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What's the Matter with Kansas

What's the Matter with Kansas How Conservatives Won the Heart of America Thomas Frank Books

In an oft cited quote Frank sums up the situation well "

 4.0 out of 5 stars Every Christian Conservative needs to read this book..., July 29, 2004
By E. Martin "scalawagg"  (US) - See all my reviews
This review is from: What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Hardcover)

Thomas Frank is a "progressive," most probably a democratic socialist. He doesn't "get" the "family values." He doesn't "get" christianity. He doesn't "get" why a member of the working class would give themselves over to fighting against abortion or gay marriage or evolution, instead of labor organizing. Nonetheless, he throws light the way only an outsider can on why the "religious right" does yoeman service year in and year out for the Republican party and has so little to show for it.

In an oft cited quote Frank sums up the situation well "

What Frank forgets is it doesn't always go according to plan. The Pat Robertson/Pat Buchanan insurgencies shook the Republican party and Buchanan deserves credit for a Republican congress voting for a raise in the minimum wage. Gary Bauer almost single handedly torpedoed Social Security privatization proposals in 1998. These achievements usually draw backhanded praise from the left, who are if anything more concerned with ideological purity than the "religious right."

Frank decries the "culture wars" and fundamentalist zealots being sucked up into them, but he neglects the extent the left has been sucked up as well. While he discusses the DLC strategy of of hanging to abortion and gay rights as defining issues. He doesn't discuss how the NAACP's crusade against the confederate flag distracts from more substantial political and economic issues or how the "anti-racist/diversity-valuing/multiculturalist" politics of identity that so dominates academic discourse alienates the left from the very people who they purport to be in solidarity with. Nor does he mention the extent to which the Democratic party has systematically purged "pro-life" members from any public forum.

Nonetheless Frank deserves credit he show how "social conservatives" cannot be dismissed a mere racists. And he shows how they engaged in grassroots politics of the sort that unions and other "progressive" entities have forgotten or gotten too lazy to do.

The great unasked question is what would happen if we tried to reverse the formula Frank describes, what if by trying fighting media concentration we can stem the debasement of popular entertainment; by seeking to keep manufacturing at home, we can promote strong families; what if we had instant voter runoff or proportional represenation, christian conservatives wouldn't be stuck with the rotten "lesser of two evils" option that those on the left complain about; what if by forcing a debate on the virtues of the Market, we lead to a reconsideration of neo-Darwinism (and the Malthusian economics it rests upon).

In other words instead of just dismissing "family values" as a purely "private concern" we could frame them within the larger, menacing developments of the new, global economy. But such thinking is far beyond the average lefty who's busy arguing the merits of vegan versus lacto-ovo. This is a job the much maligned "religious right" may have to do. And as many of the best union songs used to be spirituals, so to there might be a rebirth a an real populism of the sort that set Kansas abaze a little over 100 years ago.


  34 of 41 people found the following review helpful:

4.0 out of 5 stars Great analysis. It's the suggested cure that bothers me., March 25, 2005

By Jack Lechelt "Jackyred" (Virginia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Hardcover)

Frank offers a great explanation for why so many regular folks back a party that will not help them economically. By substituting social issues that will not address the regular Joes' needs in place of economic issues, the right is able to see their economic concerns addressed. Those concerns are, and have always been, tax cuts, deregulation, and laissez-faire capitalism. Amazingly, the regular folk never really see much policy progress on the social-issues front.

My major concern is that Frank believes the modern Democratic Party is too moderate and business-friendly. There are many on the left who agree with him. As I see it, if the Democrats are to embrace Frank's remedies and move the party further to the left, the Democrats will only see more election losses. Whether or not a moderate Democratic Party is good or bad is a secondary matter. Stopping a conservative-led government from enacting its policy preferences should be far more important to the Democratic Party than having proud liberal-Democratic losses. The only Democrat to win - and that was with pluralities, not majorities - was Clinton. Perhaps he was not liberal enough for most Democrats, but having him as president sure beat losing!

As the country continues to face mounting deficits, federal court nominations of conservative justices, and further retreats from modest social safety net protections, hopefully future party squabbles will be minimized so that we can keep our eyes on the prize.

