Book Review

Although I have not completely read the book I am about to speak on, I feel motivated by the material at the moment and would like to walk through it.  In Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?:How Conservatives Won the Hearts of America (New York; Metropolitan Books, 2004)  he critiques the historically dramatic shift in Kansas politics from fringe left, dating back to statehood, to the fringe right of the neo-conservative 21st century.  Let me start by saying that my family is from central Kansas.  Historically the blue-collar manufacturing and farming region of the state, as most of the arable (or soon to be) land is in this oft mythologized heartland.   For this reason,  I have been particularly compelled to read this book to help in answering a few of my own questions about just what is the matter with Kansas.   Frank begins by giving us a rough sketch of where Kansas is coming from; starting with the origins of the Free Soil State – largely a reaction to the slave owning aggressions and rivalry with neighboring Missouri – to legendary abolitionist John Brown and radical rabble-rousers like Mary Elizabeth Lease and her great statement in the 1890s at a Populist Party rally for farm workers, “raise less corn and more hell!”  Kansas seemed to have all the class consciousness of a true radical state that opposed the imperial policies of a distant ruling class on Wall Street, in Washington, to the shores of Tripoli. Kansas was a strong supporter of Democratic Farm Labor candidate William Jennings Bryan in the presidential campaigns of the late 19th century against republican candidate William McKinley.  Apparently the big argument of the time was the gold standard, an historical argument im sure the Nixon administration took note of before derailing it in favor of US currency (for more on this see Peter Gowan’s The Global Gamble: Washington’s Faustian Bid for World Dominance (London; Verso, 1999)), but I digress.

One particular current has run through Kansas from its origins and radical historical figures up to the present of Sam Brownback’s and Fred Phelps’.  Fundamental Christianity has taken various forms, but rarely seen on such a spectrum changing scale as in Kansas.  Without going too far into my woes about this particular form of organized religion that has brought about the deaths of doctors, science in schools and what im calling ‘good hearted’ people; Frank makes a clear point in maintaining that Kansan’s christianity has not shifted like their political actions.  However the primary difference now is that the throws of economic downturns after America’s Keynesian boom of the 50’s and 60’s created many disenfranchised pockets of red across the state, forming now to a general scarlet coating across the state save the university town of Lawrence (home to one of the best anarchist infoshops).  Agricultural expansion from the family plot to the agribusiness, the rural to urban migration, the centralization of mega-slaughterhouses, the closing of plants in Wichita, and the opening of suburban development in Kansas City’s wealthy periphery, provided enough of a shift whereby Wall Street’s interests became masked in the deceptive speech of family morals and christian attitudes.  Just as an example, Bill Clinton had the lowest support in Kansas out of any state.  The fear of an elite blue-blood from the northeast was set up as an axiom for all that was wrong with liberal America.

As mentioned, without finishing this book, I have a few fears regarding where this book may end and what conclusions it may draw about, well, oddly, my people.  Marx talks about the notion of false consciousness, where the down trodden of the earth have been somehow duped politically, economically, in this case possibly spiritually, into supporting causes directly conflicting with their own interests and realities.  On this matter, I can think of several individuals I know who do this every day if not every four years.  Instead of demanding better health care – they argue for more chastity, instead of demanding minimum wages to raise in a state that has on average one of the lowest annual incomes of any – they argue for removing evolution in schools, instead of demanding subsidies for healthy food and sanctions on Tyson and Cargill – they argue for stricter immigration policies.  These examples would prove that something is interfering with the political agency of a very large number of people.  And as the stereotype of good ol’ heartland kansas goes, the theory of false-conciousness would have these people cast as idiots.  A child-like people who have scripture so far up their gene pool that they cant help but look for a minority, or a deviant, or a fluoridation campaign to rail against while they keep the oligarchy in power.  My feelings are that this simplistic argument, which has been a large crux of Marxist theory for me wherever it has been applied, attempts to isolate and ostracize people.  People, who have such beautiful socialist histories as co-op farming and voting hand over fist for Eugene Debs in 1912.

Along these lines I am reminded of another Marxist (Marx however not technically being Marxist) who contrasts this idea and meddles in the world of an ideology, Slavoj Zizek.  On a recent Democracy Now! interview, Zizek talked briefly about a similar ideology built up by ‘liberals’ about what the reactionary working class is about.  Speaking largely about this ugly side of reactionary politics founded in racism, homophobia, and general dislike of non-Waspy cultural affectations, he fears that liberals need to stop turning up their noses to these ‘out of fashion’ ideas for they symbolize the true grit of the working class.  Rather than a false-consciousness, these toxic ideas are part and parcel of what it means to be lower class.  Of course, his ongoing cognitive dissonance is well taken, yet very reproachable in that racism, homophobia, etc. need be stricken down at all avenues (maybe my latte drinking is outed at this point).  For this I am more likely to favor a further structural critique by Frank of how Kansas was hit hardest by economic measures that saw their long standing tradition of religion take precedent over all other matters and sickeningly enough how this state became a bastion of ‘warriors for god.’

