The Fever Swamps of Kansas

A leftist tries to make sense of grassroots conservatism.

What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Frank, New York: Metropolitan Books, 306 pages, $24

A specter once haunted the Great Plains of America: the specter of populism. The agrarian radicals of the People's Party carried Kansas in the election of 1892--the national victor, Grover Cleveland, didn't even place--and throughout that decade the Kansas Populists elected governors, legislators, and judges; the laws they passed ranged from a ban on Pinkerton strikebreakers to a pay cut for county officials.

The state establishment regarded the newcomers with all the horror of a dowager discovering her daughter in bed with a hobo. In 1896, in an essay called "What's the Matter With Kansas?," the Emporia pundit William Allen White attacked the upstarts with withering sarcasm. "We have an old mossback Jacksonian who snorts and howls because there is a bathtub in the state house; we are running that old jay for Governor," he wrote. "We have another shabby, wild-eyed, rattle-brained fanatic who has said openly in a dozen speeches that 'the rights of the user are paramount to the rights of the owner'; we are running him for Chief Justice, so that capital will come tumbling over itself to get into the state. We have raked the old ash heap of failure in the state and found an old human hoop-skirt who has failed as a businessman, who has failed as an editor, who has failed as a preacher, and we are going to run him for Congressman-at-Large."

A century later, Kansas remains a hotbed of disreputable causes: It is headquarters for creationists, survivalists, militant anti-abortionists. But while the old populists, to the extent that they fit on the conventional spectrum, were a tribe of the radical left, their contemporary analogs are firmly rooted in the right. Like their 19th-century predecessors, they are a formidable force in state politics.

This puzzles Thomas Frank, a leftist pundit who has gradually moved from the world of self-published magazines to the op-ed page of The New York Times. His most recent book is What's the Matter with Kansas?, a jeremiad whose title is a deliberate, ironic echo of White's ancient rant. Across Middle America, but especially in the Sunflower State, Frank sees a "Great Backlash," a social-political trend that he doesn't define very precisely. Indeed, he never adequately answers the obvious question, "A backlash against what?" Frank says it began as a reaction to the ferment of the late '60s, but he also cites John Stormer's None Dare Call It Treason as "an early backlash text," even though it was published in 1964 and is much closer in spirit to the McCarthy movement of the '50s. (Of course, the McCarthyists themselves were a backlash of sorts.)

But it's not hard to see what Frank is getting at. Whatever precursors you might find in the McCarthy era and elsewhere, his Great Backlash begins with George Wallace's crusade against the "pointy-headed intellectuals" and Spiro Agnew's war on the "effete corps of impudent snobs." It encompasses the labor Democrats who supported Reagan in the '80s, and it now includes any Republican whose rhetoric evokes resentment of the coastal elites. Populist in its style but capitalist in its platform, it is, Frank argues, a genuinely grassroots phenomenon: "a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people." The point of the book is to understand why such a movement exists, focusing on Kansas as a bellwether but with an eye on all of Middle America. (Indeed, the first few pages discuss a county in Nebraska.)

Frank's prose is sharp and funny, and he writes with a Kansas native's appreciation for history and local detail. He avoids the condescension that often accompanies left-liberal ruminations on "angry white men"; he has an obvious affection for the state he's chastising and even for the conservative activists he profiles. He's at his best when he cuts through the cant of other commentators: mocking media clichés, making mincemeat of silly stereotypes about Red and Blue America, exposing the unexamined assumptions of such conservative pundits as Blake Hurst, Ann Coulter, and David Brooks. Brooks, the author of Bobos in Paradise, comes in for the most punches, almost all of which connect: Frank faults him for false or misleading statements about everything from high school cafeterias to the voting patterns of Chicago's North Shore.

By the end of the book, though, Frank feels like a bizarro-world version of his favorite antagonist. Frank and Brooks might not agree on much, but they're cut from the same cloth: Both are clever writers blessed with genuine insights but cursed with enormous blind spots.