A final note: many liberals believe that moderates do not have firm beliefs and are too willing to compromise important values. I can't speak for all moderates, but I know that my beliefs are firmly held. And one of those important beliefs IS compromise. The idea that one must "give to get" is of core importance to me. That does not mean that I care less or that I am willing give away anything for next-to-nothing. In politics we must pick and choose wisely. Unfortunately, for the past few elections, we have not done too much with any wisdom. Maybe better times lie ahead. Hell, they can't get any worse (gulp).

  33 of 41 people found the following review helpful:

4.0 out of 5 stars The Cynical Exploitation of Working Class Obsession; 4.5 *s, June 30, 2004

By One Man's View (Lawrenceville, GA USA) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)       
This review is from: What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Hardcover)

The central concern of this book is the seemingly irrational flocking of sizeable segments of the working and middle classes to the Republican camp in the last two decades. Economically, that political shift makes no sense. By focusing on the particulars of this political development in his native state, Kansas, Frank provides keen insight into what appears to be the self-immolation of the working class.

The author begins by pointing out that Kansas was in the forefront of the populist movement of the 1890s. The largely farming population was aggrieved by low crop prices and exorbitant costs imposed by furnishing agents and railroads. They found business interests to be their primary oppressors and called for governmental intervention in the economy. It was a decidedly leftist movement of "producers versus parasites."

The 1990s also were not kind to "producers." Heartland America was subjected to deindustrialization, off shoring, and stagnating wages, while elites prospered. But strangely, these disruptions no longer generated withering economic critiques; market forces were seen as perhaps causing dislocations but were held to be blameless. Instead working people began to feel strongly that such cultural issues as abortion, gay liberation, vulgarity in entertainment, and even public education were to blame for disturbances in their lives and in society at large. But these same people are unwilling to squarely pinpoint the origins of culture in the U.S.

Huge corporations largely dictate culture in the US. Unsurprisingly, cultural directions set by media and entertainment concerns are determined by what sells. Universities and government mostly reinforce business interests. But these structural connections are generally not the concern of those feeling socially besieged. These new populists are most concerned with the imagined lifestyles of the so-called liberal elites of these despised institutions. The influence of latte drinking, wine and cheese tasting, European vacationing, and liberal sexual practicing snobbish liberal elites, who of course are staunch Democrats, must be vigorously resisted by supporting conservative political forces. The fact that business elites share the same cultural background of the loathed liberal elites goes unnoticed. Those business elites further obscure their role in culture by making the claim that they too are helpless against the liberal cultural assault.

The alliance of moderate business elites, from whom the leaders of the Republican party are frequently drawn, with a conservative base of working people is one of convenience if not outright cynicism. Business leaders and their spokespersons tolerate, and sometimes join in, conservative railings against liberal culture thereby gaining the voting support to carry out a pro-business political program. It can hardly be doubted that the deregulation, privatization, and union-busting agenda of corporate America has been greatly harmful to their base of supporters. As the author notes, the fanning of the flames of cultural discontent have make good business sense. But it is also interesting that the political process seldom delivers on conservative promises to roll back morality practice.

Perhaps this turn to cultural issues is not too surprising. The producerist ethic was well on its way out by the late 1920s. An economic analysis of society based on class was replaced by classless consumerism where everyone had equal rights to consume. Markets are now regarded as neutral, if not benign. Discontent must be due to reasons other than economic structure. The author also notes that both the media and entertainment industry perpetuate this sanitized, mechanistic version of economic workings, where people cannot be blamed for disruptions. The theme of working stiff as a victim of cultural perversity and excess has become a very powerful rallying cry. The strength of that explanation is maintained by the continual feeding of examples of cultural decadence by conservative spokesmen, especially talk-show hosts.

The author, in the end, finds that the deterioration of the economic landscape for a working class obsessed with cultural issues will continue in any foreseeable future. As he says, "Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse. It invites us all to join in, to lay down our lives so that others might cash out at the top; to renounce forever our middle-American prosperity in pursuit of a crimson fantasy of middle-American righteousness." This book is a strong indictment of the strength our democracy. If people cannot get beyond delusions, no way can a society operate in a coherent, rational manner. Customer Reviews What's the Matter with Kansas How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

The author writes a somewhat satirical look at middle America 's political affliations. He has two major thesis.

So the effect of this is to have a reverse French Revolution in which the common man votes Republican and against his/her economic interests. So farming communities shrivel up, unions die, people go without health care.

