One Question For Tom Frank


I have not read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, though I intend to and I think it looks like a pretty interesting piece of work. I have seen/heard/read Frank interviewed in a half dozen or so media outlets in the past month, most recently this afternoon, when he got a few words in edgewise opposite Charlie Rose. In none of those interviews have I seen the interviewer ask what I'd expect would be a glaringly obvious question:

Hasn't Kansas been a Republican state since, like, the Pleistocene epoch?

Take a look at the electoral history. Kansas went for Wilkie over FDR, Dewey over FDR, Dewey over Truman, Nixon over Kennedy, and on and on. The Sunflower State is not so thoroughly GOP as to be a landslide bucker (i.e., Goldwater lost there like just about everywhere else), but if you look back over the history, the period of late-nineteenth-century populism Frank is interested in looks like a very rare (and short-lived: thumbs up for McKinley in Old '00) phenomenon. If the Arapaho voting records are ever found, I suspect it'll turn out they were voting Republican too. Since the Democrats' loss of Kansans' loyalties is a central piece of evidence in the book, it's fair to ask when they have ever had those loyalties in the past.

Although Frank is for pretty much everything I'm against (He's hostile or indifferent to the few lifestyle and foreign policy issues where the left occasionally makes a useful ally, and on economics he's just this side of the Anti-Masonic Party), I'm not criticizing him for this. His book may well provide an interesting answer to this question. But it's telling that in interviews nobody seems to have thought to ask it.

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  1. In the 1996 presidential election, I think it was, Clinton carried every state on the west bank of the Mississippi (Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana). One state to the west, they all went for Dole. (North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.) It was a really striking phenomenon.

  2. I have not read Frank’s book, but have heard him interviewed and read several reviews of the book with great interest since I am a native Kansan. Frank comes off as incredibly condescending and elitist. The whole premise of the book seems to be that only an idiot or a robber baron could rationally be a conservative or worse a Republican, so how in the world could the working class people of Kansas possible vote Republican. There must be a conspiracy. Frank is completely incapable of seeing how anyone could rationally believe that lower taxes and less government could be in their best interest. Its one thing to believe in high taxes and big government. It is quite another thing to completely dismiss the possibility that there could be any rational argument against this position. This seems to be Frank’s basic tenant. I find it insulting. My family and friends in Kansas believe in self reliance, don’t like paying high taxes and don’t view the government as being competent enough to solve anyone’s problems. Therefore, they are for the most part Regeanite Republicans. They may be wrong, but they are making a rational choice based on their values and beliefs. Frank refuses to believe that such values and beliefs can have any rational basis. For this reason, I can’t see his book being worth mine or anyone else’s five hours of life.

  3. I haven’t seen Tom Frank interviewed, but I have read “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” My media column in the July 17 Rocky Mountain News dissects a particularly inept review of the book.

    In short, Frank states that Republicanism is part of the Kansas DNA–ever since the Civil War. Kansas flirted with populism/progressivism from the 1890s until 1916 (when Kansas voted to re-elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson in a close national race). That year was the last time Kansas voted for a Democrat for President who wasn’t winning almost every other state.

    “What’s the Matter with Kansas” is mainly about the last decade of change in Kansas politics: how the Republican party (which has almost always been the ruling party in Kansas) has been the scene of a civil war between moderates and conservatives (especially religious conservatives). The Cons won and the Mods lost.

    Frank is appalled that working-class Kansans are beguiled, in his view, by anti-elitist, anti-eastern-establishment social values candidates, when those same candidates favor tax cuts, deregulation, and other economic policies which Franks believes are contrary to the interests of working people.

  4. Thanks, Dave. Ask a question, get an answer.

  5. What did the anti-Masonic Party have to say about economics?

  6. Not only has Kansas been reliably Republican for decades, Kansas Governor Alf Landon ran for President against FDR in 1936.

  7. Tim, if you haven’t already you might want to re-read Brian Doherty’s rip on Franks in Reason’s archives.

  8. Well, there has indeed been a realignment in some regions over the past 50 years (e.g. the solidly GOP Northeast and solid Democratic South swapping places) but apparently Kansas wasn’t one of those places, so maybe it isn’t the best place to look if you’re seeking to understand political trends of the past century.

  9. I’m a Kansas native who strongly believes in lower taxes and self-reliance. However, to the poster guy, John, who didn’t have the balls or brains to read the book which I did, he failed to see that Tom Frank was actually a die-hard republican in his childhood days of Nixon and Reagan turned disenchanted, though I found that out in one of his recent interviews. In addition, maybe he can tell us what he thinks of people like Ken Lay, Bush, Cheney, as well as the rest of the Republicans and conservative politicians in general actually entertaining the idea of an increase in sales tax in place of income tax or the Patriot Act II which will turn America into a Nazi country even more than did the first Patriot Act passed in 2001. Maybe John the poster boy can get another mortgage with ditech and use that to pay down his huge debts just like enron. 😉

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