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That our politics have been shifting rightward for more than thirty years is a generally acknowledged fact of American life. That this rightward movement has largely been accomplished by working-class voters whose lives have been materially worsened by the conservative policies they have supported is a less comfortable fact, one we have trouble talking about in a straightforward manner.

And yet the backlash is there, whenever we care to look, from the "hardhats" of the 1960s to the "Reagan Democrats" of the 1980s to today's mad-as-hell "red states." You can see the paradox first-hand on nearly any Main Street in middle America -- "going out of business" signs side by side with placards supporting George W. Bush.

I chose to observe the phenomenon by going back to my home state of Kansas, 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. [...]

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. Liberalism may not be the monstrous, all-powerful conspiracy that conservatives make it out to be, but its failings are clear nonetheless. Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Wichita and Shawnee, Kansas with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.

This is due partially, I think, to the Democratic Party's more-or-less official response to its waning fortunes. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and -- more important -- the money of these coveted constituencies, "New Democrats" think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it. Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as "class warfare" and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness to business interests. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshiping country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where's the soft money in that?

This is, in drastic miniature, the criminally stupid strategy that has dominated Democratic thinking off and on ever since the "New Politics" days of the early seventies.
-Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas



Thomas Frank's argument here is so obviously self-contradictory on so many levels that it's hard to explain how he could believe in it, unless we accept that the modern Left has become deranged. It is his belief that the default populist position in American politics is economic progressivism, which prevailed until the late '70s, when Republicans whipped up a cultural backlash against a non-existent intellectual elite on the Left and convinced middle America to vote against its own economic self-interest and for a conservative agenda. But he knows how to cure this problem--Democrats should "return" to a platform that pits the middle and lower classes against the upper, which will restore them to the domination they enjoyed in the New Deal/Great Society era. But, in the meantime, what's wrong with Kansas is that the rather sheep-like masses are being led by cynical Republicans who play on their emotions when they should be listening to the intellectually superior ideas of the Left. Got it? People don't vote the way the elites of the Left think they should, so there's something wrong with the people, because there can't be anything wrong with the ideas.

It's not really worth the time, space and effort that would be required to untangle everything that's wrong there, so we'll just pick out a couple of the most obvious mistakes, those about which there's some significant consensus. For now, let's just take note of the series of dubious assumptions that Mr. Frank makes: that the voters are rather easily fooled; that populist politics generally revolves around fairly socialist and class-antagonism-based economics; that such economics works; that those who advocate such economics do not represent an intellectual class; that more free market-oriented economics do not work; that the last quarter century has been a dark time for America in economic terms; that conservatives don't really believe in social issues; that social issues are less important than economic; and that, therefore, Democrats should stick to what worked for them from 1932-1980.

It will be particularly unfruitful to quarrel with Mr. Franks on economics. Suffice it to say, continued belief in a command or socialist economy after the fall of the Communist East, the Socialist West and the declaration by even Bill Clinton that the era of big government is over seems to be almost a form of psychosis. You'd think that Mr. Frank would at least take note of the fact that the Democrats' fifty year hegemony in Washington was brought to an end by the near collapse of the U.S. economy by the late '70s/early '80s, when folks like Jimmy Carter embraced the idea that we might be headed into permanent decline. That Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan were so successful in getting the economy going again in so short a time pretty thoroughly discredited the economics of the Left. The political argument today, at the End of History, is over just how free the markets should be, not whether they should be. And, as Steven Malanga ably points out, the results have been quite spectacular for Kansas:
[M]r. Frank's characterization of the Jayhawk State is completely--bizarrely--at odds with the facts. Kansas's economy has actually outpaced the nation's for years. Throughout the 1990s and the first part of this new decade, Kansas had a lower unemployment rate than the U.S. as a whole. In fact, when the country's unemployment rate dipped below 5% from 1997 to 2001, Kansas's fell under 4%--a level so low that economists basically consider it full employment. Overall, the state's economy added 256,000 new jobs during the 1990s, a 24% growth rate, compared with a 20% national gain in the same period. Even when the economic slowdown set in and the recession finally hit in 2002 and 2003, Kansas lost jobs at a slower rate than the national economy did.

