Still in Kansas?

Excuse the paucity of posting lately. Like everyone, I have been thinking in about 102 directions over the past week and a half, and would like to see how things percolate before setting them in the proverbial stone.

Here's a place to start, however. I had the pleasure of finally reading Tom Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? the weekend before the election, and have been struggling to finish the post in light of everything that's been said since.

It's really a spectacular book, and it's unfortunate that most of the reviews last summer, and the mentions in election post-mortems now, have been so off the mark. The CW version of the book's argument (which gained renewed credence during 'moral values' exit poll wild goose chase) goes like this: Frank is saying Republicans use social wedge issues to confuse and divide the voters that should be voting Democratic on account of their economic interests. Democrats in turn, must reclaim the mantle of populist economics they have relinquished in recent years, and only then shall they win.

But Kansas isn't really a political advice book, and trying to scrunch it into that box misses the more subtle and convincing argument. Frank's real focus is describing the cultural language of modern conservatism, the implications of that discourse on electoral politics, and how political professionals make use of it for their own ends.

Instrumental in getting the reader to think in these terms is the set piece that provides the book its title, namely, the myriad forms of radical populism that gripped Kansas in the late nineteenth century. In that era, anti-capitlist sentiment, directed at the eastern 'money-power', produced a brand of antsy, volatile, and most of all, creative, politics that informed several generations of extremist tendencies. What Frank sees today is a phenomenon of similar magnitude--a new cultural epistemology with the same kind of power to inspire and anger.

This phenomenon is a lot bigger than preferences over a few election cycles. As Frank makes clear, it is closely linked with economic and cultural dislocations produced by a late-stage corporate capitalism increasingly left to its own devices. Rather than the liberal elites of conservative Kansans' nightmares, it is the increasing hegemony of corporate power and corporate media culture that drives the psychic and economic exclusion heartland conservatives react to. Picking up on that raw anger, the Repuiblican party and related activist groups have shown considerable skill in turning this against both GOP moderates and Democrats.

All this is to say: the issue isn't really abortion or gay marriage, per se. It's much bigger and more multifaceted, and it has to do with how people perceive politics and the state of American society, not just a couple narrow 'wedge' issues, although they certainly play into the grander narrative.

One of the things Kansas has been criticized for is an arrogance about what voters interest "should" be (economic interests) as opposed to what they seem to be (the lives of gay people they will never meet). But I think Frank understands A) this is not a one-to-one equation and B) this contradiction means that politics has failed to adequately address fundamental economic shifts taking place. And smart people who understand where the momentum is now are getting mighty rich off of that shortsightedness.

Ultimately, I would have liked to hear Frank give a more explicit reading of how conservative economic and social interests play off each other and coexist within the same agenda. Kansas is more adept at describing these different strands now, and drawing conclusions about them, than describing how they got intertwined in the first place. The missing story, which Frank does touch on to some extent, is probably in the evolving relationship between corporations, politicians and intellectuals in the Republican party. Careful to play to the script written by the grassroots, the low tax crusaders have been able to insinuate themselves into the anti-liberal elite platform. And, as Frank notes, the willingness of the grassroots to tow this line has kept wealthy Republicans otherwise moderate on social issues within the larger coalition, thus ensuring its success.

Frank dwells on the economic suicide of heartland conservatives for a reason though--he thinks this might turn out to be the critical fissure in the Republican coalition. Might.

In short, Frank's book shouldn't be read for its advice to Democrats. But if you want to start thinking about the shape of American conservatism today, why it survives, why it appeals to people, and why it seems so impervious to petty concerns like consistency and reason, this is the place to get out of the box.


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