Unlikely though it may sound, Kansas is the vanguard of the nation. Far from being the idyllic heart of Middle America, this is a land swept from time to time by cultural upheavals every bit as turbulent as the twister that blew poor Dorothy off to Oz. And what’s more, the movements that take the Sunflower State by storm have a way of engulfing the whole country. Everything from Pizza Hut to the Civil War started here, and today Kansas is on the bleeding edge of trends ranging from globalization (and immigration) to corporate scandals (think Sprint) to the phenomenon that Thomas Frank calls “the backlash.”
What’s the Matter With Kansas? is a dispatch from the front lines of the culture war, a book filled with anecdotes about the men and women, rich and poor, who dedicate much of their lives to fighting over abortion, evolution, and control of the state government. Frank, a native Kansan himself, doesn’t agree with these people politically but, at least where the blue-collar activists are concerned, he often finds them likeable and always accords them a degree of respect. That goes not only for the pro-life leader who works on the line in a soda-pop bottling factory, but also for the sincere Catholic so traumatized by the Church’s apparent liberalism that he decided to declare himself the true successor to the throne of St. Peter. Unlike Oz, Kansas has no omnipotent wizardbut it does have its very own pope.
Frank pleads with his reader not to dismiss this man as an outright loon; the self-styled Pope Michael I is only the most extreme example of a type that, according to the author, is common on these gusty plains. Such Kansans take religion very seriously: so many Kansans so seriously, in fact, that in 1999 the state school board expunged Darwinism from Kansas’s testing standards. Voters and activists who supported that move are also the cadres that helped elect Sam Brownback, a man who has since made a name for himself as an outspoken pro-lifer and opponent of human cloning, to the U.S. Senate. There are a growing number of politicians like Brownback in Kansas, from U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Wichita to a legion of state legislators, actual and would-be. The Religious Right flexes electoral muscle here.
Not everyone in the state is happy about that. One Republican congressional candidate was sufficiently ashamed of the school board’s action in 1999 that he put up a billboard near Kansas City that read simply “Embarrassed?” And in 2002, moderate Republicans, or “mods” as Frank calls them, voted against their own party’s gubernatorial nominee to help elect Democrat Kathleen Sibelius. The outgoing Republican governor, Bill Graves, refused to endorse his party’s candidate. The “cons,” for their part, have just as little love of the “mods”Frank relates that in 1996 the con-controlled state Republican Party refused to make Governor Graves a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Elsewhere the country may be divided between red and blue, but in Kansas, fratricidal factions of a single party duke it out.
Or do they? Frank is a man of old-time left-wing sensibilities; he isn’t inclined to take social issues at face value. Instead he subjects Kansas politics to an analysis of class interests, the results of which present him with a paradox. Grassroots conservatives vote for an end to abortion, bringing faith back to the schools, and cleaning up the culture. But what they get from their elected officials are lowered taxes for the state’s wealthiest few and big perks for big business. The abortion clinics never close, but factories do. Frank is not explicitly a Marxist but his bottom line is that the backlash, the movement of religious and social conservatives against the perceived power of liberal elites, is a form of false-consciousness, substituting for a real and ongoing class war a symbolic and ineffectualand never-endingculture war.
To make his case Frank examines some of the beneficiaries of the backlash, both those in elected office and those in the private sector. Pro-life champion Brownback, he notes, started his career as a pro-choice (and pro-business) state secretary of agriculture. The board of education that threw Darwin out of class Frank characterizes as opportunistic: they knew that the uproar they caused would get them duly denounced in editorial pages from New York to Los Angeles and by everyone from biology professors to stand-up comics. And to be damned by such liberal elites would only help at election time; as Frank summarizes, “it was an exercise in anti-intellectualism.” Liberals with Ivy League degrees make useful pincushions for the barbs of backlash leaders, Frank argues, even when those very same leaders frequently have Ivy League educations themselves.
