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





Mr. Rees is Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo. He is the author of MANAGING THE MILLS: LABOR POLICY IN THE AMERICAN STEEL INDUSTRY DURING THE NONUNION ERA (University Press of America, 2004) and co-editor of THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE: PRIMARY SOURCES ON THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN LABOR, INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS AND WORKING-CLASS CULTURE (Harlan Davidson, 2004).

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

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    andy mahan - 9/19/2006

    Another example of the liberal bias of HHN. The site posted a disgracefully inadequate review if Mr. Frank's book. Rees focused only on the few instances where Frank mentioned that supposedly Kansans are being duped by Conservative issue control while completely ignoring the other side, and incidentally, the largest part of the book explaining how liberals have failed the Kansans and excluded them from the "big tent" causing them the perception of alienation, e.g. liberal identification and alignment with "the Hollywood crowd" who Kansans have no commonality and in fact despise.
    Rees selective “review?” should have been checked out before being posted to a serious, intellectual sanctum of academia like HHN. I for one am insulted. What a farce.


    Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

    Mr. Luker is quite right. This site is a perilous waste of time. I am drawn back from time to time by curiosity. It is almost impossible to believe the mass of sheer lunatic irrelevance that most of the articles represent. I keep expecting to find something approaching sanity.

    Mr. Luker very mad at me for having accused him of playing the "weasel" game with other men in regard to feminism. He is indeed doing this. This game consists of attempting to exonerate one's self from the attack of feminists by deflecting that attack to other men. My criticism of Mr. Luker in this regard has to be tempered by reality. The game he is playing is about the only way a traditional man can survive in the idiot playing field of the humanities. In fact, Mr. Luker, I must admit to admiring most of the other things you have to say. And I predict this... at some point in the future you will be one of the people who lead your field out of this insanity. I will applaud you when you do. I fully expect to do this.

    Mr. Catsam is the very embodiment of everything that has gone crazy in the humanities. This self-style Messiah of the black race is a living caricature of the posturing child who now dominates the humanities.

    The battle in the humanities is not between conservative or liberal, or between Republican or Democrat. It has devolved down into a battle between the children and the adults, with very few adults in attendance. Mr. Luker, you are one of the adults, and I expect great things from you in the future.

    The humanities are now suffocating in the insanity of fantasies of parricide. Several generations of children has been indoctrinated by the Mr. Catsams of this world into believing that the murder of the father is the salvation of the world. As I have suggested in another post, I recommend a re-reading of The Brothers Karamazov for a thorough explication of this psychotic reality.

    Mr. Luker, you are entirely right. I've read your other writings outside this site, and you are a thoroughly sane and decent man. I have no idea how you survive in this world of corrupted and insane children, but congratulations to you for doing so.

    It's been a brief visit, and nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten a lot worse.

    Mr. Catsam, you may return now to your regular practice of screaming "racist" in order to receive further gifts and advancement in your profession.


    Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

    Mr. Catsam, my statements about you do you a dis-service. You are a profoundly adept gamer of the quota system. This is a sign of a sort of intelligence, although I'm not sure what kind. In every profession, I encounter those who are gaming the quota system, and I often have to wonder whether this is not indeed the most intelligent solution to an insane problem.

    Damned if I know.

    But, I will now take Mr. Luker's advice. I will depart again for a very long time. Maybe in a year or two, I'll take a peek again. I expect things to get a lot worse, but I'm hoping to be surprised.


    Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

    "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?"

    1. Americans do not buy the Marxist theorizing so frequently employed on this site. In fact, most Americans regard those who use the language of this article as nutjobs, and rightly so. Advice to the nutjobs who use this language: If you want to influence Americans, at least pretend that you are not a Marxist.

    2. The Democratic party is not the representative of the American middle class. I continue to see this ridiculous notion on this site, and howl in laughter every time I do. The Democratic party is the party of racial and sexual quotas. In an overwhelming white, middle class state like Kansas, people correctly view these quotas as punishing their families and neighbors, and quite properly reject them.

    This site is becoming increasingly hilarious as various authors attempt to convince us that the U.S. should be fertile territory for Marxist social engineering. What planet do these people live on?

    I'm going to say this as clearly as I can. The vast majority of the citizens of the U.S., whether Democrat or Republican, would loathe just about all the writers who appear on this site. Most of them are nutjob Marxists.

    If you like to talk about class warfare, economic redistribution, etc., you are a Marxist, and you are completely out of touch with the American mainstream.