Frank a native Kansan explores with humor and interviews peeople of the backlash movement.He bemoans the fact that populism -a left wing philosophy born in the mid west is dead. William Jennings Bryan a fundamentalist Christian was a liberal Democratic Senator from Nebraska. He explores this transformation and his diagnosis would make Clinton supporters and free market libertarians both angry. Since he offend both ends of the spectra his observations should be taken seriously.

Certainly their are flaws in his thesis. if the Republican party is only paying lip service to social issues ,why are Democrats so afraid of their Supreme Court picks. If Clinton was in the pay of moneyed interests why was the right so mobilized against Hillary's health care plan ?

This is a provocative book that explains Red and White state differences and the psychology of political self delusion (Blue collar people voting for big money interests) The Wrecking Crew How Conservatives Rule Thomas Frank Books

49 of 55 people found the following review helpful:

5.0 out of 5 stars A Depressingly Compelling Review of Conservatives' Philosophy of Government in Practice , August 15, 2008
By Steve Koss (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)       
Following up on his masterly examination of the paradox under which Red Staters consistently vote Republican against their own economic self-interest (WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?), Thomas Frank sets out to trace the present-day conservative Republican approach to government in THE WRECKING CREW. What he demonstrates is deeply disturbing even though it has remained on display virtually every day of the entire Bush II administration.

According to Frank, the conservative worldview is totally committed to "the ideal of laissez faire, meaning minimal government interference in the marketplace, along with hostility to taxation, regulation, organized labor, state ownership, and all the business community's other enemies. "The conservative movement promotes the interests of business exclusively over all else in accordance with the motto, "More business in government, less government in business." So-called "big government," also tagged as the liberal state, is the enemy; in fact, virtually all government is the enemy, other than the national defense.

Mr. Frank follows the conservative movement from the turn of the Twentieth Century through the Depression and New Deal, focusing most heavily on the movement's rebirth under Ronald Reagan and on into the new millennium. Along the way, he discusses the growth of lobbying as a major force in converting the nation's capital into a massive feeding ground for corporate special interests. Frank also highlights the manner in which conservatives have repeatedly run the country into huge spending deficits in order to "defund the left" while simultaneously politicizing government management positions by favoring ideology over competence. The end result under Republican conservative stewardship is government that demonstrates itself as ineffectual and incompetent, offering but further proof that big government is inherently incapable of working and needs to be outsourced to private, professional concerns who can do the job correctly (and then inevitably failing to do so).

THE WRECKING CREW is filled with fascinating side observations, such as its note that the movement has always lionized bullies, from Joe McCarthy to Bill O'Reilly, from Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay to George Allen and Michelle Malkin (whom Frank describes hilariously as "a pundit with the appearance of a Bratz doll but the soul of Chucky"). The book's most effective and outrage-generating section has to be its chapter on the Marianas Island of Saipan. Frank casts Saipan, with all its corruption, nepotism, income inequity, slave labor sweatshops, and local political control exercised in the name of big business as the perfect and ultimate model of the conservative movement ideal, a truly horrific prospect. He also notes, properly, that the morass that is today's Iraq is equally a product of the attempt to force fit these same free market ideals to a foreign country, implemented (so the Bush Administration hoped) by inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears young idealogues, home-schooled ultra-Christians with college degrees from the likes of Patrick Henry College, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, and Pat Robertson's Regent University. Saipan and Iraq constituted "laboratories of liberty," modern-day "capitalists' dreams" whose realizations are (or at least should be) shameful American nightmares.

There is little good news in THE WRECKING CREW.

Author Frank shows that our national government has been hollowed out under Republican conservative control, savaged into an ineffectual husk. Furthermore, he illustrates clearly that this was no mistake, that it is part of a deliberate process not just to privatize government and eradicate government regulation but to make these changes permanent by destroying the liberal left (and with it, of course, the Democratic Party). Frank demonstrates well that present day politics has truly become, to invert von Clausiwitz's famous maxim, "a continuation of war by other means." Regrettably, one side of the battle continues to play the game as politics, as elections won or lost and citizens swayed or not, while the other side approaches it as an act of war, a no-holds-barred contest in which the only goal is the complete and utter destruction of the other side.

THE WRECKING CREW is compelling and informative even as it paints a bleak picture of an America being driven rightward and increasingly toward the excesses and inequities of the pre-New Deal era. We all know how that era ended in October, 1929.