Wednesday, September 15, 2004

What's the Matter with Thomas Frank, Cont'd?

Clearly I'm still not getting it. The Frank argument may be summarized as follows.

(1) Kansas has been ruled by the Republican Party since 1860, and the Republican Party has not been exactly progressive (in contemporary terms) since, oh, about 1936. (2) Kansas has recently been galvanized by a new offshoot of Republican conservatism, which foregrounds cultural rather than economic issues--for example, issues of abortion rights, drugs, crime, family values. (3) The neo-liberals such as Clinton-Gore-Lieberman have collaborated with the conservatives in this insidious and invidious endeavor by taking economic (read: class) issues "off the table" (see 176, 242-50) and pursuing the New Democratic voters among the white-collar crowd. (4) False consciousness accounts for the political myopia of poor and working-class voters in Kansas, while "insincerity" (235) accounts for the egregious prevarications of the new conservatives (the "Cons"). (5) Kansas is not the country at large. "But it is also true that things that begin in Kansas--the Civil War, Prohibition, Populism, Pizza Hut--have a historical tendency to go national" (248).

So get ready for the backlash on a national scale, Tom tells us, because, well, because Kansas has been acting kind of reactionary for a while. Ever since the 1920s. Hmm. It doesn't sound very convincing to me, or to anyone who's not invested in the idea that the conservatives are carrying the day. And here's the thing. Not even the paranoid Thomas Frank thinks they are--again, according to his own research, they've already lost the culture wars.

Look at the states that used to form the imperial metropole of the late-19th century (this is not my idea, it's that of writers in the 1890s who were trying to explain the regional conflict that was first politically and then verbally condensed as the Populist Revolt): north of the Ohio River, from Illinois through Pennsylvania and New York to Massachusetts, from Chicago through Philadelphia and New York to Boston. Republicans in these parts of the world have until very recently been "tax-and-spend liberals," but whether they've kept this fiscal faith or not is irrelevant to the simple fact that none of them (not Rudy, not George, not Mitt) is willing to go down the road mapped by Frank. (Arnold in California is another example.) They can't play the culture card here, and they won't, and they can't win on the fiscal front, either, even if they want to try, because the public sector and its keepers and benefits are so visible and powerful.

So what's the matter with Kansas--false consciousness and its attendant insincerity-- cannot soon overtake the Northeastern states (Illinois to Mass), perhaps because Populism never took root there. Where else might these inauthentic illnesses install themselves? Got me. Maybe in the South and West, say, Alabama to Texas (it gets ambiguous farther west) and in the depopulating regions of the northern plains. But where the votes are? Nah. John Judis has it nailed here in his book on the emerging Democratic majority.

What's left of this book's argument? Nothing except congratulations to those who believe that the American electorate is at best irrational and, at worst, dangerous. Welcome to the world as understood by those who, like Thomas Frank, got a proper education.