In Plains Sight

But according to Thomas Frank, if you want to know where America’s political culture is heading, look closely at the Sunflower State. Frank, editor of the political and literary journal The Baffler and author of One Market, Under God, grew up in Kansas, though he now lives in Washington, D.C. In his new book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Frank returns to his roots and finds “implacable bitterness” in the land of Toto and tornadoes. Kansas is among the reddest red states we’ve been hearing about since the 2000 elections, and Frank wonders why–as Wichita’s aircraft manufacturers bleed jobs and western Kansas farms struggle to compete in the global market–the state’s voters turn increasingly to the party of George W. Bush for answers.

A century ago, the Great Plains spawned the Populist Party, “Appeal to Reason,” a famous socialist newspaper printed in Kansas, and William Jennings Bryan. But, as Frank tells it, beginning with the cultural backlash of the 1960s, conservative leaders learned to appropriate traditional populist language (people v. the powerful) and to transfer heartland voters’ outrage over economic disparities to moral and cultural anti-elitism. This let the party of big business recast itself as friend of the little guy, with the educated “elite” classes as the new enemies of God and goodness. That would be fine, Frank argues, if the GOP has proven a good friend to the little guy. In Kansas, he contends, that’s far from the case. Wichita, the state’s largest city, is reeling from outsourced jobs and layoffs that could be stemmed, Frank believes, were it not for the slavish acceptance of GOP-backed free trade policies. Meanwhile, rural areas wither without farm support, and the few small towns that do thrive do so as low-tax, low-regulation corporate fiefdoms. Yet, Kansans routinely return to office Republicans who back the very policies that harm them.

What is the matter? Frank’s answer is that because Democrats don’t articulate a true economic alternative to the Republicans, culture war appeals win again and again, even though the right never actually delivers on its promises to end legal abortion or rein in sex-soaked pop culture. Instead, conservatives cut taxes for the wealthy, repeal business regulations, and stomp out unions–all with working-class support. “All that Kansas asks today,” Frank writes in language that updates Bryan’s, “is a little help nailing itself to that cross of gold.”

Frank knocks a common leftist crutch–the temptation to dismiss the populist right as racist–by pointing out that Kansas isn’t Alabama. The handy explanation of racism often used to describe the right’s rise doesn’t hold in Kansas, which prides itself on its heritage as the state where John Brown fired the first shots against slavery. Kansas may seem like an oddball state to headline-scanners, but it’s really typically American, with sprawling suburbs, struggling manufacturers and farmers, dying unions, and growing evangelical churches. Far from reactionary, Kansas, writes Frank, “is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse.”

Frank’s historical analysis is flawed in some respects. He accurately describes how a moderately Republican state has shifted toward religious conservatism. But he should also know that, aside from its brief Populist Party phase, Kansas has never really sustained a strong progressive, anti-corporate tradition like those in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin–states where his explanation of how leftist economic populism was transformed into conservative cultural populism might be better applied.

Frank rightly notes that progressives often fail to understand the power of the backlash mindset. For all its internal contradictions, this antagonism to cultural elites explains the world to people of limited economic opportunities who feel like contemporary America has passed them by. It validates their circumstances, provides them with demons to fight, and offers them the Rock of Ages for comfort. How better to seek solace in a country that doesn’t seem to value you, what you do, or where you live? At least Republicans promise a better life in the next world.

While Frank makes right-wing conservatives his primary target, he also criticizes centrist Democrats for moving the party to the middle on economic issues. He contends that only a renewed economic populism can counteract Republican cultural populism. Without it, Democrats lose the appeal that once made the Midwest a radical hotbed. Turn your back on your core economic values, and you get Kansas.

However, the state’s most successful Democrat, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, is herself a protge of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Last year, she backed $500 million in tax incentives to bring more Boeing work to Wichita, a move Frank calls a mistake. He dismisses Sebelius’s winning the open governor’s seat in 2002 as a fluke because religious conservatives that year nominated a GOP candidate so far to the right that many moderate Republicans bolted. But for the past century, the centrist approach has won more elections for Sunflower State Democrats than has railing against the money power –Sebelius is the rule, not the exception.

Many Kansans themselves will probably resent being told they’re delusional for supporting the GOP by an ex-resident who moved to Chicago before relocating to Dupont Circle. But the inevitable resistance to the book doesn’t make it less valuable. Frank’s grounding in Kansas soil provides an original perspective on the right’s takeover of Middle America. Frank has left the question of what to do about it for another book. In an interview, Frank acknowledged that What’s the Matter with Kansas? is mainly meant to explain the backlash and warn of its implications–it’s not intended to be a 12-step program on how Democrats can win heartland votes. Yet until the left figures out a counterplan that works, authors like him will have to keep on plowin’.