Cashing In on Culture Wars, The Right Marches On

What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America , by Thomas Frank, Metropolitan Books, 306 pages, $24.

Eight years ago, on the night of his election to the U.S. Senate, Sam Brownback declared, “As Kansas goes, so goes the nation.” If that’s true, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? will leave readers with one conclusion: We’re screwed.

Drunk on tax cuts, favors for corporations and, above all else, their undying lust for the culture wars most of us lost interest in years ago, conservatives have driven Middle America into a ditch, Mr. Frank argues in this brilliant book. His examination of how the right has prolonged the battles over pop culture, abortion and religion (and meanwhile accrued great power and financial gain) will not single-handedly eject President Bush from the White House-but it does contain the kind of nuanced ideas that should be talking points for the Kerry campaign.

Mr. Frank’s thesis goes like this: American conservatives have spent the last few decades orchestrating the “carefully cultivated derangement of places like Kansas,” the author’s native state. With its dark brilliance for inciting moral outrage among the working and middle classes-the very people who are hurt when the G.O.P.’s economic programs favor the rich-the right has minted a generation “of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in Midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life …. “

It is, in Mr. Frank’s words, a right-wing “backlash” against the liberal establishment, and its grip on the nation’s heartland-the “red states” on the electoral maps-helped to assure the election of George W. Bush.

The founding editor of The Baffler magazine and the author of the very good One Market Under God (2000), Mr. Frank chose Kansas because it’s the middlest of Middle America, a place Republicans love to rhapsodize about when they’re lambasting elitist, rude and phony Northeasterners who just don’t get it. And so here we are, making our way through Topeka, Wichita, El Dorado, Olathe and other Kansas towns with Mr. Frank as our tour guide. Against all odds, it’s a fascinating trip.

Mr. Frank traces the recent rightward tilt of Kansas politics to 1991, when conservatives throughout the Midwest were galvanized by the so-called Summer of Mercy, a series of acts of civil disobedience meant to prevent abortions. The local authorities handed victory to the protesters when they encouraged abortion clinics to close for a full week-an act that, to some pro-lifers, “represented a bona fide miracle.” The pro-life movement finally had something to show for its efforts: “This was where the Kansas conservative movement got an idea of its own strength; this was where it achieved critical mass.”

Emboldened to press on other issues-school curricula, farm deregulation, changes in the tax structure-conservatives have pushed states across the Midwest ever further to the right. Consider Kansas: Today its two Senators, Mr. Brownback and Pat Roberts, are among the most conservative lawmakers in Washington, and in 2000 Mr. Bush won the state by a greater margin than native son Bob Dole did in ’96.

The proof of the right’s real genius is not getting power in the Midwest, but keeping it. It has done so, Mr. Frank writes, through the “systematic erasure of the economic.” In other words, conservatives have amped up the volume on cultural matters while ignoring the fiscal well-being of the working and middle classes. Preoccupied by the abortion debate or the fight against the teaching of evolution in public schools, Kansans, Mr. Frank argues, ignore what the government might do to help their pocketbooks. Instead, many vote with a mind toward fixing our land’s “crisis of the soul.”

“Out here,” Mr. Frank reports, “the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, farther 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 C.E.O., 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.”

If the G.O.P. deserves credit for winning the heartland, the left deserves blame for losing it. Democrats, Mr. Frank says, have dropped the ball by shunning “the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.” Seizing the opportunity, the right has made hay on divisive issues like gun control, thereby pushing fiscal issues off the front page. All the while, Republicans have proved that they’re willing to work harder than their opponents-they just seem to want it more, Mr. Frank suggests. “While leftists sit around congratulating themselves on their personal virtue, the right understands the central significance of movement-building, and they have taken to the task with admirable diligence.”

Mr. Frank’s willingness to scold his own side; his irreverence and his facility with language; his ability to make the connections that other writers fail to make-all of this puts What’s the Matter with Kansas? in a different league from most of the political books that have come out in recent years. Even better, its understanding of the methodology that has given Republicans the Presidency and control of both houses of Congress makes it a road map for upending the G.O.P. Here’s hoping somebody slips a copy to John Kerry.

Kevin Canfield has reviewed books for The New York Times, the National Post of Canada and other publications.