The Fever Swamps of Kansas

A leftist tries to make sense of grassroots conservatism.

(Page 2 of 2)

Here's the story Frank should have related but didn't. The old liberal coalition unraveled because of the divisions within it: between blacks and ethnics, between Cold Warriors and the peace movement, between those who run the federal bureaucracy and those who rely on it. George Wallace got blue-collar support in the north with campaigns that mixed racial resentment, heavy-spending economics, and attacks on intellectuals and big government. That platform didn't necessarily harmonize any better than the old Democratic coalition did--Wallace is surely the only presidential candidate to have declared he'd appoint George Meany secretary of labor and Milton Friedman secretary of the treasury--but its success with white working-class voters said a lot about the coalition's crippled condition.

This realignment wasn't just a matter of race. In 1976 the sociologist Donald Warren wrote The Radical Center, a study of an emerging political species he called Middle American Radicals. This group was marked by a strong distrust of both the rich and the very poor; its mix of left- and right-wing resentments paved the way for the Reagan Democrats and the Perot movement. The conflicts that defined it--anti-busing riots in Boston, textbook fights in West Virginia--were wars over race in the first case and religion in the second. But they were also battles between local power and distant expertise. One of the wiser comments about the West Virginia conflict, in which Kanawha County's parents (many of them fundamentalist Christians) demanded a role in the selection of school texts, came from the Los Angeles Times, which observed in 1974 that a "considerable intellectual agility is required to maintain the proposition that community control of textbooks is fine for militant blacks in Manhattan, but altogether abhorrent for militant whites in Appalachia." Yet such contortions were the standard liberal response to the revolt.

In the busing wars, similarly, the phrase "neighborhood schools" wasn't just a code for segregation. Parents resented the loss of power over their children's educations, not just on white blocks but on black ones. (A substantial segment of the anti-racist movement preferred community control of schools to compulsory integration, and by 1975 a National Opinion Research Center poll found 53 percent of American blacks opposed to busing.) Sometimes the dispute was wrapped up with other localist issues. In at least one case--in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown--the battle over busing came on the heels of a war over urban renewal, in which the liberal city fathers had wanted to condemn older buildings, subsidize new development, and transform a working-class community into a district for middle-class professionals. To the natives, both fights were waged against an elite bent on destroying their home.

If liberalism, in Frank's words, "ceased to be relevant" to this "traditional constituency," it was at least partly because the leading liberals were acting against that constituency's interests. The hardhats of Charlestown didn't face a laissez-faire Democratic Party that ignored their economic interests and a Republican Party that appealed to their values. They faced a big-government Democratic Party that was actively working against them and in favor of a wealthier group.

They were on the losing end of that struggle: Massachusetts remains a solidly blue state, and Charlestown is now gentrified. West Virginia, on the other hand, is both a swing state and a hotbed of backlash sentiment; in 1999 one of its union locals even endorsed Pat Buchanan for president. (Bush carried the state in both 2000 and 2004.) As for the Republican-red Great Plains, it's curious that in a book on why Kansans have turned against liberalism, Frank never mentions rural resentment of environmental regulations, which have effectively expropriated the property of many small landowners and provoked an intense grassroots revolt.

In short, perhaps the Great Backlash regards liberals as an elite because sometimes, just like conservatives, liberals really do act like an elite. You can do that when you have a powerful government at your command. Back in the Progressive Era, Eastern reformers offered a platform of "scientific" management, of giant enterprises and giant government working for the collective good. This set the template for the most destructive species of 20th-century liberalism: the liberalism that bulldozed neighborhoods to build freeways, that flooded farmers' land to erect the Tennessee Valley Authority, that drafted kids to fight in what Bob Dole so accurately called "Democrat wars."

Frank tells some fascinating stories in this book, and he lets loose some clever bon mots. As literature, this is top-notch. As history and as sociology, though, it's just as notable for the stories it chooses not to tell.

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