What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Commentary: A Disturbing Look at America--in Kansas
here you see “going out of business” signs side by side with placards supporting George W. Bush.

By Gerald Rellick
- original
One of the most remarkable political phenomena of the last 30 years is how America has moved to the political right. In a Los Angeles Times commentary article, Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” writes, “This rightward movement has largely been accomplished by working-class voters whose lives have been materially worsened by the conservative policies they have supported.” Paradoxes abound says Frank: “On nearly any Main Street in middle America we see ‘going out of business’ signs side by side with placards supporting George W. Bush.”

Frank is a native of Kansas and chose to visit his home state to find some answers: “Kansas is a place that has been particularly ill-served by the conservative policies of privatization, deregulation, and de-unionization, and that has reacted to its worsening situation by becoming more conservative still.” He sees Kansas as a “landscape of distortion, paranoia, and of good people led astray.” And it’s not just that they have been duped by the political right: “Though Kansas voters have chosen self-destructive policies, it is just as clear to me that liberalism deserves a large part of the blame for the backlash phenomenon…. Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency.”

But mostly, Frank is unsparing in his criticisms of those in working-class Middle America--epitomized by his fellow Kansans--who have allowed themselves to be manipulated by conservatives on “cultural wedge issues like guns, abortion, and the sneers of Hollywood whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns.” Says Frank, “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.”

In a review of Frank’s book, Eric Alterman writes that the right wing has little interest in delivering on the social and cultural issues they promote. The Federal Marriage Amendment serves to illustrate how clever the right has become in duping Americans. Here they win when they lose. Says Frank: “Failure on the cultural front serves to magnify the outrage felt by conservative true believers. It mobilizes the base. Failure sharpens the distinctions between conservatives and liberals. Failure allows for endless grandstanding without any real-world consequences that might upset more moderate Republicans or the party’s all-important corporate wing. You might even say that grand and garish defeat--especially if accompanied by the ridicule of the sophisticated--is the culture warrior’s very object.”

Where is this all leading? Frank worries that while Kansas may be a national “laughingstock” it may also be a harbinger of worse to come as “the corporate world blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert” and to which Kansans in particular have succumbed. Frank sums up the matter well in these words: “The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female rock stars exchange a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place--and Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes”

Frank’s book raises many serious questions--and Frank presents the portent of a disturbing future. He writes, “Sociologists often warn that societies that turn their backs on equality inevitably meet with a terrible comeuppance. But those sociologists were thinking of an old world in which class anger was a phenomenon of the left. They weren’t reckoning with Kansas, with the world we are becoming.”

Is it possible that a perverse form of ideology, based on distortion and emotionalism, can take root today--more than 225 years after the founding of the Republic? It may be true that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but in America you only have to fool half of the people all of the time. We will learn on November 2 if Kansas’ death wish is America’s death wish.

Gerald S. Rellick, Ph.D., worked in the defense sector of the aerospace industry. He now teaches in the California Community College system.

Posted Sunday, August 8, 2004