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Review of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?

What is it with liberal journalists and doctorates in American history? The pioneering blogger Josh Marshall has one. The Nation columnist and MSNBC blogger Eric Alterman has one too.

If you like the work of these two writers, you should also enjoy Thomas Frank. Frank turned his University of Chicago Ph.D. into the 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool. This study of advertising during the sixties focuses on the efforts of companies to instill their products with what were then positive values, such as non-conformity and an aura of revolution.

Frank took this argument and moved it to the 1990s in his all-too-infrequently published journal The Baffler, which he still edits. The title of that journal’s best-of compendium, Commodify Your Dissent, gives you the flavor of its pages. From sneakers to the Internet, Frank and his authors deconstruct the culture of American capitalism and explain why Americans consume products they don’t need. In One Market Under God, Frank extended this argument to Wall Street, explaining how hucksters in the 1990s marketed particular overpriced tech stocks and hackneyed investment philosophies.

In What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Frank ventures into explicitly political journalism for the first time. The title comes from Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White’s once-famous1896 attack on Populism. But while White asked the title question because of his aversion to left-wing politics, Frank uses it to critique contemporary Kansas civic life from the other direction.

Subtitled “How conservatives won the heart of America,” Frank’s book is a case study in the relationship between history and the present day. His goal is to explain the transformation of his home state of Kansas from the center of left-wing Populism in the 1890s to a state controlled by conservative, pro-business, right-wing evangelical Christians in the 1990s.

Frank’s explanation centers on what he terms “the systematic erasure of the economic,” or put another way, the denial of “the economic basis of social class.” He argues that the great conservative backlash of the last 35 years, especially in Kansas, has been based upon cultural rather than economic issues. How else can you explain why the poorest county in the United States, MacPherson County, Nebraska, backed George W. Bush by a majority of over eighty percent in the 2000 election?

According to Frank, Republican politicians have been able to implement economic policies that hurt the vast majority of their constituency by distracting voters with manufactured cultural issues such as the teaching of evolution in public schools. In order to explain how so many people can be fooled into voting against their own economic interest, Frank coins the term “plen-T-plaint,” “a horizontal rather than a vertical mode of criticism, aiming . . . to infuriate us with dozens, hundreds, thousands of stories of the many tiny ways the world around us assails family values, uses obscenities, disrespects parents, foments revolution, and so on.”

He suggests that the purpose of this kind of argument is not to solve anything, but to keep people in a constant state of outrage so that they can have their pocket picked while they are busy being angry. “All they have to show for their Republican loyalty,” Frank writes, “are lower wages, more dangerous jobs, dirtier air, a new overlord class that comports itself like King Farouk—and, of course, a crap culture whose moral free fall continues without significant interference from the grandstanding Christers whom they send triumphantly back to Washington every couple of years.” Indeed, Frank suggests that conservative politicians deliberately pick cultural fights that they can’t possibly win so that this strategy is always available to them.

As part of this masquerade, liberals are now tarred by a “latte libel.” Rather than the economic interests a person or politician might serve, conservatives suggest that “it’s the places that people live and the things that they drink, eat and drive that are critical factors” for determining the merits of their political views. The stereotypical liberal drinks lattes and Frank implies that for the typical Kansan anyone who drinks a latte might as well be French.

To say that Frank’s argument is relevant to this year’s presidential election would be a massive understatement. Frank himself has connected his argument to the fight over gay marriage in the pages of theNew York Times. For another example, consider John Edwards, who made the idea of “two Americas,” one rich and the other just struggling to get by, the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Since his elevation to the Democratic ticket, the press and Republicans have bent over backwards to question the legitimacy of such arguments.

Although Frank intends to use history to help explain contemporary politics, his book is also useful for understanding the politics of history. Contrary to popular belief, using class as an analytical tool does not necessarily make you some kind of socialist. For instance, to explain Kansas Populism in the 1890s without reference to class is to drain the entire movement of its meaning.

While most Kansans may have forgotten who William Allen White was, Frank’s knowledge of White’s famous essay helped him understand that a profound transformation had occurred in his home state. Without an appreciation of class, left-wing economic populism and right-wing cultural populism would look the same. But systematically erasing the economic aspects of American history does make it easier to turn this discipline into patriotic cheerleading.

This is why history itself has become part of the battleground upon which the struggle Frank writes about takes place. Conservatives, Frank writes, “think the schools don’t provide enough Disney, enough Officer Friendly” when they teach American history. However, if class is sucked out of historical study the same way that it has virtually disappeared from contemporary politics, we will never be able to understand all the victories for working people that have been reversed in recent years.

But that, of course, is probably the point since it’s all the better for getting poor people to vote Republican.

Related Links

  • Thomas Frank, How the Democrats Lost Kansas