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What's the matter with What's the Matter With Kansas?

Updated on February 2, 2013


The author, Thomas Frank begins to explain how conservatives managed to change a reliable Democratic state Republican by discussing what he calls the great backlash. Democrats are traditionally the party of the workers and the poor. According to Frank, this backlash is the Republican Party's success in creating an aberrant coalition between blue collar Kansans and Wall Street executives. He addresses questions how one of the most radical and liberal states became one of the most conservative during a period of extreme unlikeness, and how could the mass of middle and lower class citizens be voting Republican. He also examines the reasons for the current right wing domination of Middle America, by using a firmly class based approach grounded in considerable research and statistics as well as personal evidence. He argues that the great conservative backlash of the last 35 years, especially in Kansas, has been based upon cultural rather than economic issues. It is hard to explain why the poorest county in the United States, MacPherson County, Nebraska, backed George W. Bush. Frank who was once a resident of Kansas and Republican, explains how a group of Harvard graduates, lawyers and CEO’s were able to convince the masses that they spoke on behalf of them.

Kansas, the size of several East Coast states is already economically dead and demographically dying due to agricultural policies. Frank spends a sizeable portion of the book discussing numberless small towns like Emporia or Olathe and their current day status. Either they are soon to be ghost towns, or cities like Garden City Liberal which have been transformed into low wage meat processing centers. These centers according to Frank are exploiting low skilled minority or foreign born workers. Entire neighborhoods, communities and commercial districts across the state suffer or lie abandoned and crumbling. Frank is not the only person left to mull over the fact that Kansas responded by voting to empower more Republicans. Frank offers up some explanation of how this could possible occur. He has a ground breaking ideas which I agree with, Conservatives are pushing the idea that values matter most. Old fashion Christian values for example Frank argues, is one way to draw votes. “Old fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country's return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people, and I agree (Frank, 6).” Conservatives talk Christ but walk corporate. Furthermore Conservatives stand by are not on their immediate agenda. Rather, Conservatives are using these votes to push a pro business economic agenda. Prior to reading What’s the Matter with Kansas, this notion of a pro business economic agenda is exceptionally easy to see. After changing the beliefs of middle and lower class Americans they believe values may matter most but values always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. Frank argues that the Conservative Movement is self-consciously indifferent to class and economics. They don't mean the values of free enterprise or free trade. Instead, they are obsessed with cultural issues like abortion, gun rights, and the debauched media that spews filth into their homes. Social issues including abortion, are less strongly related to party identification and presidential votes than economic issues, and that is even more true for whites in the bottom third of the income distribution than for more affluent whites. Moreover, while social issue preferences have become more strongly related to presidential votes among middle and high income whites, there is no evidence of a corresponding trend among low income whites. In my view the Bush administration is simply in the business of benefiting his associates. My ideologies coincide with those of Frank. I believe once Conservatives get power they push a totally different agenda compared to what they campaigned for. The issues with values and culture wars for example vouch for this.

Culture wars Frank states are the vehicle used to promote a pro business economic agenda. Issues over abortion, birth control, homosexuality, gay marriage, evolution and prayer in school for example are all used by Conservatives to cultivate public outrage about social and religious issues. Through these culture wars Conservatives manage to cultivate public outrage, which in turn lead to moral decay. Conservatives Frank argues are mostly concerned in pushing forth less protection for workers and the environment, low wages and tax cuts for the rich to name a few. As discussed above, in Kansas today workers are receiving the lowers wages for work and most jobs are only being filled by minority or foreign individuals. Conservatives tactfully use this culture war to redefine class as a cultural concept and thus get the lower and middle classes to vote for values rather then economic betterment. The Bush administration along with others, both democratic have spun bills passed by congress to sound for example environmentally friendly. The HealthyForest or Clear Skies bill touched on in class displayed a way for the government to get away with clear cutting and destroying forestry across America for economic goals.