It's the same story in the state's agricultural sector, which Mr. Frank claims the free market has driven "to a near state of collapse." Yes, Kansas farm jobs shrank by about 9% in the 1990s, a result of farms becoming larger and more efficient (and producing more), but the state's total agricultural economy grew by 10%, some 30,000 jobs, as areas like food processing and agricultural wholesaling expanded.

The objects of Mr. Frank's particular concern, his hometown of Shawnee and the rest of Johnson County, have done especially well. For three years in the 1990s, the Shawnee area's unemployment rate actually dipped below 3%, making it one of the tightest labor markets anywhere.

When the recession hit, Shawnee's unemployment rate did rise, but it still stayed below the nation's. And though Mr. Frank describes the place as practically desolate, Shawnee's population grew by a robust 27% during the 1990s. Even more astonishing, today, only 3.3% of its citizens live below the poverty level, compared with about 12.5% nationally. "It's possible his view of us is outdated," says Jim Martin, executive director of the Shawnee Economic Development Council, in classic Midwestern understatement.
If Mr. Frank can look out at our $12 trillion economy and twenty-plus uninterrupted years of growth and really see it as decline, no amount of argument is likely to change his mind.

It may be worthwhile though to consider just how wrong Mr. Frank is about an overarching matter, the idea that economics is the seed corn of populism, American populism in particular. As a general matter, we might simply note that many Marxists realized the futility of their philosophy as early as WWI, when they watched the working poor of various nations go happily off to war and realized that socialism and class solidarity was feeble stuff when compared to nationalism. We might equally well note that the reform phase of the New Deal was dealt its final blow when conservative white Democratic Southerners joined Republicans to create a functioning majority against it--race trumping socialism. The Depression had, of course, been sufficiently catastrophic that Democrats maintained their grip on Congress, with rare exceptions, on through the '70s, and the assassination of JFK gave LBJ an opportunity to ram through the Great Society in the mid '60s, but all the while the elites of the Democratic Party and of the academic Left were estranging themselves from the American people. Indeed, it was quite near the apogee of their power that the great liberal historian, Richard Hofstadter, wrote his lament Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), in which he charted Americans' enduring "resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life." Though he failed to grasp the full import at the time, this popular anti-intellectualism always spelled the doom of modern liberalism, which is after all dedicated to the ideals of rationalism and the Enlightenment and opposed to religious faith (which it calls superstition). The Left's economic programs have always been imposed from the top down while the great social movements in America--abolition, Prohibition, anti-Darwinism, Civil Rights, anti-abortion, etc.--have been driven from below by preachers and their parishioners. For just one example of how oblivious Mr. Frank is to what's genuinely popular in America, he spends a deal of time expressing his embarrassment at the hostility of Kansans to the teaching of Darwinism in public schools--this despite the fact that only about 13% of Americans actually believe in Darwinism. Obviously he needn't change his mind about evolution just to fit in better with his countrymen, but he does need to recognize that there's significant dissonance in his position that there's no such thing as a liberal elite and his adherence to such a distinctly minority view. Similarly, as he decries the GOP's use of wedge issues -- homosexuality, affirmative action, drug legalization, prayer in schools, etc. -- he ought to recognize that on every one of them liberals are holding the narrow end of the wedge. And given the concentration of such views in the press, academia, and other similar intellectual milieus it is precisely accurate for conservatives to speak of a liberal elite.

