Jim's Reviews > What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Hear... by Thomas Frank
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Sep 17, 2009

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bookshelves: non-fiction, politics-and-society
Read from October 14 to November 06, 2011

Thomas Frank argues that conservatives get working and middle class voters into voting against their economic interests by cynically manipulating social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. People vote to preserve traditional Christian values, what they get is broken unions and outsourced jobs. People vote to end abortion, then elected officials give tax breaks to corporations and deregulate investment banks. Frank cites the history of his native state Kansas to illustrate his arguments.

Kansas was once a bastion of the populist movement, skeptical of, even hostile to, corporate power. It became through the 1970s and 80s, according to Frank, a stronghold of conservative Republican politics, the sort of conservatism that serves Wall Street rather than Main Street.

Frank makes a convincing argument. It's easy to find conservative pundits who defend corporate welfare, trash protections for small business, and castigate any attempt to meet the needs of working people as socialism. It's easy to find Republican politicians who rant about social issues during elections but focus their time in office on advancing the financial interests of their political donors. It's easy to read this book and say, "Well, yeah. That explains why unemployed factory workers vote for politicians who vow to cut unemployment benefits."

Yet, Frank's argument misses some things. He doesn't really account for the role that race plays in American politics, the way Republicans riled people up over taxes and "welfare queens" and the fear of crime.

In this book, the working/lower middle classes are presented as mostly passive objects. Very little consideration is given to what these folks brought to the process. Frank doesn't explore the importance of social issues in the value system of many working class Americans. Political manipulation of these issues requires, in some part, that people care about them in the first place. In his account of Kansas's populist past, the author does recount how evangelical Protestantism was at the heart of the movement, but he doesn't connect the dots. Certainly, Republicans made the state of American values seem more parlous than it actually was, but they were successful because their rhetoric resonated with how people felt.

Frank may not be entirely right, but he isn't completely wrong either. Politicians DO manipulate the emotions that surround intractable social issues. People DO vote against their economic self-interest. On the other hand, liberals in the 1970s-80s didn't do a very good job of countering the growing conservative movement with a positive vision of their own. Many liberals chose to ignore people in places like Kansas or think of them as ignorant rubes.

Frank could not know that the future would not be one of absolute hegemony for conservatives. While the Right is not ready to surrender in places like Kansas, the opposition has had some electoral successes in state and local politics. There is a growing populism on both sides of the political center, somewhat to the detriment of the manipulative Republican leaders who are Frank's villains. Still, bottom line, this is a readable book that makes an interesting, though incomplete, argument. Read it, but read Krugman and Taibbi and other writers for balance.
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message 1: by Elliott (new)

Elliott Turner Great book - one of my good friends, Andy Nelson, did the fact-checking for it. It's always saddened me how blue-collar white folks from the plains fell for hollow conservative promises....

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