Sunday, March 3, 2013

“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

During the OPEC oil embargoes of the 1970s, which hit the chilly Northeast especially hard, bumper stickers in oil-producing Texas read:

“Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark”

That sort of smug schadenfreude has more recently been heard from the Tea-Party types, and now we hear them chortling over the Sequester.

This morning’s Washington Post features an article from Kansas, reporting “a kind of defiant joy that the $85B in budget cuts had arrived”:

GARDEN CITY, Kan. — The federal budget cuts were still an abstraction as American Eagle Flight 3429 crossed the snow-crusted plains into southwestern Kansas. Kevin Colvin, a construction manager flying in for work, looked out of the window at the tiny airport below.
“They make it sound like, ‘Oh my God! We’re going to die if we make these cuts!’” he said, eating a potato chip, the cuts still two days away. “I think it’s a bunch of BS.”

A familiar stance.  But the article goes on:

The cuts came into clearer focus Thursday. Garden City Regional Airport would lose its air traffic controllers, saving the federal government $318,756 and leaving pilots to handle landings, takeoffs and weather conditions mostly by themselves.
“Oh,” said Dave Unruh, a retired farmer who heard the news as he waited for a flight to Dallas. “Is that part of the deal?”

It is hard to resist a sort of meta-schadenfreude or gegenschadenfreude, at the sniping from these I’ve-got-mine clueless buffoons.   For they are not innocent victims of the present mess.  Tea Party territory, which rails against the government, receives more per-capita in government handouts than do those northeasterners who pay for those with their taxes.   Their attitude could be deemed hypocritical, except that, in many cases, it is not even (does not rise to the level of) a conscious hypocrisy:  facts have been safely walled-off from their self-celebrating victimhood narratives.


This story comes just as I finally got around to reading a very probing and observant book by Thomas Frank, called What’s the Matter with Kansas?  , from 2004.
Students of American history and letters  will immediately notice that the title recycles that of a wave-making editorial by Kansan journalist William Allen White, from back in 1896.  Frank’s use is a cheeky détournement, since White was blasting Democrats and Populists from the right, whereas Frank is taking down Republicans and …. Populists, this time from the left.

Prior to the appearance of that book, I had known of Frank only as the editor of an engaging and quirky periodical (thus called out of courtesy;  its appearance was aperiodic) to which I once subscribed:  The Baffler.   I assumed he hailed from some upscale area of the Northeast, and that the book-title was simply an opportunistic appropriation of a title that would ring a bell in the heads of prospective readers (that really does help sell books), and that he was sniping from outside.  So I never read it, until work on a current essay-project (“Depth Psychology of the Electorate”) sent me back to Toqueville and to Thomas Frank.

It turns out the book is really and truly about Kansas:  not simply as a springboard to familiar thoughts, nor as just one patch of a broader canvas.   Frank himself was born there, grew up there, matriculated in college there.  And in high school, he moved in the milieu that later produced the talk-radio ranters and the prairie wingnuts.   Thus, as a native who returned, he combines, to advantage, the insights of the Visiting Martian (Toqueville, Dickens, Chesterton …) with those of the indigene.  And in richness of description, his book recalls that never-equaled masterpiece, John Gunther’s Inside USA.

He describes, from the inside, the scene in Kansas, during his youth:

The angry men that I knew personally  were not agrieved blue-collar folks, by any means.  They were all fairly successful people, self-made men. … And yet something had gone so wildly wrong for them in the sixties … that life had permanently lost its luster.    Over the years  they fashioned the never-ebbing mad-as-hellness of a small knot of bitter self-made men  into an unstoppable electoral coalition.
-- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), p. 140

American Poujadistes, in short.

No summary of the book is necessary, since Frank himself provides it in clear and sturdy prose.  Samples of the main points:

If Kansas is the concentrated essence of normality, then here is where we can see the deranged  gradually become normal, where we look into that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American face -- class president, quarterback, Rhodes scholar, bond trader, builder of industry -- and realize that we are staring into the eyes of a lunatic.
-- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), p. 36

The push that started Kansas hurtling down the crevasse of reaction was provided by Operation Rescue, the national pro-life group  famous for its aggressive tactics against abortion clinics.
-- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), p. 91

The issues the Cons emphasize  seem all to have been chosen  precisely because they are not capable of being resolved by the judicious application of state power.  Senator Brownback … is best known for stands tht are purely symbolic:  against cloning, against the persecution of Christians in distant lands, against sex slavery in the third world.
-- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), p.  101

As culture war, the backlash was born to lose.  Its goal is not to win cultural battles  but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly.
-- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), p. 121

None of what I have described here would make sense  were it not for a critical rhetorical move:  the systematic erasure of the economic.
-- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), p. 127

In a Comment below, a well-informed reader ascribes the sea-change in Kansan sentiment  to demographic change.

[Footnote 1]  The isolated town from which the Post story is deadlined, the ironically-named Garden City, is the subject of a meaty five pages (51-55) in Frank’s book.
Many of the Readers Comments on the Post article question why the Blue States should be giving such large subsidies to “farmers”.   But carefully read Frank’s text.  Farmers, in the sense of people who actually farm -- those who perform the actual labor -- have not been making out so well of late.  Whereas the agribusiness behemoths like Tyson and ConAgra, have been doing very nicely, thank you, with your help.

