Book: What's the Matter With Kansas? (Thomas Frank)
In the aftermath of the 2004 election, it seemed natural, at least for folks of my own political stripe, to take on something of a bunker mentality. Strategies began to develop as to the best way to survive the ensuing four years under Bush, Term II: Electoral Boogaloo. There was also quite a bit of talk about the Red State / Blue State divide, and some of us wanted to know why “they” (meaning Conservatives) hated “us” (Liberals) so much. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? goes to great lengths to answer that question.
Why do they hate us? Well, it’s the coffee we drink, naturally. Frank is astute in his observations of how the middle America has been led to view liberals much like that one campaign ad viewed Howard Dean: as “latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show(s).” Frank’s thesis is that the Conservatives have been able to establish a stranglehold on working class, lower-income red staters by establishing what he terms as a “Backlash” culture. The Backlash says that society has gone to hell in a handbasket, that said hell-in-a-handbasket-ness is the greatest problem affecting not only your country but you personally, and that the people to blame for the society in which we live are liberals.
It’s when Frank is burrowing into the crevasses of the Backlash culture that What’s the Matter With Kansas? just hums right along. The pacing, however, is inconsistent, mainly due to repeated digressions into the political history of Kansas. Frank uses his home state to frame the evolution of the Backlash, and in doing do traces Kansas’s journey from a haven of populist radicals to the bowels of Evangelical Christian, anti-abortion, anti-Evolution, anti-liberal Conservatism. The crux of the argument is that while working class Kansans are so rabidly anti-liberal, they are also rabidly pro-business, working to feed the system that is slowly gutting their home state’s economy.
Time and again (and again, and again – Frank tends to repeat himself) we see examples of Conservatives using the Backlash to get citizens to vote red on a social issue and thus ushering in another term of big business tax cuts and deregulation. They vote red to rail against abortion, they get thrown under the bus by the Freedom to Farm Act, and they come back again to vote red so they can stop the teaching of Evolution in schools.
As I said, the books meanders here and there, preventing a true rhythm from beginning to end, but when Frank is on, he is ON. He’s at his best while explaining the ins and outs of the Backlash – how it’s come down to mostly consumer-identified concerns. Do you drink wine? Do you watch NASCAR? What kinds of cheeses do you buy? What does your brand of coffee say about you as an American? By the end, as he’s wrapping it all up, bringing it home and leaving it right on your doorstep, it packs a punch. You get that uneasy feeling that we’re all cogs in a giant machine. Not the happiest thought as we sit in the midst of Bush, Year Five, but before we can get out of the mess we’re in, it’s a good idea to know the lay of the land.