One last point may be worth making, just how far the :left is from making the changes it will need to in order to appeal to a majority of Americans again. As Mr. Frank incidentally notes, the current dispute in the Democratic Party is between those, like himself, who see the path back to power as a return to "progressive" economic proposals and the New Democrats, who think all that's needed is an embrace of free market economics. Neither side seems to recognize the need to get to the Right on social issues, which means that there's near unanimity that they should be running on the 30-40% side of questions like gay rights, abortion, etc. This uniform acceptance of secular social positions is politically suicidal in a country where over 90% believe in God and Judeo-Christian values retain such high levels of support. A party that clings to such unpopular dogma on the central moral questions is unlikely to benefit from a tide of populism any time soon.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (D)

  

Websites:

See also:

Politics
Thomas Frank Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Thomas Frank (tcfrank.com)
    -The Baffler
    -The Clio Society: Thomas Frank
    -BOOK SITE: What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank (Henry Holt)
    -ESSAY: Thomas Frank on the failure of liberalism: adapted from What's the Matter with Kansas (Thomas Frank, TomDispatch.com)
    -ESSAY: Lie Down for America: How the Republican Party sows ruin on the Great Plains (Thomas Frank, 04/2004, Harper's Magazine)
    -BOOK SITE: Conquest of the Cool by Thomas Frank (UChicago Press)
    -ESSAY: What's the Matter with Liberals? (Thomas Frank, 5/12/05, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Why They Won (THOMAS FRANK, 11/05/04, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: What the Democrats Missed at the Populist Revolution: It is almost a ritual in Washington: The Democrats are handed some stunning defeat and Democratic Leadership Council holds court and announces that the Democrats lost because they clung to the party’s old, liberal, thirties identity. (Thomas Frank, November 15, 2004, New York)
    -ESSAY: The Powerless Elite: How the Democrats have abandoned majoritarian politics for the monied set. (Thomas Frank, October 11, 2004, New York)
    -ESSAY: The Real War: Beyond the pomp of the RNC ’04, Republican strategists look ahead to a campaign endgame in which the culture wars rule. (Thomas Frank, September 13, 2004, New York)
    -ESSAY: Red-State America Against Itself: Kansas, once part of the great progressive heart of America, is now a conservative "red" state. How liberalism lost Kansas – and a whole lot of working-class America with it. (Thomas Frank, July 20, 2004, Tomdispatch.com)
    -ESSAY: Clueless Democrats Trot Out Hollywood: The party doesn't get it: Most voters hate what those people stand for. (Thomas Frank, July 29, 2004, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: How the Left Lost Its Heart: Now, the working class has no true champion (Thomas Frank, July 18, 2004, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: Shocked, Shocked! Enronian Myths Exposed (Thomas Frank, 3/21/02, The Nation)
    -ESSAY: The Enron outrage: Free-market ideologues said the energy titan's triumphs proved them right. Now they should admit its humiliating collapse proves they were wrong. (Thomas Frank, 12/14/01, Salon)
    -ESSAY: The Rise of Market Populism: America's New Secular Religion (Thomas Frank, 10/12/00, The Nation)
    -ESSAY: All Good No Bad (Thomas Frank, Context)
    -ESSAY: Marching with Mammon (Thomas Frank, Context)
    -REVIEW: of Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes how the Media Distort the News by Bernard Goldberg (Thomas Frank, London Review of Books)
    -INTERVIEW: Recapturing Kansas: How did conservatives win the heart of America? (Emily Udell, 1/12/05, In These Times)
    -INTERVIEW: How the Democrats lost the heartland: Thomas Frank talks about why Middle America, once a bastion of left-wing populism, has become red-state Republican. (Andrew O'Hehir, June 28, 2004, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW: Thomas Frank, Author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?": Discusses the Populist Right and How They've Been Fooled by Conservatives (A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW, 8/23/04)
    -INTERVIEW: What's Wrong With Kansas?: A Conversation With Thomas Frank (www.dissidentvoice.org, June 14, 2004)
    -INTERVIEW: Voice In The Neon Wilderness: Thomas Frank on liberation marketing, the conquest of cool and the branding of just about everything (MediaChannel.org, 2/09/00)
    -Thomas Frank (Wikipedia)
    -PROFILE: The Author Who's Got Himself in a Purple State (Bob Thompson, October 29, 2004, Washington Post)
    -PROFILE: Do the Clothes Make the Man?: An encounter with Thomas Frank (Brendan Bernhard, 11/24/00, LA Weekly)
    -ESSAY: The Elitism Myth and Right-Wing Populism (Thomas Frank, March 25, 2004, TomPaine.com)
    -ARCHIVES: Stories by Thomas Frank (AlterNet)
    -ARCHIVES: "thomas frank" (Common Dreams)
    -ARCHIVES: Thomas Frank (The Nation)
    -ARCHIVES: Thomas Frank (New York Magazine)
    -ARCHIVES: "Thomas Frank" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: for What's the Matter with Kansas (MetaCritic)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Josh Chafetz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Alan Bjerga, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Owen Williamson, Political Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Jason Epstein, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Paul Buhle, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Steve Weinberg, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (George Scialabba, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (John Leo, Townhall)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Steven Malanga, City Journal)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Anatole Levin, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Jonathan Rees, History News Network)
    -REVIEW: Cashing In on Culture Wars, The Right Marches On: a review of What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Frank (Kevin Canfield, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Marc Cooper, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (David Moberg, In These Times)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Steve Greenlee, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (TOM MERTES, New Left Review)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Lyndsey M. Straight, Harvard Political Review)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Jonathan Kay, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Nick Cohen, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Eric Alterman, American Progress)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Ed Kilgore, New Democrats On-line)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (GRANT BRISSEY, Seattle Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (Richard Nadler, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of What's the Matter with Kansas (James Nuechterlein, First Things)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: The left, at a loss in Kansas (George Will, July 8, 2004, Townhall)
    -ESSAY: The Baby Gap: Explaining Red and Blue: How birthrates color the electoral map (Steve Sailer, December 20, 2004, The American Conservative)
    -ESSAY: What’s the matter with West Virginia? (Serge Halimi, Le Monde Diplomatique, October, 2004)
    The Right-Wing Revolution: Populism still has a place in America. That place should be the Democratic Party. (Robert B. Reich, 10.06.04, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY: THE PARTY OF THE PEOPLE: "Love guns and hate gays? Bush is your kind of populist. Low taxes? Bush has relieved the tax burden on working Americans; Clinton promised to, but failed to deliver." The Republicans, unlike the Democrats, have delivered what their constituency wants. (Jack Beatty, 4/22/04, The Atlantic)

