Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What's the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank

This is one of the many books that came out in the wake of President Bush’s second victory that told liberals why the country appearing to be going insane. Some of them comforted them that all of their opinions were perfect, but that they just needed to pitch them better; others were satisfied with insulting the people who voted for Bush.

The level of most liberal political discourse is extremely low at the moment—which is surprising, considering that the stakes seem so much higher than they have at any other point in my lifetime. This might be because this is a president who is not shitty in ways that require subtlety to detect; he is shitty right up front, and has managed to keep it up with impressive consistency.

Unfortunately, the people who would read a Bush-bashing book have already made up their minds, so they don’t really demand conclusive documentation or sober arguments — at this point, they just want to laugh a little, feel like they’re not alone, and possibly get some pleasure out of feeling smarter than the people that caused this mess.

Thomas Frank’s book falls pretty squarely between these two categories. The preaching-to-the-choir factor is extremely high. Then again, sometimes no one else is in the church. At their best, such books can give people a sense of why things might be going the way they’re going, and armed with knowledge they can hopefully plan the resurgence of their ideology. The bad ones just let them laugh at people and feel vindicated.

I’ve avoided the recent crop of political books (and movies) because they seem to fall exclusively in the latter category, but I read a lecture by Frank and became interested in his thesis. Basically, he said that America's conservative backlash has primarily been created by a series of cultural issues that have been selected essentially because they cannot actually be fixed by politicians, thereby allowing conservative politicians to continually stimulate the outrage of “ordinary Americans,” while not actually being forced to demonstrate achievements in the areas that they criticize.

He also points out the constant right-wing cries of victimization — things I often hear from my handful of conservative acquaintances — about the ubiquitous influence of the left-wing elite which, no matter how much power conservatives get, and how many branches of government they control, keeps trampling on the values of regular Americans.

He gives plenty of examples of politicians complaining about declining standards on television, rampant abortions, aggressive secularization, and liberal professors — all things that a Senator or Congressman absolutely cannot fix. (The President might be getting close on abortion, though.) All they can do is stir people up and make them angry that the country is going in the wrong direction. So middle and lower class voters keep electing the same people despite the fact that such politicians are usually bad for them economically: constantly favoring tax cuts on the wealthy, corporate deregulation, etc. etc.

This is unfortunately where the book fails to be satisfying for me. Frank mentions a lot of corporate corruption, layoffs, unsafe work conditions, and the destruction of small towns by places like WalMart. I’m with him on the corruption, but he absolutely fails to prove how the government could have saved the declining small towns that he talks about. Complaining (as usual) that WalMart has created sprawl and destroyed downtowns across the country, he never once puts forward a policy proposal: is the government supposed to ban WalMart from spreading to certain places? Does the simple fact that WalMart has created an America that is less aesthetically pleasing make it bad for people? Last time I checked, they were cheaper than most places.

Occasionally he’ll bother providing evidence — usually in the footnotes, by the way, which is a little annoying. For example, he illustrates how agribusiness, with the help of the government, forces down prices for the goods it buys, and then doesn’t bother passing the savings onto consumers, pretty much proving that it is an oligarchy. He demonstrates how often conservative politicians seem to think that “free-market” reforms are just doing whatever’s best for businesses, ignoring the fact that the market is only functioning freely when consumers pay the lowest viable price.

For the most part, though, he just assumes that any large corporation trying to keep costs down is in some way a criminal enterprise, and that policies that favor them are essentially robbing people. I am, by constitution, sympathetic to such positions — I would, really, love to believe this, but I need more than a guy walking through a ruined Kansas town to do it for me. (“Dixie Rising,” by the way, a largely forgotten book by Peter Applebome, was much better at describing both the pros and cons of type of jobs that industry brings to the South and Midwest. And it took the people in South a little more seriously than Frank takes these Kansans, as hard as he tries.)

Frank does have a prescription for the Democratic Party. He says that Clinton’s New Democrats reworked the party to make it more business-friendly, distancing it from the unions that had always been its base, and avoiding class-based rhetoric. Basically, this made them much less distinguishable from Republicans in the economic sphere, meaning that the main grounds for choosing one party or another became social issues and “values.” So basically, he wants the Democratic Party to return to its Social Democrat roots, but just assumes that the reader will agree with the Social Democrat platform.

So there is at least a new platform, allowing this book to fall in the higher end of the preaching-to-the-choir set of books. Usually well-written, although pretty much continuously sneering - which will annoy some people and gratify others - the book is good for a few laughs, a few shocks of recognition, and for all its flaws will at least force you to try to find some answers to the questions that Frank avoids.


Anonymous said...

You're what's wrong with liberals and Kansas. And clearly, you are a polygomist

Anonymous said...

Although I did find just enough interesting nuggets to keep me mining through the book (for instance, apparently there's a rival pope who lives in Kansas), the sneering really got me down, man. It's hard to give even valid points the attention they deserve when they're coated in so much spleen. And I found myself completely baffled when midway through the book, in a tender moment, Frank reminisced about his boyhood Republican dreams and backlash leanings without pausing to de-sneer. I’m left with the lingering feeling that perhaps he might be tone deaf.