Thomas Frank

What's the Matter With Kansas?

"How can anyone who has ever worked for someone else vote Republican?" she asked. How could so many people get it so wrong?

Her question is apt; it is, in many ways, the preeminent question of our times. People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests. This derangement has put the Republicans in charge of all three branches of government; it has elected presidents, senators, governors; it shifts the Democrats to the right and then impeaches Bill Clinton just for fun. 1-2

The great backlash has made the laissez-faire revival possible, but this does not mean that it speaks to us in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary; the backlash imagines itself as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history's receiving end. That its champions today control all three branches of government matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest on the planet does not give it pause. 6

As a formula for holding together a dominant political coalition, the backlash seems so improbable and so self-contradictory that liberal observers often have trouble believing it is actually happening. 8

From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the Web sites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing and with a long parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities. But on closer inspection the country seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working class guys in Midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover. 10

...that we have trouble even believing there was a time when progressives were described with adjectives like fiery, rather than snooty or bossy or wimpy--has to stand out as one of the greatest reversals of American history. 15

"Rural America is pissed," a small-town Pennsylvania man told a reporter from Newsweek IN 2001. Explaining why he and his neighbors voted for George Bush, he said: "these people are tired of moral decay. They're tired of everything being wonderful on Wall Street and terrible on Main Street." Let me repeat that: they're voting Republican in order to get even with Wall Street. 24

Kansas may be the land of averageness, but it is a freaky, militant, outraged averageness. 34

In its implacable bitterness Kansas holds up a mirror to the rest of us. If this is the place where America goes looking for its national soul, then this is where America finds that its soul, after stewing in the primal resentment of the backlash, has gone all sour and wrong. If Kansas is the concentrated edge of normality, then here is where we can see the deranged gradually become normal, where we look into that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American--class president, quarterback, Rhodes scholar, bond trader, builder of industry--and realize that we are staring into the eyes of a lunatic. 36

"I'm a Christian," the leader of the Wyandotte County GOP once told a reporter by way of explaining his political plans. "Primarily my goal is to build the Kingdom of God." 69

...Brownback's [neocon from Kansas] signature gesture was the time he washed the feet, in the manner of Jesus Christ, of an assistant who was leaving his service.

One seasoned Kansas political hand I spoke to called this incident "religious harassment." When "your boss says, 'take your shoes off,' what can you do?" 70

This situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal. For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while millionaires tremble in their mansions. They are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes." 109

Conservative listservs abound with bizarre speculation about what atrocity the liberals will inflict on us tomorrow, each wild suggestion made and received with complete seriousness. The liberal elite is going to outlaw major league sports. Forbid red meat. Mandate special holidays for transgendered war veterans. Hand our neighborhood over to an Indian tribe. Decree that only gay couples can adopt children. Ban the Bible. 125

The existence of a profound, all-corrupting liberal cultural influence is an absolute ontological necessity if conservatism is to make any sense. 136

From Fox News and the Hoover Institute and every newspaper in the land they sing the praises of the working man's red-state virtues even while they pummel the working man's economic chances with outsourcing, new overtime rules, lousy health insurance, and coercive new management techniques. 151

Let us pause for a moment to assess the delusions of martyrdom that all this requires the Cons to embrace. What they mean by persecution is not imprisonment or excommunication or disfranchisement, but criticism, news reports that disagree with them: TV anchormen shaking their heads over Kansas, editorials ridiculing creationism, Topeka columnists using the term wing-nut. This from a faction given to taunt their opponents as "pro-aborts," "totalitarians," "Nazis." The disproportion between dish-it-out and take-it is positively staggering. 213

p. 76 Let us pause for a moment to ponder this all-American dysfunction. A state is spectacularly ill served by the Reagan-Bush stampede of deregulation, privatization, and laissez-faire. It sees its country depopulated, its downs disintegrate, its cities stagnate--and its wealthy enclaves sparkle, behind their remote-controlled security gates. The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention. But what do its rebels demand? More of the very measures that have brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place.

This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible.

p. 117 Ann Coulter being quoted: "That's the whole point of being a liberal: to feel superior to people with less money."

"Only when you appreciate the powerful driving force of snobbery in the liberals' worldview do all their preposterous counterintuitive arguments make sense. They promote immoral destructive behavior because they are snobs, they embrace criminals because they are snobs, they oppose tax cuts because they are snobs, they adore the environment because they are snobs. Every pernicious idea to come down the pike is instantly embraced by liberals to show how powerful they are. Liberals hate society and want to bring down to reinforce their sense on invincibility. Secure in the knowledge that their beachfront haciendas will still be standing when the smoke clears, they giddily fiddle with the little people's rules and morals."

p.121 As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal. Indignation is the privileged emotion, the magic moment that brings a consciousness of rightness and a determination to persist. Conservatives often speak of their first bout of indignation as a sort of conversion experience, a quasi-religious revelation.

p. 122-123 Everything seems to piss conservatives off, and they react by documenting and cataloging their disgust.

p.277 from 12.30.03 newspaper column by Ann Coulter:

Apparently the only thing standing between a government of laws and total anarchy is the fact that conservatives are good losers. If we don't give liberals everything they want, when they want it, anarchy will result. We must obey manifestly absurd court rulings, so that liberals obey court rulings when they lose.

