Monday, July 18, 2005

What's the Matter With Kansas?

After holding off on buying this book for several months, I picked it up at Olsson's in DC and couldn't put it down until I finished it. Thomas Frank's book, to be honest, surprised me. I had not wanted to buy it because I thought it would be another volley in the ongoing name-calling fest between our top hackneyed journalists. It turns out I was wrong.

To summarize the main points of the book, Frank illustrates how Kansas, a state that just over a century ago was just about the farthest left state in the U.S., became one of the farthest right today. First, the Democratic party -- there and nationwide -- abandoned liberal economic principles in an attempt to court the American middle. In this way, New Democrats became economically indistinguishable from Republicans. Second, Republicans co-opted the cultural issues of the religious right -- reproductive rights, traditional family values, and the evolution debate -- to convince the working class that the Republican party had their moral interests at heart, convincing them that Democrats and liberals were the party of license and immorality. Third, they rhetorically reframed the idea of class as not an economic issue, but as one of "authenticity," for example how George W. Bush is reputed to be more like an average guy even though his entire life has been guided by privilege. This accomplished, conservatives/Republicans remained steadfast in dismantling the machinery of the New Deal (and even the Progressive Era) and further increased the gap between rich and poor with tax cuts and loosening of environmental and economic regulations on corporations. Frank also details how a handful of committed religious conservatives -- average citizens -- worked their asses off to build this conservative base, which eventually played into the hands of the economic conservatives. He chronicles the tension between the state's moderate Republicans (fiscal conservatives; social moderates) and the conservative Republicans (he depicts them as socially conservative and fiscally apathetic and/or credulous) along the way.

You can read more about it here, but for me the lesson is that the Democratic Party must embrace an economically liberal misson once again and must actively be building its base, just as the religious right is doing at the top and bottom levels. Frank also discusses suburbanization a bit in Kansas City, detailing the rings of working class, middle class, and upper class suburbs radiating out from the now-abandoned downtown. To me, it is the old story of urban proximity promoting solidarity among the working class. Now that we suburbanites are all spread out in our subdivisions, we don't have the time or opportunity to commiserate over working conditions, share common grievances, and formulate a cogent response to the economic and environmental conditions around us. This isn't entirely satisfying -- the suburbs don't make one bourgeois, as Greenbelt, Maryland, illustrates -- but I do think it is an important part of the story.

Thank God we elected Howard Dean chair of the DNC.


Anonymous Scott T. said...

I'm a huge fan of Frank. Dig yourself up some copies of the Baffler.

11:50 AM  

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