What’s the Matter With Us?

The all-American political dysfunction

What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge

Thomas Frank takes up a question that has been mostly neglected in recent popular studies of American politics. While other authors are denouncing the stupid white men who control the country, and the thieves in high places, and the big fat idiots on talk radio, and all the other lying liars, including especially the present liar-in-chief, there is one related phenomenon that begs to be explained: What in the world-gone-to-hell is wrong with the American people? If the corporate and political leadership of the Republican Party is as corrupt and inept as it seems to be, how pathetic are American voters for putting all three branches of government in the control of the GOP?

It takes a bold writer to approach this question. It takes an unusually talented writer to approach it from a populist perspective, as Frank does. In fact, I’m not sure there is another book in the entire annals of populism that looks directly at the American populace and asks: Are you people nuts?

Many writers have had great fun, of course, with the nincompoopery of the public, none more famously than H.L. Mencken in the first three decades of the last century. Frank, the author of two previous books and the editor of a Chicago-based quarterly The Baffler, is sometimes referred to as a young Mencken, a compliment if you’re talking about literary style but not politics. Faith in democratic self-government and the wisdom of the people drew horselaughs from Mencken. And his influence by the 1920s was not just on self-satisfied conservatives: He “taught liberal intellectuals to think of themselves as a ‘civilized minority’ and to wear unpopularity as a badge of honor,” Christopher Lasch once observed. Frank’s project is different. He would like to see the working class and the middle class unite with liberal intellectuals in voting against Republicans.

Why don’t they? Frank seeks an answer by returning to his home state of Kansas and surveying the political scene. This is a place that once was alive with populists. Farmers and workers joined in the great uprising of the 1890s to assert their economic interests against the power and privilege of the moneyed class. It was that period of rabble-rousing that led William Allen White, the Emporia, Kansas, newspaper editor, to ask “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” in a 1896 essay that Frank describes as “a classic of political clock-cleaning.” But whereas White was exasperated with the commoners’ challenge to the corporate and GOP orthodoxy of the day, Frank takes the title and the exasperation and turns it around. Why is there no such populism in Kansas today?

Instead, Frank finds a kind of “derangement.” He sees a “Great Backlash” against the liberal culture of the 1960s that is still going strong. Backlash politics enlists the people’s anger against abortion, gay rights, public school curricula—any social issue that distracts people from thinking about their economic interests. “Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people,” Frank writes.

Why so many people are acting against their fundamental interests is “the preeminent question of our times,” according to Frank. It is “the all-American dysfunction.” Just look at Kansas: A state is spectacularly ill served by the Reagan-Bush stampede of deregulation, privatization, and laissez faire. It sees its countryside depopulated, its towns disintegrate, its cities stagnate—and its wealthy enclaves sparkle behind their remote-controlled security gates. The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention. But what do its rebels demand: More of the very measures that have brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place. Says Frank: “This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America.”

Well, Frank makes it less mysterious. As in his previous book, One Market Under God, he assails “extreme capitalism” and the political culture that insists that whatever the market offers is in everyone’s best interest while whatever people dislike is the result of moral degeneration fostered by liberals. The goal of conservative ideologues and the Republican Party is to keep attention on “a cultural class war,” Frank says. The key here is “to deny the economic basis of social class”—and to ignore basic economic explanations for why the country seems to be changing for the worse. It is only possible to see popular culture as the product of liberalism, Frank says, “if you have blinded yourself to the most fundamental of economic realities, namely that the networks and movie studios and advertising agencies and publishing houses and record labels are, in fact, commercial enterprises.”

“Ordinary working-class people are right to hate the culture we live in,” Frank concedes, speaking here of commercial culture. But as he goes on to discuss the long-running battles in Kansas politics between moderate Republicans and the ultra-conservative wing of the state GOP, the issues that loom large are gun control, homosexuality, teaching evolution in public schools, and abortion. Especially abortion. The conservative Christian voice in Kansas politics has been amplified over the years by energetic organizing and persistent protest. As in Texas, there has been a war for control over the local Republican Party—and the kind of moderate Republicanism once personified by Kansas Senators Nancy Kassebaum and Bob Dole has been losing out.