[Footnote 2]  William Allen White is a more interesting character than his signature editorial -- a rather slight thing -- would suggest.  His Autobiography (posthum. 1946) is a treasure for Americanists.  Sample passages:

McKinley had been able to survive twenty years in Ohio politics, where survival values combined the virtues of the serpent, the shark, and the cooing dove.  McKnley, for my taste, had a little too much of the cooing dove in his cosmos.  He was too polite, too meticulous in his observation of the formalities of the political Sanhedrin.
-- The Autobiography of William Allen White, p. 251

(There we detect the twang of Twain.)

On the notorious political boss Mark Hanna:

A small-boned, fat leg  flopped across its mate,  as Hanna changed his weight  from one hunker to the other.  “They ought to admit a lot more of those little sand patches and coyote ranges out West as States.  We need ‘em!” he said by way of sarcastic persiflage.
-- The Autobiography of William Allen White, p. 277

 (A little later, however, Hanna would give White his big break, by distributing a million copies of the feisty editorial.)


A forerunner of Frank’s bafflement, at how the rubes can repeatedly allow themselves to be hornswoggled, is a treatise (set in the days of the Roman empire) described in Arthur Koestler’s novel about Spartacus,
“On the Causes which Induce Man  to act Contrary to his own Interests”.

Characterizing CP rationalizations of recalcitrant facts of history:

If the workers are not revolutionary, and are racialist into the bargain -- well then, this is known as the ‘problem of consciousness’, and can be discussed with much learned reference to Lukacs and Gramsci.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 82

[Appendix]  A look back  -- Krugman on Frank and the Society of the Spectacle

February 25, 2005
Kansas on My Mind

Call it "What's the Matter With Kansas - The Cartoon Version."

The slime campaign has begun against AARP, which opposes Social Security privatization. There's no hard evidence that the people involved - some of them also responsible for the "Swift Boat" election smear - are taking orders from the White House. So you're free to believe that this is an independent venture. You're also free to believe in the tooth fairy.

Their first foray - an ad accusing the seniors' organization of being against the troops and for gay marriage - was notably inept. But they'll be back, and it's important to understand what they're up to.

The answer lies in "What's the Matter With Kansas?," Thomas Frank's meditation on how right-wingers, whose economic policies harm working Americans, nonetheless get so many of those working Americans to vote for them.

People like myself - members of what one scornful Bush aide called the "reality-based community" - tend to attribute the right's electoral victories to its success at spreading policy disinformation. And the campaign against Social Security certainly involves a lot of disinformation, both about how the current system works and about the consequences of privatization.

But if that were all there is to it, Social Security should be safe, because this particular disinformation campaign isn't going at all well. In fact, there's a sense of wonderment among defenders of Social Security about the other side's lack of preparation. The Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have spent decades campaigning for privatization. Yet they weren't ready to answer even the most obvious questions about how it would work - like how benefits could be maintained for older Americans without a dangerous increase in debt.

Privatizers are even having a hard time pretending that they want to strengthen Social Security, not dismantle it. At one of Senator Rick Santorum's recent town-hall meetings promoting privatization, college Republicans began chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, Social Security's got to go."

But before the anti-privatization forces assume that winning the rational arguments is enough, they need to read Mr. Frank.

The message of Mr. Frank's book is that the right has been able to win elections, despite the fact that its economic policies hurt workers, by portraying itself as the defender of mainstream values against a malevolent cultural elite. The right "mobilizes voters with explosive social issues, summoning public outrage ... which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends."

In Mr. Frank's view, this is a confidence trick: politicians like Mr. Santorum trumpet their defense of traditional values, but their true loyalty is to elitist economic policies. "Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. ... Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization." But it keeps working.

And this week we saw Mr. Frank's thesis acted out so crudely that it was as if someone had deliberately staged it. The right wants to dismantle Social Security, a successful program that is a pillar of stability for working Americans. AARP stands in the way. So without a moment's hesitation, the usual suspects declared that this organization of staid seniors is actually an anti-soldier, pro-gay-marriage leftist front.

[Update 14 June 2014]  Another column by Mr Krugman, along the same lines:


  1. I'm not enamored with Thomas Frank's work. Having been born and raised in the state with my family having lived there since 1859, I can paint a different picture:

    Kansas, since before the Civil War, had two populations - a Yankee one the settled from the northern states and constituted the state's middle class of shopkeepers, and a Southern working class.

    Since WW II, the children of the Yankees went to college and never came back, but to visit. Now there is an aged remnant of this group now mostly in assisted living or nursing homes. Kansas is now a Bible-thumping Southern state, with customs from the South, like pecan pie bake-offs. I've seen my hometown's religious makeup go from mainline Protestant to now almost solely Evangelical.

    That is the real reason how Kansas got to be the way it is.

    1. Thank you, sir, for your quite substantive reply.
      I have enough respect for Mr. Frank to imagine that he too would be interested in what you have said.
      Yet from my outsider/kibbitzer perspective, you and Thomas Frank share more insights than disagreements.

  2. Have you read The Baffler No. 21? It has a lot to say about how the conservative movement got to be so counterfactual.
    I mention this because of your appreciation of Mr Frank; I never realized he edited that "aperiodical" until I read your bit here.
    My first visit to yr site; sorry I messed it up w/ so many comments.