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8 thoughts on “Book Review

  1. Any diagnosis of the country that amounts to “I disagree with other people’s views” that leads to a prescription of “Other people should align their views with mine”–well, they rub me the wrong way. Obviously Frank’s thesis is more developed than this, and I believe he’s from Kansas, but it seems premised on the notion that voting Republican is wrong for the people of Kansas. Which–okay? It appears the people of Kansas disagree with this assessment. Inherent in this argument is the idea that economic matters ought to trump others in the voting booth, which, again: the people of Kansas appear to disagree (insofar as Frank is right that voting blue makes more sense economically).

    Which is all a long way of saying, I tend to agree with you! And, thanks for this. I’m curious to hear your thoughts if/when you finish the book.

  2. Nice post–I’ve actually wanted to read Frank for a while. I’ve known the basic premise, but I think you and devin hit it on the nose.

    I’ve had a hard time reconciling the economics as end all argument my whole intellectual career, but in the end I’ve found things are just more complicated than that. No occam’s razor here in real life I’m afraid. But, perhaps Frank’s point is insightful even if it only describes the phenomenon and doesn’t critically analyze it?

    I also tend to agree about both your points regarding Mr. Žižek. He’s endlessly fascinating and partly because he’s willing to say such incredibly stupid things like this. Well, yes, racism has been part of the gritty reality of the WHITE working class (see Roediger for instance), but that is hardly an argument for accepting it. But, if one was to argue that because of their racism/bad traits means we should just cast them away as hopeless, that’s another matter.

  3. The funny thing is, Patrick, that I think the economic side–well not an end all argument–would likely improve things for everyone in Kansas if it were to improve. And I happen to think that many economic policies pursued by Republicans lately at a national level will have ill effects on the lives of Kansans.

    But, in a democracy, it just ain’t up to me. And that, for me, is the problem with a book that suggests that the people of Kansas have a problem simply because they don’t agree with me.

    (Also I don’t know about Zizek or Roediger, so I’m mostly staying out of that one, although both of your guys’s points sound quite reasonable.)

  4. I agree about the effect of economics policies, but they would help everyone because of other protections that have historically been implemented (here we enter to the territory of the LBJ quote I used in my post on freedom). My bone is when we try to disconnect economic issues from other things that are just as important to people.

    Your idea about democracy is well taken, but it’s also the responsibility of Frank to be, well, frank and say if he thinks Kansans are being stupid (also, now that I consider it in this light, in nation of a united states, what they do affects the rest of us, too).

    (I like your posting time by the way devin.)

  5. I’ve now read about a 1950 book by David Riesman called The Lonely Crowd which argued that American people were becoming “consumers of politics”, increasingly valuing charisma over self-interest. It might be worth checking out.

  6. Just found this in a book review by Oscar Villalon (quoted):
    Long before Thomas Frank puzzled over middle America’s switch from progressive to conservative politics in his best-selling book What’s the Matter with Kansas? — his examination of why people would vote for politicians whose platforms clearly hurt their household budgets — Richard Nixon had already figured it out. Referring to the upcoming 1972 presidential race, Nixon told his advisers “The real issues of the election are the ones like patriotism, morality, religion — not the material issues,” adding that if “the issues were prices and taxes, they’d vote for McGovern.”

  7. If Nixon was correct here, then I just don’t know how idiots like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin get elected in liberal states Other than by appealing to the aging middle class who are swollen and agreeing to tax cuts for fear of their pensions running out. The big slogan that i read when i venture back to my parents neighborhood in the states is “Cut Taxes:Cut Spending”. Now, of course class divides need to be addressed to find out where these votes are coming from that win elections for people who, as noted above, are very much not for People.

  8. Well, I’m not sure I follow the pensions getting cut thing. But, it’s not so much a question about “if” Nixon was right. That’s what he did to get elected and once he was in office. It gets down to the whole issue that non-material issues matter just as much to people as material ones–something Republicans have increasingly exploited since Nixon. To those who want to cut taxes having faith in a free market and hard work is more (or at least just as) important to them even though both are arguably myths. Although, Nixon perhaps didn’t really understand fully “why” such people vote against their material interests, I’m curious if Frank really answers that question or just documents it.

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