The millionaires of Mission Hills, a suburb of Kansas City that is the wealthiest place in the state, may not like all this hubbub. But they can live with its consequences: the telecom execs and CEOs of this privileged enclave profit mightily from the tax cuts and deregulation that backlash politicians shower upon them. To guarantee that readers will see this as a bad thingand to amplify their sense of class consciousness, or indeed, resentmentFrank early on in his account details the kinds of corporate scandals that have shaken Kansas in recent years. There’s the tale of the former public utility, Westar, whose flashy chief executive’s compensation went up even as the company’s share prices went down. His windfall only stopped when he left the company under the cloud of a money-laundering charge. And, of course, there’s Sprint, the Kansas City area’s largest employer, two of whose executives made over $300 million on paper from the telecom’s planned merger with WorldCom, even though federal regulators ultimately scuppered the deal. Had the corporate marriage taken place, the K.C. suburb of Overland Park, home to the company, would have been devastated, and after it had just remodeled part of its south side to accommodate the company, to boot.
The picture Frank paints of Kansas beyond the Missouri border is even bleaker. Junk shops proliferate in small towns denuded of industry and commerce. Rumors have it that some places, their young having long since fled, survive solely on Social Security. One town that it doing well economically is Garden City, in the southwestthe meatpacking facilities that long ago left Kansas City came here. And with them came immigrants who would work for little and complain even less; now this small Midwestern town of 30,000 is 44 percent Hispanic. Frank’s interest, as always, is in the economic rather than cultural changes that ensued, and he evokes “the trailer-park cities, dilapidated and unpaved and rubbish-strewn, that house a large part of Garden City’s workforce.” As for Kansas agriculture, the story is one of relentless consolidation. The federal government still subsidizes farmers but now, since 1996, does so in such a way as to benefit the largest corporate farms the most.
But blue-collar Kansans are not up in arms over their economic plight. Instead, it’s the culture, stupid. What worries the folks who work in bottling plants and Boeing factories is the moral decay of the nation and the sense that the country is being run by alien interests, by liberal elites. While never abandoning his economic emphasis, in rare moments Frank concedes some points here. He writes, for example, “whatever else the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision might have been, it was also a monument to the power of the professions”medical, journalistic, and above all legal. “Roe v. Wade demonstrated in no uncertain manner the power of the legal profession to override everyone from the church to the state legislature.” Yet still he believes the backlash is misdirected, and he wryly observes that the moral problems persistand show every sign of doing so for some time to comeeven with Republicans in charge of every branch of the federal government. No matter how much power the Republicans and their allied business interests accrue, the myth persists that liberals are running the showwhich only exacerbates the alienation felt by grassroots conservative Kansans.
All of this makes for bracing reading, and it’s to Frank’s credit that his prose style, animated, angry, and without guile, fits his material so well. His arguments feel more persuasive than they actually are. Frank provides little direct evidence, for example, of precisely how business interests are harming the working Kansan: there are suggestions and anecdotes, but little sustained argument. He simply assumes too much, and his assumptions are all predictably leftist. This blinkers him in other respects as well. While he does criticize the Democratic Party for its Clintonesque “triangulation” and failure to address the economic interests of Kansans, he never asks why the Democrats have such an allergy to the moral values of those same voters. Based on the evidence Frank himself provides, one would think that a pro-life, culturally conservative, economically liberal candidate could do very well; why then don’t the Democrats field such candidates? Frank doesn’t ask because the answer might suggest that there’s some substance to populist conservative complaints about elitist, godless liberalism after all.
The book suffers too from an almost kaleidoscopic approach to different angles of its subject, with chapters dedicated to disparate topics such as Frank’s own class-conscious experiences in college, the history of Kansan populism, and profiles of leading figures of the backlash. All of it is interesting and relevantindeed, almost every chapter contains an entire larder of food for thought but the whole fails to be greater than the sum of its parts. The excerpts that ran in Harper’s some months ago had more focus and rigor.
These failures of form and content do not seriously undermine the book’s value, however. Conservatives will answer the questions Frank asks otherwise than he does; nonetheless they are questions that needed to be asked. The tension between cultural ends and political means, for one thing, is of mounting relevance to conservatives in this election season. And class analysis, which is simply a look at how economics and politics intertwine, is something more on the Right would do well to take seriously. This is not so foreign to the conservative tradition as one might think: not only have such men as James Burnham taken a keen interest in it, but even before Marx an American thinker, John C. Calhoun, had staked out a theory of class. Conservatives will not, of course, want to abandon the culture war, nor should they. But we stand to be reminded from Frank about urgency of issues beyond culture and morals.
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