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What's the Matter with Kansas?

What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004) is a book written by American journalist and historian Thomas Frank, which explores the rise of conservative populism in the United States through the lens of his native state of Kansas, which was once a hotbed of the left-wing Populist movement of the late nineteenth century, but has become overwhelmingly conservative in recent decades. It was published in the United Kingdom as What's the Matter with America?.

What's the Matter with Kansas? spent 18 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Overview

In the book, Frank examines what he calls "The Great Backlash", which he describes as a reactionary movement against the cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s. According to his analysis, the political discourse of recent decades has dramatically shifted from the class animus of traditional leftism to one in which "explosive" cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, are used to redirect anger towards "liberal elites".

Against this backdrop, Frank describes the rise of conservatism and the so-called far right in the social and political landscape of Kansas. He finds extraordinary irony in working-class Kansans' overwhelming support for Republican politicians, despite his belief that the economic policies of the Republican party are wreaking havoc on their communities and livelihoods for the benefit of the extremely wealthy. Meanwhile, he says, the party fails to deliver on the "moral" issues (such as abortion and gay rights) which brought the support of cultural conservatives in the first place -- deepening a cycle of frustration aimed at cultural liberalism.

Frank also sees the bitter divide between moderate and conservative Kansas Republicans (what he labels "Mods" and "Cons") as an archetype for the future of politics in America, in which fiscal conservatism becomes the universal norm and political war is waged over a handful of hotbutton cultural issues.

Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers - when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists' furthest imaginings -- when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work -- you could be damned sure about what would follow.

Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today's Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they're protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there's a good chance they'll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.

The book also details how Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a liberal Democrat who is a native of Ohio, was able to win in conservative Kansas. By emphasizing issues like health care, school funding, and avoiding the hot-button social issues, Sebelius successfully fractured the Kansas GOP and won a clear majority.

Franks' basic theory of the book is simple. He says that the conservative coalition is the dominant coalition in American politics. According to Frank, this coalition is composed of two halves, the social and the economic conservatives. His theory is that, while the two halves may not dislike each other, they have fundamentally different interests. The economic conservatives want business tax cuts and deregulation. The social conservatives want bans on gay marriage and abortion. Frank says that since the coalition formed in the late 1960s, the coalition has been "fantastically rewarding" for the economic conservatives. The policies of the Republicans in power have been exclusively economic, but the coalition has caused the social conservatives to be worse off, due to these very economic policies and because the social issues that this faction pushes never go anywhere after the election. According to Frank, "abortion is never outlawed, school prayer never returns, the culture industry is never forced to clean up its act." He attributes this partly to conservatives "waging cultural battles where victory is impossible," such as a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He also argues that the very capitalist system the economic conservatives strive to strengthen and deregulate, promotes and commercially markets the perceived assault on traditional values.

So the central idea of the book answers the question as to why these social conservatives continue voting with the Republican Party, even after their social issues never go anywhere and when the resultant economic policies "end their way of life." He says that this coalition is held together because of the belief of the social conservatives in a "liberal elite" which does not actually exist. This elite, according to Frank, does not respect the social conservatives or their "culture," disrespects family values and is responsible for just about everything that they see wrong in the world. Frank describes what he calls the "Plen-ti-Plaint." He says that this is the device the social conservatives use to outrage their voters. The Plen-ti-Plaint catalogues "ridiculous examples of liberal intolerance, such as discrimination against Christians or silly mascot issues." He says Bill O'Reilly uses this in his television show where he "gets indignant one day about the Insane Clown Posse and indignant the next about the man-boy love association." By using "explosive" social issues like gay marriage to blame the "liberal elite," the social conservatives remain in the Republican coalition, even against their own economic interest.

Title

The book derives its name from an August 15, 1896, editorial by William Allen White in the Emporia Gazette in which he took Kansas leaders to task for letting Kansas slip into economic stagnation and not keeping up economically with neighboring states because of liberal Populism policies chasing away economic capital from the state.

The tongue-in-cheek editorial said:

Oh, this is a state to be proud of! We are a people who can hold up our heads! What we need is not more money, but less capital, fewer white shirts and brains, fewer men with business judgment, and more of those fellows who boast that they are "just ordinary clodhoppers, but they know more in a minute about finance than John Sherman"; we need more men who are "posted," who can bellow about the crime of '73, who hate prosperity, and who think because a man believes in national honor, he is a tool of Wall Street. We have had a few of them - some hundred fifty thousand, but we need more.

