Thomas Frank has hooked a lot of people's attention with a very intriguing title, and he's drawn them in with his very simple answer: the people of Kansas are really stupid.
Of course he doesn't state it exactly like that. His claim is that slick puppeteers in the Republican leadership have ridden to power by cynically stoking the flames of a culture war they don't care about, in order to divert attention from their real ambition, which is to reconfigure the U.S. economy so that it redistributes income from the poor and the middle class to the rich. They've created a bitter antipathy among middle Americans toward the cultural elite ensconced on the coasts so that, too blinded by their indignation at not having their solid virtues lauded by the liberal establishment, these gullible Midwesterners won't see that the very politicians who claim to share their worldview are playing them for fools. The epicenter of this phenomenon, according to Mr. Frank, is Kansas.
In Frank's telling, it's not the coastal elites who disdain middle America, but Kansans themselves and other "red-staters" who are filled with contempt toward the liberal "blue-staters" who don't share their commitment to loyalty, reverence, and a solid work ethic. Media bias and liberal cultural elitism are simply bogeymen created by the Right in order to give it a coherent enemy. As Frank puts it, "liberal bias exists because it must exist in order for the rest of contemporary conservatism to be true."
Now granted, it's almost unfair to point to the post-election reaction of many of our most noted liberal elites toward their fellow citizens in the heartland, since Thomas Frank wrote this book well before November 2004. But we're talking about a book that purports to be an insightful social analysis of the forces that drive our politics, consider the reaction of Ted Rall, a fairly well known political pundit. In his immediate post-election commentary, entitled "Confessions of a Cultural Elitist," he concludes: "Why shouldn't those of us on the coasts feel superior? We eat better, travel more, dress better, watch cooler movies, earn better salaries, meet more interesting people, listen to better music and know more about what's going on in the world." Of course, if it weren't for cynically manipulative Republican operatives, everyone would realize that this kind of statement (which, in the days after the election, filled virtually every conceivable form of mass communication, from airwaves, to blogs, to the pages of the New York Times) was just a little friendly joshing.
Frank points out, fairly enough, that although conservatives are quick to blame liberal elites for the degrading cultural fare that pollutes our airwaves and coarsens our public life, they don't seem to make the connection that the same market forces that they extol for economic dynamism also drive the industries that crank out the movies, television shows, music, "wardrobe malfunctions", and other cultural artifacts. "Counterculture," Frank observes "has been taken up by Madison Avenue and is today the advertising industry's stock-in-trade, the nonstop revolution that moves cereal and cigarettes by the carload." This insight opens the door to the possibility of grappling with a fascinating and difficult question: is it possible to sustain a free economy and at the same time uphold and support public morality? Is liberty, after all, fundamentally inseparable from license? Unfortunately, Frank almost immediately veers away from engaging this conundrum. Rather, he simply asserts that the fact that great profits are made from the degradation of public life reveals that conservative leaders who claim to care about cultural issues are hypocrites.
Even when discussing Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, Frank reveals a deeply truncated view of politics and society. Senator Brownback is a conservative Republican, whose religious faith (he is a convert to Catholicism, inspired by a meeting with Mother Teresa) leads him not only to take the expected pro-life and pro-marriage positions normally associated with the "religious Right," but which also motivates his break with his party's leadership over issues such as immigration reform and seeking to bring about racial healing through initiatives such as the establishment of a national African American history museum. Mr. Frank isn't buying it. After a quick swipe at the authenticity of Brownback's conversion (suggesting that it may have been "a gesture toward the growing Latino population of southwestern Kansas"which would be a truly weird political calculation in a state in which only 17% of the population is Catholic), he insists that all of Brownback's votes stemming from his religious faith, such as opposition to abortion and cloning, or calls to halt the persecution of Christians around the world, as well as his crusade to end child sex-trafficking, are "purely symbolic." His real interests, Mr. Frank insists, are economic, and when God and mammon conflict, he will follow mammon. His tepid evidence for this is that Senator Brownback opposed rolling back the deregulation of the radio industry. Note that the issue at hand was not regulating the content of broadcasts, but rather the question of re-imposing limits on the number of stations that an individual or corporation could own. Still, Frank insists, if Brownback were really serious about "actually doing something about the open cultural sewer he has spent his career deploring" he would have supported station ownership limits. Sadly, this far-fetched interpretation is the only example Frank can muster to indict Brownback.
