What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Kansans just don't care about economic issues [...] Kansans have set their sights on grander things, like the purity of the nation. Good wages, fair play in farm country, the fate of the small town, even the one that we live in - all these are a distant second to evolution, which we will strike from the books, and public education, which we will undermine in a hundred inventive ways."
The main thrust of Thomas Frank's What's the matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, published in 2004, has not lost its relevance in 2015, particularly with the elections coming in the U.S. the next year. The author is trying to elucidate the phenomenon that seems beyond rational explanation: why have a large majority of people living in Kansas - the typical working class population who had solidly voted Democratic before 1980s - switched to supporting conservative Republicans? Why have they begun voting against their own economic interests? Why are there more supporters of conservative agenda among working class people than among those who profit from that agenda? Cutting taxes, reducing government, weakening regulations and customer protection - all these goals favor the rich and hurt the poor and the middle class by reducing or eliminating altogether the social safety net that covers the people who cannot afford to cover themselves. A conservative platform is always pro-business: business owners should be free to reduce salaries, cut and outsource jobs, reduce maternity benefits, avoid paying for medical care of their employees, etc. Why then do the poor people and the exploited people in Kansas vote en masse for the agenda that favors the rich and helps the economic exploiters?
Mr. Frank's answer is clear and convincing. The conservative Republican movement - unable to gain support of the working class on the economic issues - appropriated the religious and social agenda and captured the cultural anger of the working, "ordinary" people, the anger aimed at promotion of "disgusting counterculture", liberal judges, attempts to expand gun control, availability of abortion, liberal media, atheist scientists, immoral decadence, and the secular-humanist disease in general. Much of this anger comes as a backlash against the excesses of the "liberal Sixties", and anti-intellectualism is one of the main unifying themes of the conservative movement.
The leaders of the movement have managed to frame the political choices as the struggle between - on the one side - authentic, hard-working Americans, who enjoy hamburgers, cherish guns, and fervently pray to God, and - on the other - depraved, latte-guzzling, Volvo-driving, liberal, Eastern elite whose ideas are alien to the original values of the true Americans. The conservative leaders have understood that people's cultural, moral, and religious convictions drive their political choices.
The unspoken underlying motto of the conservative movement is to "socialize the risk and privatize the profits". The beauty of the monumental swindle performed by the right-wing ideologists is that the working class people - who will carry the burden of the business risks and will not participate in any of the profits - happily vote to ensure their own poverty and irrelevance, getting instead the feeling of superiority of their religious, moral, and cultural convictions.
In my view (here I need to disclaim that this paragraph is not about Mr. Frank's book) during 11 years since the book was published the situation has gotten worse: one reason is the further polarization of society caused by the universal access to Internet, which allows people to read only the news and articles with which they agree. Another reason for growing support of the conservative agenda are the obvious excesses of the liberal-backed political correctness movement, particularly in the area of diversity enforcement. Yet another new factor is the poor people's fierce resistance to the Affordable Care Act, the law that helps them get access to quality health care: in the authentic American way they prefer to not have any health care rather than to follow some socialist-flavored Canadian or European models.
What's the Matter with Kansas is a meticulously researched work (over 40 pages of notes and references) of unparalleled clarity and thoroughness. I have two critical comments: the author is passionately liberal, and his strong bias shows through his writing. His logically sound and factually correct argument and conclusions would be more effective if they were presented in a cold, unemotional style. My other gripe is that everything in the book is binary, black or white: people are either conservative or liberal. True, the polarization is increasing but there are still substantial numbers of people who agree with some tenets of each side - conservative and liberal - but disagree with some others. There are still some centrists out there.
One of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read.
Four and a half stars.
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