    It's a good thing that the American electorate is wiser than the nutjob Marxists that dominate this site.


    William . H. Leckie, Jr. - 7/31/2004

    Don't get me wrong--I think most American right-wingers are pod people; other movie images have been appropriate, too: when I lived in Florida, I used George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and its shuffling zombies to describe them.

    But I think it's unfortunate that Rees' review has given us an opportunity to reflect on some interesting issues, yet so techy have things become over yonder (I write from Europe)and a culture--if that's the right word--of contempt has been encouraged by instant communication and the right's quarter-century of media hype (not just Limbaugh and Fox, but a vast swamp of audio and visual material and print)folks seem not to take the time to think anymore, and I include myself here.

    Take the "class in history" issue: On one level, it's a product of the organized propaganda of the right since the first Reagan administration. Alarm bells should've gone off when "values matter" became one of the mantras back then.

    On another, explicitly linked to race, it came out of Reconstruction--as Heather Cox Richardson has reminded us. It is at the kernel of the creation of Civil War memory, and suffused even local booster campaigns in the Progressive Era by elite interests interested in social peace--for example, Whyte's "What's the matter with..." was picked up by a St. Louis journalist in 1899 whose subtext was a lack of civic cohesion on the part of the city's business interests.

    But it's the theoretical level that attracts me here: It struck me before leaving the States that the kind of public "discourse" you've got over there can only occur in a post-industrial, consumer society in which the "cultural" baggage of class is like the suitcases on an airport carousel, and that can be true even with deep disparities in wealth and income (Dick Cheney's just a filthy rich proletarian to me, a Les Miserables character who hit the lottery!). You can lose all sense of class in a society radically spread out and segmented by suburban geography and marketing, and the old sense of class distinction has eroded both in perception and reality--George Bush, despite his privileged family, really was a drunk redneck in Georgetown bars.

    My hunch is, too, that class will re-emerge, oh, some time in the next 20 years or so when the price of oil becomes so high the foundations of that social situation simply start to crumble. But you'll have no new analytical language or public sphere in which to grapple with it if the crap I've been reading here is any real sample and keeps up.

    That'll be especially dangerous with external enemies or perceived ones. My hunch is the 21st century could wind up worse than the 20th; over here, environmental and energy issues are taken very seriously, indeed. Kyoto's not off the radar. There are common "class interests" bridging the Atlantic, but US consumption and political opportunism have masked them--the right's mantra about environmentalist elitism has seeped down, absorbed all kinds of things, shows up in even weird notions like Bush's advice to keep spending after 9/11.

    That can't last if for no other reason than that "your" oil's running out fast and you've spent gazillions still un-amortized to create a society dependent on consumption--even it's racial equality, as Lizabeth Cohen's book argues. When you can't consume or sustain consumer credit at high interest rates, that big hairy spider called "class" is going to leap out of its hole, and the 24/7 news cycle is already revved to blame bad guys elsewhere for it. Good lord, what do you think the "war on terror" has morphed into? What kind of polity do you think you're going to have over there, no matter who wins in November?

    We ought to pay serious atention to what "class" means not just to understand US politics. Let me end by throwing out a wild card--my prediction is that energy and environmental issues and surreally articulated economic ones in the US by 2050 could lead to war between the US and an integrated, technologically equal if not superior Europe--yes, boys and girls, they know what they have to do, but are just arguing about how--taking on not only the US but the Chinese and with an urban Islamic population perfectly happy to reformulate jihad.

    You'll lose. Take a look at sheer debt right now alone. Without revolutionizing the political system you can't sustain a crisis--hell, you can't even pay for Iraq much less the toys in the house, suburban sprawl, almost a century now of infrastructure to support the automobile....US liabilities can't be "financialized" forever or recovered by a change in administrations or brought into balance in the short term. Period. That's reality.

    In fact, I think it's inevitable--continued projection of a US that substitutes spectacle and consumption for the civic, increased jingoism, and a very, very big war unless intellectual and political language in there is brought down to earth--which'll require a responsible role for an authentic intellectual class not the professoriate and certainly not the media--instead of continuing to generate all those little lickspittles.




    Derek Charles Catsam - 7/29/2004

    Good question. Not certain exploring the answer would be cost effective. then again, I'm apparently benefitting from some obscure quota system, so that must invalidate my argument.
    dc


    Johnny Ramburg - 7/29/2004

    What's wrong with that guy?