As a matter of fact, it is Frank not conservative Kansans who can't comprehend the real motives that animate political action. Take, for example, Senator Brownback's opposition to embryonic stem cell research. This is a moral position, which the senator derives from his faith. It is not a clearly partisan issue, although more Republicans than Democrats are opposed. At the same time, a number of Republican leaders favor federal support for stem cell research. This is an issue, remember, that Frank dismisses as "purely symbolic." And yet, this is an issue with immediate and pressing economic consequencesand the profits are on the side of favoring, not opposing, stem cell research. Just across the river from Kansas, Missourians are currently grappling with the issue of whether or not to ban embryonic stem cell research. The prestigious Stowers Institute, a cancer research center, has publicly warned that if Missouri passes a stem cell ban, they will not build their planned 600,000 square-foot research facility in the state. Whether one agrees or disagrees with stem-cell research, it is clear that there is no profit to be made in opposing it, and a great deal of money on the side of supporting it. Yet Mr. Frank cannot comprehend this, because it does not fit in to his paradigm of the relationship between economic and moral motives.
However, it is not entirely accurate to say that Frank sees only economic motives as real. There is one more "real" motive he acknowledgesresentment. He believes that almost all socially conservative positionswhat he calls the "backlash"regardless of the religious or theoretical rhetoric they are garbed in, arise from the fact that lower middle-class Midwesterners resent the cultural elite, and therefore oppose their cultural policies to demonstrate that they don't have to accept their moral leadership.
This envious opposition to cultural elitism reveals itself foremost in a fundamental anti-intellectualism. Thus, Frank argues, the fervor of the anti-abortion movement arises not from a legitimate conviction that innocent life is being sacrificed; rather, it is "its power as an anti-intellectual rallying point" that accounts for the centrality of the pro-life cause among social conservatives. So convinced is he that only class resentment can explain the strength of the movement that he finds it difficult even to comprehend how pro-lifers can equate their movement to the anti-slavery movement of the 1850's.
Now, for most people, this is not too hard to understand: in both movements, those who sought to protect innocent human life from a culture that devalued it were considered beyond the pale of political discourse because they disturbed the court-mandated compromise with evil that allowed politics as usual to continue. Although this parallel has been drawn by a number of peoplemost famously, perhaps, by George McKenna in a cover article in the Atlantic in 1995Frank just doesn't get it. At first, he decides that it's just a way for pro-lifers to call pro-choicers names. But then he applies his construct that resentment is the key to everything. Doing this, he finds a way to reclaim the historical high ground from the pro-life movement and to link them, not with the abolitionists, but with the backwoods pro-slavery "Bushwackers" of Missouri who violently opposed the settlement of Kansas as a free state. According to Frank, both contemporary pro-lifers and the Bushwackers felt themselves to be despised by the cultural elite of the day; therefore, they're both the same.
It actually is this focus on resentment that is the key to unlocking Thomas Frank's entire understanding of politics. After all, his focus on economics doesn't really make too much sense. It's based on the premise that conservative policies actually are bad for ordinary people, and the evidence just isn't there to support that argument. In fact, Kansas, that reddest of red states, is doing better than the rest of the country on most major economic indicators. So, Frank has constructed a paradigm so powerful that he can't see beyond it even when it is directly contrary to fact, all to explain the solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Why?
The answer comes in the book's autobiographical section. As a true-believing conservative in high-school and young adulthood, Frank's conversion to liberalism came about, not through seeing for himself the effects of poverty, nor through economic arguments that convinced him of the error of his ways, but rather as the result of being snubbed by former high-school classmates, who came from wealthier families than his, who wouldn't talk to him after they pledged the elite fraternities at the University of Kansas. When he realized that he was not going to be selected to a leadership position among the college Republicans at KU: "I did a very un-Kansan thing: I started voting Democratic." In other words, and by his own admission, because young Frank's political identity sprang from his resentment of the popular kids, he has decided that everybody else must also make their political choices on the same basis.
I don't want to be too dismissive of Frank's question. Having lived in Kansas for three years, I am well aware of the fact that it does have challenges. It does not offer the overwhelming variety of exotic consumer choices to be found in our coastal citiesas a matter of fact, in my town it can be a challenge to come up with a sesame-seed bagel. However, what's wrong with Kansas is far outweighed by what's right with Kansas: it's the home of hard-working, honest, God-fearing, well-informed Americans who understand the importance of what they believe in, and are willing to stand up to the ridicule and resentment of those who despise them for their beliefs, and make up their own minds about who best represents their interests. And that's worth a lot of bagels.