Point one: They almost never lose. Point two: They already refuse to accept laws they don't like. They do it all the time--race discrimination bans, bilingual education bans, marijuana bans.

p. 128 The erasure of the economic is a necessary precondition for most of the basic backlash ideas. It is only possible to think that the news is slanted to the left, for example, if you don't take into account who owns the news organizations and if you never turn your critical powers on that section of the media devoted to business news. The university campus can only be imagined as a place dominated by leftists if you never consider economics departments or business schools. You can believe that conservatism's basic historical constituency, the business community, from your analysis. Likewise, you can only believe that George W. Bush is a man of the people if you have screened out his family's economic status. Most important, it is possible to understand popular culture as the product of liberalism only if you have blinded yourself to the most fundamental of economic realities, namely, that the networks and movie studios and advertising agencies and publishing houses and record labels are, in fact, commercial enterprises.

p. 279 In a much-quoted passage, Gary Aldrich described the Clintonoids among whom he worked as "girlie men." "There was a unisex quality to the Clinton staff that set it far apart from the Bush administration. It was the shape of their bodies. In the Clinton administration, the broad-shouldered, pants-wearing women and the pear-shaped, bowling-pin men blurred distinctions between the sexes. I was used to athletic types, physically fit persons who took pride in body image and good health.

p. 135 Today conservatism has arrived in that dark place. Even as American journalism lurches palpably to the right, the best-selling right-wing media critics go from shrill to shriller, from charges of "bias" to Coulteresque accusations of outright "left-wing indoctrination." The backlash worldview is less true than ever, and yet conservatives rely on it more and more. It has migrated from the periphery to the very center of the backlash worldview. It is the assertion on which all else rests.

p.191 Anti-intellectualism is one of the grand unifying themes of the backlash, the mutant strain of class war that underpins so many of Kansas's otherwise random-seeming grievances. Contemporary conservatism holds as a key article of faith that it is fruitless to scrutinize the business pages for clues about the way the world works. We do not labor under the yoke of some abstraction like market forces, or even flesh-and-blood figures like executives or owners. No, it is intellectuals who call the shots, people with graduate degrees and careers in government, academia, law, and the professions.

p. 216 One of city's upscale Kansas suburbs is the headquarters of a powerful Christina radio network, on which you can hear pro-life leaders discuss their next move against the "abortion industry" and average people condemn liberal politicians for throwing off the Lord's timeline for the Rapture by trying to make peace between Israel and the Arab nations. (In Topeka, meanwhile, a group lays plans to speed up the Lord's end-times schedule by finding oil at a spot in Israel indicated by prophecy, thereby precipitating war with the Arabs, and thereby bringing on You Know What.)

p.219 At the end of this sectarian progression lies sedevacantism, the notion that, thanks to the manifold heresies of the church since the sixties, there is no one occupying the papal throne.

The way David Bawden pronounces the word, in his heavy Oklahoma accent, it comes out "sadie-vaKONtist." For all I know, that's the right way to say it. Bawden is an expert, after all, a sedevacantist's sedevacantist. He spent years examining the options open to a true-believing Catholic and rejecting each one. Finally, he felt he had to take the ultimate step. He called a papal election, and got himself chosen pope: Pope Michael I. Pope Michael of Kansas.

p.235 The deafness of the conservative rank and file to the patent insincerity of their leaders is one of the true cultural marvels of the Great Backlash. It extends from the local level to the highest heights, from clear-eyed city council aspirant to George W. Bush, a man so ham-handed in his invocations of the Lord that he occasionally slips into blasphemy. Indeed, even as conservatives routinely mock Democrats for faking their religious sentiment, they wander blithely in and out of the land of hypocrisy, never pausing to wonder if their followers might be paying attention.

p.242 This is the basic lie of the backlash, the manipulative strategy that makes the whole senseless parade possible. In all of its rejecting and nay-saying, it absolutely refuses to consider that the assaults on its values, the insults, and the Hollywood sneers are all products of capitalism as surely as are McDonald's hamburgers and Boeing 737s.

p.252 The fever-dream of martyrdom that Kansas follows today has every bit as much power as John Brown's dream of justice and human fraternity. And even if the state must sacrifice it all--its cities and its industry, its farms and its small towns, all its thoughts and all its doings--the brilliance of the mirage will not fade. 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.