Frank spends time with a few anti-abortion activists and other assorted Republicans and writes with insight about the role abortion has played in state politics. In 1991, the national Operation Rescue group declared a Summer of Mercy and concentrated on abortion clinics in Wichita, Kansas. The protests shut the clinics down for a week, a victory celebrated with a rally in a Wichita football stadium. Thousands of new activists were brought into Kansas Republican politics. Frank portrays the uprising as the key event that turned a splinter group into “the state’s dominant political faction,” that reduced Kansas Democrats to third-party status, and “that would wreck what remained of the state’s progressive legacy.”

It’s not that anti-abortion activists were able to make significant changes in state laws. For the purposes of the wider conservative agenda they didn’t need to. As Frank argues, “Its power as an anti-intellectual rallying point is one of the things that makes the anti-abortion crusade so central to contemporary conservatism.” The 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling exists in the mind of the right as perfectly symbolic of what has gone wrong in America. “The decision superseded laws in nearly every state,” Frank notes. “It unilaterally quashed the then-nascent debate over abortion, settling the issue by fiat and from the top down. And it cemented forever a stereotype of liberalism as a doctrine of a tiny clique of experts, an unholy combination of doctors and lawyers, of bureaucrats and professionals, securing their ‘reforms’ by judicial command rather than by democratic consensus.”

That’s as close as Frank comes to portraying Kansans who bring moral crusades into politics as anything but loony, though. From there he moves to an account of the Kansas Board of Education’s 1999 decision to eliminate references to evolution from state science standards. And then he pays a visit to a Catholic schismatic who lives with his mother in a ramshackle farmhouse and who believes himself to be the rightfully elected Pope.

So what is Frank up to here? He’s written a wonderfully readable book, beautifully conceived, engaging throughout because he writes in a passionate voice. He brings a deep sense of history and mixes in a little of his own story of growing up in a Kansas City suburb and of his latter-day attempts to make sense of the place. But what, in the end, is he able to tell us about what’s gone wrong with Kansas, and with America? Why are so many people getting their fundamental economic interests wrong? Frank does not pretend to practice sociology here, nor does he attempt a wide-angle view of public opinion. He chooses his fieldwork partly to demonstrate (on drives into rural Kansas) that small towns and farm communities are dying and partly to show how many weird people get involved in conservative politics. His answer to that “preeminent question of our times” seems to be that a lot of people are deluded. Deranged. Played for suckers.

This doesn’t quite do as political analysis. But that’s why God created E.J. Dionne. For reasonable, cogent explanation of what’s really happening in American politics, there isn’t a better writer at work today. Dionne’s 1991 book, Why Americans Hate Politics, is surely the best account available of how and why the United States veered from left to right during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. He followed up in 1996 with They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era. (He had already announced in his first book “that conservatism has reached a stage of intellectual and political exhaustion.” He’s not proven to be prophetic—yet.) Now, in Stand Up Fight Back, Dionne looks back at the end of the Clinton years and seeks to explain “the strange and very disturbing turn American politics has taken” since George W. Bush came to power.

Dionne writes with a partisan heart and a critical mind. He’s an unabashed liberal who understands as well as anyone why liberalism has lost its appeal to so many Americans. So while he excoriates the Bush style of conservatism (he governs as a manipulator, not a uniter) he also faults the Democratic and liberal opponents of Bush for missed opportunities, mixed messages, and a style of accommodation that has allowed the nation’s center to move way to the right.