These acts bring up the issue of dumbing down or distracting the nation. Frank states that corporations dumb down the nation through pop culture. Pop culture according to Frank is a product of corporations. Corporations through sex, violence and celebrities are able to prevent the masses from thinking. “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 (Frank, 191).” This also explains the manner in which conservatives took advantage of the great backlash, discussed earlier. According to Frank Conservative intellectuals call the shots, people with graduate degrees and careers in government, academia, law, and the professions. It is not the educated who make this a problem; it is the representation of the masses. A question the Conservatives might have asked themselves is how can we turn this radical and truly liberal state Conservative republican? The answer apparently was anti intellectualism. Making money is natural, therefore innocent; thinking is artificial, therefore dangerous. A war against intellectuals says Frank is part of the culture war.

Kansas now has to deal with the party they voted for who has engineered their exclusion. Real wages in the United States are roughly the same now as they were in 1980; fewer jobs provide adequate health or retirement benefits. The percentage of working people protected by unions has declined precipitously; unemployment benefits are less generous; and the federal government's finances are so gravely impaired that Social Security and Medicare benefits may well be reduced and/or delayed, beginning with the next generation of retirees. At the same time, financial profits and the income of the richest Americans have increased dramatically. Republican politicians have been able to implement economic policies that hurt the vast majority of their constituency by distracting voters with manufactured cultural issues such as the teaching of evolution in public schools. Two major companies, Tyson and Cargill build slaughterhouses in western Kansas, they are staffed by low wage immigrants with few benefits and comparatively free of pesky meat inspectors and occupational safety monitors. Currently, Boeing is the largest employer in Wichita, threatens to move, so the state legislature votes the company a $500 million interest free bond issue, despite the worst budget shortfall in Kansas history and with predictable effects on teacher salaries all this thanks to Republican and Democratic free trade policies. This can potentially be the singly stand left holding Kansas together, and preventing Kansas from becoming an empty, decayed and improvised state.

Frank argues that the Conservative Movement is self consciously indifferent to class and economics. In my opinion he doesn’t mean the values of free enterprise or free trade. Instead, they are obsessed with cultural issues like abortion, gun rights, and the debauched media that spews filth into their homes. Throughout the book it is interesting to see how Conservatives have convinced the working class people to vote against their own interests. If you were to openly make a statement such as this prior to the election of Bush Jr. no one would believe you, however it now tings true. Finally, I believe the habit of including economics to culture. This tendency is nearly universal in America. This tendency is reinforced whenever we display the red state blue state maps. In general, I believe Americans aren't comfortable talking about social class, especially not in any way suggesting how one class might benefit at the expense of another. If culture is everything, there's no reason a factory worker from Wichita shouldn't trust another regular guy, even if that guy owns the factory. In the culture wars, they're on the same side. Frank sees Kansans exploited by Republicans who then blame the woes of the underpaid and overworked on Eastern liberals. Republicans blame the Latte Liberals, which Frank views as a vehicle used to pin American problems on the elite liberals. The Conservatives believe the war is between common people and the know it all liberals. This again is another attempt by Conservatives to spin the truth and protect their kind.

Frank’s analysis of the right wing’s takeover of heartland politics suggests that it must be blamed on specific, tangible weaknesses on the left as much as on right wing deceptions. Through this book, Frank helps to unmask and explain the deceptions cause and effects. One cannot help but be astonished at the work of Conservatives. Frank writes, by convincing working people that even though the monopolization of agriculture, the decline of rural life, the flight of manufacturing overseas, the eclipse of labor unions and the ongoing impoverishment of the working class are simply forces of nature and not those of the Republican party. Frank continues by stating liberal policies were essentially fair and rational, and that instead of blaming the unfortunate they should make common cause with other little people against the rich.

Going through this book one would conclude that Frank would spare the Democrats, however he does not. The problem is not that Democrats are pro-choice or anti school prayer; it is by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans, they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural issues like guns and abortion and the rest who appeal would ordinarily be overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about class in a coded way, to be sure but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up (What’s the Matter with Kansas).

Fore the most part I agree with Thomas Frank and my preconceptions have been on the whole have been confirmed. However I did not understand why or how Frank could fail to include what I think is the most notable is the virtual absence of any mention, the African Americans or Latinos in the book. Even though Kansas is not the melting pot states like New York or Florida, the twenty first century fully reflects the diversity of the American population, but one might get the impression from the book that Kansas is strictly white. In America, ultra rightism is mainly a white problem, but ignoring the crucial past, present and future role of minorities in overcoming that problem is a serious error in my opinion.


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