We need several thousand gibbering idiots to scream about the "Great Red Dragon" of Lombard Street. We don't need population, we don't need wealth, we don't need well-dressed men on the streets, we don't need cities on the fertile prairies; you bet we don't! What we are after is the money power. Because we have become poorer and ornerier and meaner than a spavined, distempered mule, we, the people of Kansas, propose to kick; we don't care to build up, we wish to tear down.

"There are two ideas of government," said our noble Bryan at Chicago. "There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, this prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class and rest upon us."

That's the stuff! Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffing out of the creditors and tell the debtors who borrowed the money five years ago when money "per capita" was greater than it is now that the contraction of the currency gives him a right to repudiate.

Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle who can't pay his debts on the altar, and bow down and worship him. Let the state ideal be high. What we need is not the respect of our fellow men, but the chance to get something for nothing.

The editorial worked its way to Mark Hanna and was publicized across the country during the United States presidential election, 1896.

The editorial established White as a power in the Republican party and five Republican presidents were to spend nights at his home -- Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

History of the idea that Democrats are defecting to conservatives

The notion that American politics has been transformed because of defection from the Democratic ranks of working-class social conservatives is not a new idea:

As far back as Richard Nixon's first year in the White House, Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority (1969).

Everett Carll Ladd Jr., with Charles D. Hadley in Transformations of the American Party System: Political Coalitions from the New Deal to the 1970s. (1975) proclaimed "an inversion of the old class relationship in voting" due to "the transformations of conflict characteristic of post-industrialism."

Robert Huckfeldt and Carol Weitzel Kohfeld in Race and the Decline of Class in American Politics (1989) argued that "race served to splinter the Democratic coalition" because the policy commitments of the Civil Rights era provoked "[r]acial hostility, particularly on the part of lower-status whites."

Thomas Byrne and Mary D. Edsall in Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (1991) argued that "[w]orking-class whites and corporate CEOs, once adversaries at the bargaining table, found common ideological ground in their shared hostility to expanding government intervention."

All of these works, and many others, suggested that the class basis of New Deal voting patterns had given way to a new structure in which conservative ideology and cultural issues brought large numbers of working-class whites into the Republican camp.

Criticisms

In the study "The Truth about Conservative Christians", two sociologists, Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout, claim to show that class does matter, despite Frank's thesis. Poorer Protestants, they argue, are much less likely to vote Republican than affluent ones. And, they claim, conservative Protestants are actually more likely to support progressive taxation than “mainline” Protestants are.

Steven Malanga argues that while Frank portrays the electorate in Kansas as voting against its self interests, the state's economy has actually fared better than average since the conservative and Republican tilt of the state began. According to Malanga, Kansas has had a consistently lower unemployment rate, higher employment growth, and has fared better in recessions. While income may be lower than in more urban areas, Malanga argues, the lower cost of living in more rural areas of the United States means a higher overall standard of living, with housing, education, taxes, and other expenses being significantly lower. The city of Shawnee, Kansas saw its population grow by 27% during the 1990s, with only 3.3% of its population living below the poverty level.

Yet, in apparent contradiction to Malanga's thesis, Frank does not actually depict Johnson County as being in decline:

Today, Johnson County is a vast suburban empire, a happy, humming confusion of freeways and malls and nonstop construction; of identical cul-de-sacs and pretentious European street names and overachieving school districts and oversized houses constructed to one of four designs. By all the standards of contemporary American business civilization, it is a great success story. It is the wealthiest county in Kansas by a considerable margin, and the free-market rapture of the New Economy nineties served it well, scandals notwithstanding. Telecom and corporate management were the right businesses to be in, and Johnson County's population grew by almost 100,000 over the course of the decade: an unflagging stream of middle-class humanity to fill its office parks and to absorb the manufactured bonhomie of its Applebee's and the gourmet pretensions of its Dean & DeLucas.

John Leo argues that despite Frank's belief that conservative politics is just a game of "bait-and-switch", rural conservative voters have made their voices heard on a vast array of social issues. He says that Frank is an elitist who is out of touch with the individuals and issues that his book addresses.

Larry Bartels, a professor in the department of politics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, in "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas," tests "Frank's thesis by examining class-related patterns of issue preferences, partisanship, and voting over the past half-century." Specifically, Bartels focuses on four questions:

  • Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic party?
  • Has the white working class become more conservative?
  • Do working class "moral values" trump economics?
  • Are religious voters distracted from economic issues?

Bartels's answer to each question is "no." Frank provided a lengthy rebuttal to Bartels' analysis. More recently, in an apparent attempt to rebut Frank's rebuttal via Barack Obama's now infamous "bitter" label regarding Middle America during the 2008 Democratic Presidential campaign, Bartels' offered a somewhat revised analysis of Frank's original thesis in an op-ed piece in the April 17, 2008 edition of The New York Times.

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