    Derek Charles Catsam - 7/27/2004

    I am curious what gifts I receive from my profession given that I am white. If anything, I am at a demographic disadvantage in the areas that i pursue. In any case, what in my previous post has anything to do with race? I was explicitly criticizing you for your comments about Marxism -- nothing about race there.
    What an ignorant lickspittle. And yes, you are a racist, even if I derive no benefit from you being so.
    dc


    Derek Charles Catsam - 7/27/2004

    I'd love to know what quota system Mr. Thomas thinks I am gaming. One would think that the graceful way to depart would not be after sneaking in an insult that has no foundation in reality. But again, if I am benefiting from a quote system, I'd love to know what that is so I can actually take advantage. My guess is that thomas is drawing assumptions he cannot back up.
    dc


    Jesse David Lamovsky - 7/27/2004

    "...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."

    It's fair to ask not only whether Kansas has changed politically since 1896, but whether the definition of Populism itself has changed as well. The Populists were a cheap money party, not a Civil Rights party. But civil rights, or perceived civil rights, are cornerstones of progressivism in this day, probably equal to economic arguments. Since civil rights issues are basically anti-majoritarian at their root, it's probably not even accurate to refer to contemporary progressivism as Populism.

    "He argues that the great conservative backlash of the last 35 years, especially in Kansas, has been based upon cultural rather than economic issues."

    This great conservative backlash? I must confess, I don't see it. If anything, the Republican Party has moved to the left since the late '60s. The neoconservatives could pretty much take or leave social issues, I know that. The judiciary has moved to the left since then. All the great progressive totems- Social Security, affirmative action, legal abortion, secular humanism in schools, etc.- all are still here, still up and running. Not a single cabinet-level department has been eliminated. Some backlash.

    "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."

    Now it's stuff like this that may be the reason why people in Kansas apparently don't buy what people like Frank are selling. The unspoken assumption here is that voters in Kansas are too damn stupid to vote for what people like Frank thinks is good for them. That's a pretty condescending attitude. And the notion that cultural issues are manufactured by Republican politicians is awfully rich as well. If people are voting based on these issues, it's because they were first brought to the forefront by progressive activists That's why people who oppose things like same-sex marriage are called 'reactionaries'. Right? I'm not denying that slick-talking Republicans exploit these issues- they are politicians, after all- but it wasn't conservatives who first conceived same-sex marriage as a pressing civil rights issue, that's for sure.

    “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.”

    True enough, at least about the uselessness of Republican politicians on social issues. But here's a problem for Mr. Frank- if he disdains the representatives of Kansas as a bunch of "Christers", what does he think of their constituents? And if this is what he thinks of them, again, why should they buy in?

    "For another example, consider, John Edwards 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."

    Now, why would Republicans seek to rebut Democratic boilerplate? Also, the very mention of Edwards's "two Americas" shtick pretty much puts the kibosh on one the themes from Mr. Frank's HNN piece- that Democrats ignore class issues while Republicans flog social issues.

    "Without an appreciation of class, left-wing economic populism and right-wing cultural populism would look the same."

    Yes, but don't some progressives make the same mistake in regards to religion? There seems to be a tendency to dismiss the influence of conservative religious sentiments as mere 'opiate of the masses' stuff that needn't be taken seriously. But people are quite serious about their religious beliefs, no matter how foolish Mr. Frank thinks such they are.

    "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."

    Reversals? Like what? Social security? Welfare? Child-labor laws? The eight-hour day? What? This is alarmism without a great deal of basis in truth, methinks.

    I Suppose my only real argument here is that social issues do matter, they are relevant to everyday people, and that they can't be explained away as mere distractions cooked up by devious right-wing politicians. Maybe if progressives took the beliefs of these people seriously, they wouldn't have "lost Kansas" in the first place.











    Derek Charles Catsam - 7/27/2004

    Stephen --
    Or how about showing us a single actual example of Marxist analysis on HNN? It seems that whatever you disagree with that comes from a left-wing vantage point is suspect to you, and you thus label it as Marxist or Communist or socialist, blithely unaware of the very real differences between these things (if you don't think so, see Thomas, Norman, anti-Communist Socialist. )
    dc


    Ralph E. Luker - 7/26/2004

    Professor Thomas,
    "Nutjob" is a fairly unsophisticated term of analysis. It is the sort of _ad hominem_ remark in which you specialize. If you think "nutjob Marxists" dominate this site, why don't you follow your own well thought out resolve of a year ago not to darken HNN's door again?

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