Are we all Kansans now?

I saw Thomas Frank talk about What's the Matter with Kansas? at Demos last month (note that I haven't actually read the book yet). Frank's persuasiveness lies in his ability to describe what he calls "inversions": the ability of very smart people in the narrative business to coopt an attractive, culturally valuable--authentic, if you will--story, in the service of an utterly opposite end than its original intent. In Kansas, he takes aim at modern conservatism, alleging that the rhetoric of popular conservatism is really a marvelous fiction constructed by the Republican party to protect their economic interests.

Frank argues that conservatives have staged something of a discursive coup over the past 30 years, coopting the natural architecture of class politics while draining it of economics. The capitalist or money-power menace that dominated American political rhetoric for much of the country's history has been replaced (for certain people, at least) with the ubiquitous "liberal elite." Conservatives have united disparate and competing class interests under cultural wedge issues, conspiracy theories, and a host of good old fashioned straw men which voters are invited to knock down time and again.

The crowning example for our immediate moment, of course, is George W. Bush's skillful positioning as a regular joe Texas cattle rancher despite his silver spoon fed life. The fascinating thing about Bush is that this metamorphosis is no secret. There is no deception as to his upbringing (which would be a bit hard), but rather conservatives openly argue that he is a class apart from that liberal elite by virtue of his cultural attitudes and style, regardless of the constituencies he favors economically. See this logic defying missive from Victor Davis Hanson for a taste.

Or see this Terry Gross interview with Club for Growth president Stephen Moore. He remains unruffled by Terry's attempts to pin him down on a definition of the liberal elite, naming journalists, policy analysts, university professors, "you know, people who look down their noses at others." The fact that Moore can casually identify his chosen enemy through buzzwords and then advocate in the harshest methods possible for tax cuts benefiting a section of the population so specific you could probably memorize their names if you really wanted to only goes to show how right-on Frank's thesis is.

But the reasons behind the appeal of today's conservatism go beyond clever marketing, information networks, and winning lowest-common-denominator messages. Because to investigate how politics could become all culture and no class in this country, one must begin with the decline of organized labor. That phenomenon is directly related to the weakness of the Democratic party as the party of the working class, and its ability to provide the natural counterbalance to the Republicans' trade and capital interests.

Conservatives saw a mighty political opportunity in the economic changes beginning in the 1970s. As the rewards of the postwar order thinned, they discovered that many low-income and middle-class people could--provided a potent brew of jingoist innuendo, moral outrage, and religious zealotry--be disabused of their class logic. Ever since, conservatives have raged against any suggestion that the super wealthy might be at odds with the factory worker, inventing all manner of preposterous economic theories to prove it and exploiting Americans' ingrained belief in social mobility.

Needless to say, it is a fascinating topic and of vital import to understanding what conservatives are fighting for in this election. Bush is the most extreme test this framework has faced yet. Other Republican presidents in recent memory from Nixon to Reagan, while no doubt capitalizing on these themes, have nonetheless hedged their bets with more traditional coalitions. But in Bush, the narrative's inherent contradictions have bubbled closer to the surface than ever before, and threaten to divide the vanguard of true believers from the merely sympathetic. At the same time, Democrats have shown stirrings of unity not seen in a generation. While their message is far from coherent or completed, one can argue we are moving away from rock bottom. If the Republican narrative machine is as fragile as it appears on paper, any new traction for a reinvigorated Democratic party could prove decisive.


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