What’s the Matter with Kansas?

What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America’ (2004) is a book by American journalist and historian Thomas Frank, which explores the rise of populist anti-elitist Conservatism in the United States, centering on the experience of Kansas, Frank’s native state.

In the late 19th century, Kansas was known as a hotbed of the left-wing Populist movement, but in recent decades, it has become overwhelmingly conservative. The book was published in Britain and Australia as ‘What’s the Matter with America?’ According to the book, the political discourse of recent decades has dramatically shifted from the social and economic equality to one in which ‘explosive’ cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, are used to redirect anger towards ‘liberal elites.’

Against this backdrop, Frank describes the rise of political conservatism in the social and political landscape of Kansas, that he says espouses economic policies which do not benefit the majority of people in the state. Frank also claims a bitter divide between ‘moderate’ and ‘conservative’ Kansas Republicans as an archetype for the future of politics in America, in which fiscal conservatism becomes the universal norm and political war is waged over a handful of hot-button cultural issues.

‘Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers – when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ furthest imaginings – when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work – you could be damned sure about what would follow.’

‘Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.’

The book also details how then Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a liberal Democrat and the current Secretary of Health and Human Services, was able to win in conservative Kansas. By emphasizing issues like health care and school funding, and avoiding hot-button social issues, Sebelius successfully fractured the Kansas GOP and won a clear majority.

Frank says that the conservative coalition is the dominant coalition in American politics. There are two sides to this coalition, according to the author. Economic conservatives want business tax cuts and deregulation. Frank says that since the coalition formed in the late 1960s, it has been ‘fantastically rewarding’ for the economic conservatives. The policies of the Republicans in power have been exclusively economic, but the coalition has caused the social conservatives to be worse off, due to these very economic policies and because the social issues that this faction pushes never go anywhere after the election. According to Frank, ‘abortion is never outlawed, school prayer never returns, the culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.’ He attributes this partly to conservatives ‘waging cultural battles where victory is impossible,’ such as a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He also argues that the very capitalist system the economic conservatives strive to strengthen and deregulate promotes and commercially markets the perceived assault on traditional values.

Frank applies his thesis to answer the question of why these social conservatives continue to vote for Republicans, even though they are voting against their best interests. He argues that politicians and pundits stir the ‘Cons’ (hardcore conservatives) to action by evoking certain issues, such as abortion, immigration, or taxation. By portraying themselves to be the champion of the conservatives on these issues, the politicians can get ‘Cons’ to vote them into office. However, once in office, these politicians turn their attention to more mundane economic issues, such as business tax reduction or deregulation.

Frank’s thesis goes thus: In order to explain to the ‘Cons’ why no progress gets made on these issues, politicians and pundits point their fingers to a ‘liberal elite,’ a straw man representing everything that conservatism is not. When reasons are given, they eschew economic reasons in favor of accusing this elite of simply hating America, or having a desire to harm ‘average’ Americans. This theme of victimization by these ‘elites’ is pervasive in conservative literature, despite the fact that at the time conservatives controlled all three branches of government, was being served by an extensive media devoted only to conservative ideology, and conservatives had won 6 of the previous 9 presidential elections.

The book derives its name from a 1896 editorial by William Allen White in the ‘Emporia Gazette’ in which he took Populist leaders to task for letting Kansas slip into economic stagnation and not keeping up economically with neighboring states because of Populist policies chasing away economic capital from the state. The Republicans sent out hundreds of thousands of copies of the editorial in support of William McKinley during the United States presidential election that year. The editorial established White as a spokesman for the ordinary folks in small town America; five Republican presidents were to spend nights at his home — Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

The notion that American politics has been transformed because of defection from the Democratic ranks of working-class social conservatives is not a new idea: As far back as Richard Nixon’s first year in the White House, Kevin Phillips published ‘The Emerging Republican Majority’ (1969). Everett Carll Ladd Jr., with Charles D. Hadley in ‘Transformations of the American Party System: Political Coalitions from the New Deal to the 1970s’ (1975) proclaimed: ‘an inversion of the old class relationship in voting’ due to ‘the transformations of conflict characteristic of post-industrialism.’

Robert Huckfeldt and Carol Weitzel Kohfeld in ‘Race and the Decline of Class in American Politics’ (1989) argued that ‘race served to splinter the Democratic coalition’ because the policy commitments of the Civil Rights era provoked ‘[r]acial hostility, particularly on the part of lower-status whites.’ Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall in ‘Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics’ (1991) argued that, ‘[w]orking-class whites and corporate CEOs, once adversaries at the bargaining table, found common ideological ground in their shared hostility to expanding government intervention.’ All of these works, and many others, suggested that the class basis of New Deal voting patterns had given way to a new structure in which conservative ideology and cultural issues brought large numbers of working-class whites into the Republican camp.

In the study ‘The Truth about Conservative Christians,’ two sociologists, Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout, claim to show that class does matter, despite Frank’s thesis. Poorer Protestants, they argue, are much less likely to vote Republican than affluent ones. And, they claim, conservative Protestants are actually more likely to support progressive taxation than ‘mainline’ Protestants are.

Steven Malanga argues that while Frank portrays the electorate in Kansas as voting against its self interest, the state’s economy has actually fared better than average since the conservative and Republican tilt of the state began. According to Malanga, Kansas has had a consistently lower unemployment rate, higher employment growth, and has fared better in recessions. While income may be lower than in more urban areas, Malanga argues, the lower cost of living in more rural areas of the United States means a higher overall standard of living, with housing, education, taxes, and other expenses being significantly lower.

Conservative columnist John Leo argues that despite Frank’s belief that conservative politics is just a game of bait-and-switch,rural conservative voters have made their voices heard on a vast array of social issues. He says that Frank is an elitist who is out of touch with the individuals and issues that his book addresses.

Larry Bartels, a professor in the department of politics at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, in ‘What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas,’ tests ‘Frank’s thesis by examining class-related patterns of issue preferences, partisanship, and voting over the past half-century.’ Specifically, Bartels focuses on four questions: ‘Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic party? Has the white working class become more conservative? Do working class ‘moral values’ trump economics? Are religious voters distracted from economic issues? Bartels’s answer to each question is ‘no.’ Frank provided a lengthy rebuttal to Bartels’ analysis. More recently, in an apparent attempt to rebut Frank’s rebuttal via Barack Obama’s now infamous ‘bitter’ label regarding Middle America during the 2008 Democratic Presidential campaign, Bartels offered a somewhat revised analysis of Frank’s original thesis in an op-ed piece in ‘The New York Times.’


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