Kansas on My Mind I
Bill Long 9/5/05
What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?
Thomas Frank has given us a long-overdue analysis of a phenomenon that is, at first glance, puzzling in American life: why has the ascendancy of 'far right' politics, replete with liberal bashing, celebration of God's dislike for Darwin and homosexuals, and demands for radical tax or dividend/interest cuts, arisen largely among a group of people for whom the economic agenda of the far right (tax cuts for the rich) is contrary to their interests? That is, Frank convincingly shows that the ones screeching and following the far right agenda are, in general, people who aren't rich or in a position to gain by the economic implications of their message. Why, then, do they proclaim the gospel of moral decline, small government and massive tax cuts? In my judgment, Frank never answers this question cogently even though he documents the phenomenon with literary aplomb and endless quotations from 'far right' thought, if thought is the right word for it.
In trying to analyze this phenomenon, Frank looks at the history of his home state--Kansas. Taking his title loosely from the early 20th century Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Willam Allen White from Emporia, KS, Frank describes how KS has changed since his boyhood in the 1970s and 1980s. Using the examples of the chic Mission Hills subdivision of Johnson County (near KC) and the meat-packing center of Garden City (Western KS), along with ample comments about Wichita, Frank shows that economic consolidation in the farm community and conspicuous shows of wealth in Mission Hills now exist alongside of hundreds of declining farm communities dotting the KS landscape. Using this economic transformation of KS as a backdrop, he proceeds to show how KS formerly had a radical/populist political history but has now been taken over not by the "standard" or "mainline" Republicans but by the fighting right-wingers who want to bring God into everything they do even as they fight for tax cuts for the most wealthy.
Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is his documentation of exactly how the hard right took over the Republican party from the "Dole/Kassebaum" Republicans in the 1990s. Since this part of his account happens to coincide with the six years I lived in KS (1990-96), I was able to agree with him and know about almost all the people of whom he spoke. The point he never tires of making is simply stated: the people pursuing a moral/moralistic agenda in politics are doing so in a way that undercuts their own economic interests. Instead of identifying and pursuing interests of their class, they are screaming for tax cuts for the very people whom they vilify (the rich limousine elitist liberals) as well as wealthy Republicans who are probably of a more mainline variety and also do not like their far-right politics.
Where do We Go From Here?
Frank is so proud of himself for discovering this interesting point that he never really tells us why he thinks this is happening or where this movement started. Instead he offers us the KS story, where the right wing took over the Republican party beginning in the early 1990s, and an all-too-short critique of the centrist Democratic Leadership Committee which gave us Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the 1992 Presidential election. His point, which is probably correct but does not get to the question behind his thesis, is that Democrats sought a centrist strategy in the mid-1980s because of crushing defeats at the polls and the desire to appear as friendly to the newly-developing sources of wealth (primarily in the high-tech industry) emerging in the 1980s. As a result of pursuing an agenda towards the center and assuming that the traditional Democratic constituencies would always be there for them, the Democratic party opened itself up for the Republicans to swoop in and "claim" the union members (or ex union members), blue collar workers and urban dwellers that had traditionally voted Democratic. This is precisely what occurred.
Though Frank has given us an entertaining and fast-paced narrative, laden with interesting, and precisely stated and documented facts about KS, he doesn't adequately describe the social context in which this transformation in American life has arisen. In addition, he has not made clear whether he thinks that the economic changes that came over KS in the last 40 years are in some way related to the agenda of the far right or whether these are simply the results of forces that have nothing to do with the religious zealots.
One way to assess Frank's argument is to state my own approach to two or three central social realities of American life during the past 40 years. To that end, I will give my thesis here and then try to support it in the next essay. In short it is this: (1) Republican backlash against Democrats/liberals began shortly after Goldwater lost the election of 1964 and Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill in July of that same year. But the attitude that most infuriated the Republicans was the Democratic arrogance that characterized their approach to government/governing over the next 15 years. (2) The major social reality of the 1990s was the creation of millions of very rich people in the United States who wanted desperately to make sure that the money they made, either through stock options, the Internet bubble or other financial dealings, was secure. (3) In order to make sure that their fortunes were secure, these nouveau riche, combined with those of old money, pursued an agenda or tax cuts and other benefits. (4) They decided that the "moral agenda" would be the best way to provide cover for them while they amassed resources and had legislation passed to protect their burgeoning fortunes. (5) Lower middle class and middle class folks, primarily making up the religious right, eagerly became the builders of the fortress to protect the rich because of psychic benefits that such action provided for them.
Go to the next essay for an explanation of my thesis.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long