will actually every be torn down, but
because crafty multi-millionaires are fomenting the perceived
grievances of plen-T-plaint (a dorky word, but it works) subscribers,
all the while making sure the haves have much more, and leaving the have-nots
clutching their bibles, their guns and their dicks. Plus, probably a
pink slip as the factory they worked in for a good, solid, union wage
gets packed up and moved south of the border. Frank, however, never
goes this extra step, content to just leave us with a yarn about them
whacky Kansans and their crazy beliefs (like Pope Michael!). Again, I
maintain the backlash and everything that comes along with it is all
“God’s” fault. I blame “Jesus,” too. You should read the book.

About Jonny Lieberman

Jonny was the site’s co-founder and helped carry the place in the early years. There was a falling out with Erich and he left the site for good, but a lot of his reviews live on. He has moved on to a successful career writing about cars. Look him up.