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

We heard this guy talking on NPR some time back, and since Kansas has been home for us, we decided to check it out. Thomas Frank is a liberal who found himself wondering how Kansas, historically a radically leftist state, became such a bastion of conservative Republicanism. Personally, I didn't know a lot of the history of Kansas, and it was pretty educational hearing about some of the movements that were sparked in Kansas and spread to the rest of the country. For instance, Kansas was originally settled by free-staters who wanted to stop the slave-state Missourians from moving farther west. So why are current Kansans comparing themselves to abolitionists when their politics are almost a complete reversal? That's the question Frank seeks to answer in this book.

The writing is pretty easy to read, except for one caveat: it's laced with endnotes. Normally, I prefer footnotes if it's actual content and endnotes if it's just a reference. That way I don't have to flip back and forth to check to see what it is. Unfortunately, Frank has collected so many anecdotes and curious facts that he could almost fill another book with the trivia. In more than one case he has footnotes that have their own endnotes. It's a bit tricky for a compulsive gotta-read-everything reader like me.

Frank's explanation is largely based on his theory of the "backlash culture" of the right wing. He argues that moderate Republicans tried to use a backlash about moral values to fight the Democrats, but ended up bringing up a new generation of conservatives who are now shoving the moderates out. The backlash culture, as I understand it, is one where economics are out of the picture, and so what's at stake in elections is moral values: abortion, Hollywood, prayer in schools. Moral decline is blamed on the "liberal elite," and the working class votes for conservative Republicans despite the fact that it's economically detrimental to themselves and helps the rich get richer.

It's hard to sum up all his arguments in a brief book review, but it's an interesting examination of our current state of politics. I don't agree with all of his political views, but I think he's written a well-researched account of where Kansas is now and how it got there, and his prediction that Kansas tends to start trends that then catch on in the rest of the country is a scary thought.

There are parts of it that reminded me of Jim Wallis' God's Politics (which I started but haven't finished yet), in that he cricitizes the right-wing for caring about certain moral issues but aren't taking care of the poor and needy. But unlike Wallis, he doesn't seem to offer any real solution. Frank also likes to bash David Brooks (author of Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive); it wasn't until I read this book that I understood a little more of why Brooks writes the way he does, as a conservative who adopts the voice of a liberal in order to write "confessions" of liberal elitism.

For anyone who's interested in the current state of politics and wants to understand some of its origins, this is worth checking out. It's obviously not unbiased, but at least you never wonder where Frank is coming from.

Fed to jonathan's brain | September 02, 2005 | Comments (0)


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