Comments:

* Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic Party? No. White voters in the bottom third of the income distribution have actually become more reliably Democratic in presidential elections over the past half-century, while middle and upper-income white voters have trended Republican. Low-income whites have become less Democratic in their partisan identifications, but at a slower rate than more affluent whites--and that trend is entirely confined to the South, where Democratic identification was artificially inflated by the one-party system of the Jim Crow era--itself a holdover from the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

* Has the white working class become more conservative? No. The typical views of low-income whites have remained virtually unchanged over the past 30 years. (A pro-choice shift on abortion in the 1970s and '80s has been partially reversed since the early 1990s.) Their positions relative to more affluent white voters--generally less liberal on social issues and less conservative on economic issues--have also remained virtually unchanged.

* Do working class "moral values" trump economics in determining voting patterns? No. 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.

* Are religious voters distracted from economic issues? No. For church-goers as for non-church-goers, partisanship and voting behavior are primarily shaped by economic issues, not cultural issues.

- WilsonP

- Oct-14-2005, 12:43

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Also you, like to use the words "elite liberals", "Democrats" and "Marxists" interchangeably. I am more disgusted with Democrat than I am with the Republicans, but they no longer have any power (except to help the Republicans seem as though they aren't the ones in control) and they probably won't until our system is changed to eliminate its corrupting corporate influences; which short of a disaster or violent revolution will never happen. So it is offensive when you try to equate progressive and other left-minded thinkers and people with the fumbling tactics of the Democrats; please realize they both parties are filled to the brim corrupt, sleazy, liars who are currently getting their kicks in before our country goes to hell.

- Danno

- Aug-10-2005, 14:31

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