Thus, Dionne avoids the simple logical error Thomas Frank makes in his book. Where Frank assumes into existence a Democratic Party that stands for working-class Americans, Dionne knows there are reasons most would-be Democratic voters haven’t perceived a clear alternative to the Republicans. “Democrats are obsessed with telling people who they are not. As a result, no one knows who they are,” Dionne writes. Indeed, this is where the real answer to Frank’s “preeminent question” is to be found. If people are given a choice between a fighting party and a weak-kneed party, why would they choose the latter? In Dionne’s view, Democrats haven’t been tough enough—they “forgot how to fight back.”

Ah, but what to fight for? Dionne imagines a strong, principled alternative to Republicanism, but he doesn’t equate that with “moving to the left.” As he has argued previously, he writes here that “Americans are, on the whole, moderate.” Moderation “is a great and honorable American disposition,” he says. It looks for balance between public needs and the private sector, between individualism and the common good. The key point is, moderates alone cannot win the country back, just as liberals and progressives can’t. “The first task of politics now is to prevent a sharp turn to the right. That requires an alliance between the center and the left, which means, in turn, giving up some of the rote disputes between center and left that are no longer relevant.”

The United States “is not naturally a right-wing nation,” Dionne insists. The “careful mix of populism and centrism” associated with Bill Clinton—balanced budgets, new programs to help the poor, social tolerance—can work. And a sensible progressive program in the hands of bold and articulate leaders can win, Dionne says. “In fact, forging a patriotic liberalism—or as I would call it, a progressive patriotism—is precisely what this moment calls for,” he writes. At the end of his book, Dionne offers specifics about what such a program would look like. Reading through it, what comes across most is the idea of balance. Stop the slide to the right—in foreign policy, in the judiciary, in giving too much power to the corporate sector and in entrusting too much to the market. Assert instead the ability of government to defend the nation and improve its social health without running huge deficits.

Another thing comes through. The progressive era that both Dionne and Frank yearn for requires more than half the electorate to take a leap of faith—they must suspend their anger and distrust of the federal government. Why should this be hard? One theory is that fear of higher taxes is still the central issue in domestic politics. No writer has explained this better than Dionne himself in Why Americans Hate Politics. In the 1960s, the New Left laid the groundwork in the argument against government. By the 1970s and ’80s, all kinds of anti-Washington rhetoric resonated with the middle class. “The New Deal had taught that government was the middle class’s friend,” Dionne wrote. “The inflation-tax surge of the 1970s taught that government was the enemy.” Reagan consolidated the victory and Bush has extended it.

It may seem like a “derangement” to Frank that people who should be clamoring for government programs are attracted to the anti-government argument. But much has changed since the populist and progressive ferment of a century ago. There was simply no federal income tax burden on ordinary citizens in those days. No IRS. No extensive regulation. No reason to believe that big government was something to worry about.

Of course it’s absurd for working-class Americans to support Republican tax policies that shift burdens away from the rich and onto them. But anti-tax rhetoric easily wins out over liberal promises of expensive new programs, which are always promoted without mention of tax increases.

“The revolt of the middle class against a growing tax burden was not an expression of selfishness but a reaction to the difficulties of maintaining a middle-class standard of living,” Dionne wrote in his first book. In his latest effort he says, “Instead of cowering before the tax issue, progressives need to go on the offensive.” They should propose comprehensive tax reform that would spread the burdens more fairly. Still, Dionne speaks against “the current push to starve the public realm of funds” and uses such catchphrases as “a will to use public resources.” Are people crazy to hear in such language the prospect of higher taxes and to believe that, given the realities of how Washington works, they are likely to feel it?

Dionne offers the label “progressive patriotism” in the hopes it could work the kind of magic for Democrats that “compassionate conservativism” worked for Bush. In the last election, voters were willing to accept the conservatism, knowing the “compassion” wasn’t going to cost them very much. This time around I suspect voters would be happy to rally to a new style of patriotism. But might they be wondering how much that progressivism is going to cost?

Dave Denison, a native Hoosier, is a former editor of The Texas Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST