|Illustration by Seth Drenner|
If Thomas Frank has done nothing else in What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How the Conservatives Won the Heart of America, he has explained the shadowy phenomenon of the deeply aggrieved white male pundit-blogger. The blogosphere spills over with them: men, usually, most of them in their 30s and 40s, who identify actively with Fountainhead protagonist Howard Roark and remember fondly their days on the high school debate team, when they could smoke any opponent no matter how righteous their opposition’s cause; who glory in the free market to correct every problem from dirty air to bad schools; who disdain affirmative action, environmental law, and in their hearts believe poverty is merely a byproduct of sloth. With limitless energy to prove their intellectual and moral supremacy, they relentlessly amass reams of information in digital form and catalog it in smirking prose as irresistible as a good pop lyric (with nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah as the chorus).
These pontificating tightwads include Andrew Sullivan, James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web, and my old pal from Minneapolis James Lileks, who has lately resorted to chiding conservatives for becoming disillusioned with George W. Bush, which he ascribes to Bush’s having increased spending on the National Endowment for the Arts (Lileks once reverently pointed out Al Franken to me in a Dinkytown restaurant, so I know he wasn’t always like that). They hold irrationally to presumptions about America’s classless freedom that most of us abandoned in youth. They still believe that everyone can ace the senior math test if only they’d work a little harder. And they get mad and call you names if you don’t agree.
Frank can explain them, these entitled but curiously persecuted Tucker Carlsons of the paramedia, because he might have been one himself. Having grown up in Mission Hills, Kansas, a tidy suburb just over the border from Kansas City, Missouri, Frank admits he had been lulled into the notion of a classless society by play dates with millionaires’ children. He spent his adolescent years as “a bitter self-made man” in training, constructing debate-team “dis-ads” against liberalism (“any argument worth its salt had to end with the other team’s plan somehow precipitating a nuclear war”), and classifying businessmen as working-class because, after all, they worked for a living. When one of his fellow debaters announced he planned to pursue a political future as a Democrat because “that was the party of the working class,” Frank took it hard.
“I remember the moment he said this with the perfect frozen clarity that the brain reserves for great shocks: Pearl Harbor, 9/11 . . . Class conflict between workers and businessmen?”
It wasn’t until college that Frank finally got religion: While his peers landed sweet summer jobs in their dads’ friends’ banks, Frank, a workingman’s son, was consigned to dreary summer temp work “designed to show me the round of boredom and frustration that is most people’s lot in life.” Other boys went off to Ivy League schools; Frank had to settle for Kansas University, where even the fraternities — reserved for young men from “a dominant class with its middle finger in the air to the world” — didn’t want anyone so low on the social ladder. In time, he was disabused of his classless fantasies and “did a very un-Kansas thing: I started voting Democratic.”
What’s the Matter With Kansas? effectively diagnoses the strange flyoverland tendency to displace economic values with moral ones and confuse evangelical Christian politicians with upstanding champions of the working class, even as their voting records reflect an open hostility to all but the superentitled. Frank ridicules David Brooks, stone-stupid Ann Coulter and Sullivan for tearing America up into loyal, Republican-voting red states and latte-drinking liberal intellectual blues and delves into Kansas’ history to ogle at its paradoxical shift. And he amusingly describes the desperate working people who fulfill the right wing’s manifesto. But for the most part, Frank can only stand back and marvel at the mysterious forces that have turned Kansas’ traditional populism on its head, impelling a broke and hyperreligious working class to work overtime against its own economic salvation. He can’t tell what’s in the hearts of the working class, and as shrewd and pointed (and irresistibly entertaining) as his analysis can be at times, he doesn’t look deeply enough to know. He blames the Democratic Party for its lack of vision; he suspects people really have feeling for unborn babies. But he can’t get behind their eyes.
You can’t blame him, but it means Frank misses what might have been a valuable parallel, one that might have also helped illustrate just how far blue-collar America has sunk into the depths of economic despair. “Secular ideologies,” writes Hebrew University philosophy professor Avishai Margalit in the New York Review of Books, “work on real-life prospects, while religious ideologies work on dreams. And when secular ideologies fail . . . the attraction of the dreams encouraged by religious ideologies increases many times over.”
Margalit, of course, was not talking about Kansans. He was talking about Arabs. Frank establishes how destructive to families and communities Republicanism’s tactics have been. One day, perhaps, pundits like Lileks and Sullivan, obsessed as they are with America’s safety, will understand how dangerous such hopeless poverty will prove to be as well.
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America | By THOMAS FRANK | Metropolitan Books 306 pages | $24 hardcover