Frank's argument, in a nutshell, is that you can't understand the backlash without thinking about class. In Kansas' war between conservative and moderate Republicans, here called Cons and Mods, the Cons tend to be less wealthy, less educated, less powerful; the Mods represent the upper-crust suburbanites who find the religious right embarrassing. In earlier days, Frank suggests, the backlashers' social status would have made them Democrats, but the Democratic Party has abandoned the appeals to class interests "that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans," and in this way they have "left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns or abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns." (He does not claim that a majority of working-class voters embrace the backlash, just that a majority of the backlash is working-class.)

The Republicans, Frank continues, cannily focus their rhetoric on symbolic battles--against abortion, gay rights, teaching evolution--that they aren't likely to win. By his telling, the result is a perpetual state of grassroots anger that keeps propelling conservatives into office, where they abandon the liberal programs Frank likes and vote for "free market" policies that benefit the rich. As a result, the right has "rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation)." Now it wants to eliminate antitrust and other reforms "of the earliest years of progressivism."

Frank's argument gradually moves from the obviously accurate (the class composition of the conservative revolt, which he documents carefully) to the obviously fanciful (the alleged march toward laissez faire). Far from repealing the 20th century, the ruling party hasn't even made it past the '60s, given that our Republican president has pushed through an enormous, expensive expansion of Medicare, the Great Society's most costly economic reform. It isn't just cultural conservatives who haven't gotten much from Republican rule. Free market conservatives--the kind who choose market principles over business interests when the two conflict--have been disappointed as well.

This is worth stressing, because it demonstrates the confusion that clouds Frank's discussion of his ideological enemies. Almost none of the policies he describes as "free market" actually represent free markets. He points with scorn to the Kansas Republican Party's platform of 1998, which is very anti-statist in its economics, but he doesn't mention that hardly any of the radical planks he cites have become law. Like the culturally conservative proposals that get right-wing pols elected, they seem to be there to keep activists happy, not to change the system. When Frank turns to the state's actual policies, the picture looks very different.

He recounts corporate scandals, for example, in which energy companies tried to "socialize the risk [and] privatize the profits." By definition, that's crony capitalism, not laissez faire. He devotes pages to decrying the decline of the family farm and the rise of the giant agricorp, a phenomenon he lays at the market's door. But while market forces certainly have pushed a lot of former farmers into other lines of work, the enormous enterprises that have replaced them, and which have earned so much of Frank's scorn, aren't exactly free of state protection or farm subsidies. Indeed, they get the bulk of the loot. Corporate welfare queens like ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland are no more a product of the market than National Public Radio.

Then there are the tax cuts that Frank blames for Kansas' fiscal crisis. Slashing taxes is certainly a free market prescription. But while the state has reduced some levies in the last decade, it also has passed several increases, including a $300 million hike in sales, gas, inheritance, and cigarette taxes in 2002. Meanwhile, according to Karl Peterjohn of the Kansas Taxpayers Network, the state's All Fund budget grew each year during the deregulatory '90s--faster than both inflation and population--while the General Fund budget grew every year but 1992. Far from leading a libertarian revolution, the Cons have been buying votes with tax dollars, same as their Mod rivals.

Just as Republicans aren't always the party of free markets, the Democrats haven't consistently stood for the working man. Late in the book, Frank acknowledges this fact. "Somewhere in the last four decades," he says, "liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Shawnee and Wichita with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over." I think this statement is true, but it's also maddeningly vague. How, when, and why did liberalism lose its relevance? Frank doesn't say, though the answers are surely central to his inquiry. He does attack the Democratic Leadership Council types who took over the party in the late '80s and, in Frank's words, "seem to look forward to the day when their party really is what David Brooks and Ann Coulter claim it to be now: a coming together of the rich and self-righteous." But the backlash began well before then, and Frank himself observes that the party's move to the center was a "response to its waning fortunes," not the original cause of the descent. He never attempts to explain that decline--perhaps because you won't find many clues in Kansas, a state dominated since its founding by the Republicans.

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