Sunday, July 11, 2004

What's the Matter With Kansas?

Some of you may already know, or have guessed, that I am registered Democrat with strong sympathies for social conservatives. I think there are psychological reasons for this which have to do with my habit of defending whichever position seems harder to defend (why yes, I am quite contrary) but probably even more to do with the fact that my family is from Kansas (and Texas and Oklahoma and Colorado, but mostly Kansas). My mom grew up on a farm, and though my dad didn't, he worked summers bringing in wheat all across the plains states. I, on the other hand, am the product of wealthy suburbs and Catholic schools. However my extended family still lives the kind of lifestyle my parents grew up with, so I've spent my fair share of summers on the farm myself. This kind of mixed background, combined with a childhood spent reading Brit Lit and science fiction, was bound to result in political confusion, don't you think?

Basically I grew up thinking all liberals were stupid and evil, and went through what seems to be a required Ayn Rand phase (mortifying in memory) and then a period of bitterness and backlash in which I thought all religious conservatives were stupid and evil, and now I have zero patience for either of those views.

All of which explains why I was so interested in the idea of this book which has been getting some media attention lately: Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?. It hits close to home. The political figures he talks about, Jack Cashill and Phil Kline and the rest, are my mother's friends, and I've met some of them. And I've been arguing various sides of the abortion and evolution and gay marriage debates with classmates and family since at least sixth grade. What's more, the places Frank describes are places I know intimately, which are never normally mentioned in print at all. How closely does this book connect to my life? My friend and fellow Kansan Andy is in the acknowledgments. He helped do the research.

So here's my perspective: Tom Frank's exactly right in his descriptions of what is happening to our state, but that he doesn't take seriously enough the question of why it is happening.

His idea is that Kansans are natural class warriors, but somehow they've stopped defining "ordinary guys" and "elites" in terms of money, and are defining it in terms of culture instead, "latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading" Hollywood liberals vs decent, normal, churchgoing folk. The big cultural issues (abortion, gay marriage, pornography, school prayer, etc) have been taken off the table by the courts, so this wellspring of outrage never dries up. In the meantime, the Republicans who campaign on culture, concentrate on an economic agenda once they're in office. This economic agenda is terribly damaging to Kansas, but come the next elections, Kansans will vote for them again eagerly, rather risk being at the mercy of those those evil, latte-drinking liberals.

Frank points out that moderate suburban Republicans are just as likely to drink lattes as urban democrats, and even more likely to have nannies and expensive foreign cars. The cultural divide which is supposed to exist between red and blue states exists within Kansas -- and both sides of it voted for Bush. This is true. The socially conservative wing of the party refers to the Wall Street Journal readers as "Country Club Republicans" and there is not a lot of love lost. And it is a class divide. The social conseravties are generally much poorer. But the people the social conservatives put in power, end up serving the interests of the Country Club Republicans.

So all of that he gets right. And he doesn't demonize the social conservatives, either, which is a relief. But he does dismiss their issues.

He says economics apparently don't matter in Kansas, that people are passionate only about social issues. But he seems to think that those issues are inherently some kind of distraction, not really important. He has no real explanation for why all of these people would be voting against their own economic interests (though he sees a sort of noble if deranged self-sacrifice in it) on the basis of such trivial issues as gay marriage and abortion. He implies it's a deliberate Republican red herring, to distract poor voters from the real -- ie economic -- issues. This is fairly condescending, since it implies that all of these people are pretty gullible.

And he's right to note that the country-club Republicans really belong on the "blue state" side of that much-talked-about cultural divide along with all of the inner city union workers, but I think he's wrong to conclude that this makes the divide meaningless. I think the cultural division is at least as real as the economic one.

I think there really is a stronger streak of individualism in the midwest, and that's enough to explain the popularity of laissez-faire capitalism among poor people here, without assuming that everyone's been duped. Yes, I know that once the Populist movement began here -- but as Frank himself points out, they ultimately failed, butting against a Republican tradition in Kansas that goes back to Lincoln and William Allen White. Heinlein was from Kansas City, you know, albeit the Missouri side (fun fact: his cousin fixed my mom's sewing machine.) Survivalism, "There Ain't No Such Thing As Free Lunch," "An Armed Society is a Polite Society," "nobody should be allowed to vote unless they've served in the military"... Those aren't some fraud the Republicans put over on the good people of this region. They're a native part of this culture.

And so is religion. Karen Armstrong sees a link between fundamentalist Muslims, Hindus, and Christians in the Midwest. She thinks they're all reactions to a world which is undermining the social order that holds their communities together. I think that's real. I think the conservatives have a lot to fear -- their world really is ending. Marriage is dissolving, families are separated, churches are emptying out. It's not an exaggeration to say that the traditional structure of society is falling apart. In the city, new structures have already evolved to replace it, new values, new social roles. But these people are not of that civilization.

What's more, there are real moral stakes here, particularly in that most divisive of wedge issues, abortion. Frank seems to recognize what a lot of Democrats don't: that abortion by itself has driven a huge part of the surge in Republican power, is the main reason they won Congress in 1994 and all three branches in 2000. But again, he thinks people feel so strongly about it because they've been tricked. He doesn't pause to wonder what it would mean it they were right, doesn't seem to see that you have an unavoidable moral duty, if you accept their axioms, doesn't credit them with the ability to come to their own conclusions.

He seems to think that the trick works through a class-based appeal -- a distrust of doctors leads to a dislike of abortion, somehow, and the Republicans play up this this animus. Thus the correlation between class and social conservatism. But I don't recognize the kind of resentment he describes at all. It seems to me that the real correlation is between poverty and religion, and that the reasons for this are more subtle than "opium of the masses" or "wealth corrupts."

He also has an interesting argument to make about the way the entertainment industry tries to exploit the "counter-culture equals cool" equation, making money off of shocking middle-class sensibilities. The middle classes are duly shocked, and try to elect politicians to change the culture, but since the motive for Hollywood sex and violence is profits, not politics, this has almost no effect. In fact, since Republicans tend to be in favor of profits, it's likely to make things worse. Which, in turn, leads to the election of even more Republicans. This theory is more interesting, and almost certainly contains a grain of truth, but it's not sufficient explanation. Republicans, for all their free-market principles, do regularly try to muzzle Hollywood. And people don't devote their lives and fortunes to a cause because they're merely offended.

It's unfortunate that he misses the real motivations, the convictions, because I really think if Democrats understood them, they could steal the Republicans' base out from under them and move the political center far to the left. Let the Democrats support one high-profile pro-life candidate as enthusiastically as the Republicans supported pro-choice Arnold Schwartzenegger, and these people will start to jump ship. Let them serve their consciences and their economic interests at the same time, and they will bid good-bye to the country-clubbers. Be a little more patient with the pace of social change, a little more open to local control, and learn the difference between condescending lip service and real respect. Make these people feel welcome in your party, Democrats, and you could absolutely demolish the Republican base. You could start in Kansas.


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Joe said...

"What's the Matter with Kansas?" has now been made into a movie. We'd be interested in your thoughts.