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International Socialist Review Issue 39, January–February 2005

Featured Review
The Red, the Blue and the Ugly

Review of Thomas Frank
What's the Matter With Kansas?
How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
Metropolitan Books, 2004 306 pages


THE LAST two elections have given more credence to the idea that there are "two Americas." Not an America divided between the haves and have-nots, but one divided geographically, between a sea of conservative "red states" and small islands of liberal "blue states." The red states represent America’s "heartland," where people drive Fords, work hard, eat red meat, and proudly wave the flag. The blue states are populated by a latte-swilling, Volvo-driving, liberal-intellectual "elite" that looks down upon the good folk of the heartland.

Though written before the 2004 election, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas–a book that attempts in part to untangle the myths and realities of the red-blue divide–has gotten a post-election bounce. Liberals debating the Democratic Party’s future hail him as a great prophet of the red-blue divide, and his book as a sort of travelogue of the red states. Frank has received all sorts of play in liberal publications and blogs since, plus an appearance on the Daily Show.

Frank, founding editor of the left-leaning cultural journal the Baffler, and author of One Market Under God, debunks the "red-state-blue-state" myths in Kansas as "blunt instruments of propaganda." He points out, for example, that the country’s biggest soybean producers–Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois–all went blue in 2000.

But Frank is less interested in debunking this myth than he is in explaining what he calls a disturbing "derangement" in American politics–that in places like Kansas, poor and working-class people have galloped to the right over the past few decades, voting for a right-lurching, increasingly evangelized Republican Party that has implemented economic policies that have hurt workers and helped the rich. Here is how he puts it:

This derangement is the signature expression of the Great Backlash, a style of conservatism that first came snarling back onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues–summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art–which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements–not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars–that are the movement’s greatest monuments. The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and declining unionization rates that are its components.

Kansas may vote red, but like every other state, its main divide is class. In the book’s best chapter, Frank lays out the impact of neoliberal economics on his home state–depopulation and decline of rural areas; stagnation in manufacturing urban centers like Wichita; and "new" growth in the rural-based, low-wage meatpacking industry. Kansas also has its share of Enron-style tales of corporate greed and corruption. There’s the story, for example, of the director of the state’s largest power company who spent $6.5 million "decorating the company’s executive suite" while its share price plummeted and its employees were laid off.

In Wichita, a city whose wealth is based on the aircraft industry, the main union representing Boeing workers has seen its membership slashed in half from layoffs, as Boeing and others have outsourced work, moved facilities overseas, and "picked fights with the union." The result: Wichita’s unemployment rate passed 7 percent in 2003, and the city is filled with closed shops.

The state’s farming population has experienced a 50 percent decline in the last half-century, accelerated recently by "farm legislation, trade policy, and a regulatory climate all crafted to strengthen the conglomerates" like Archer Daniels Midland "while weakening farmers." Frank describes walking past boarded-up stores and empty lots in rural towns like Emporia.

The state’s biggest growth industry, meatpacking, is centered in the southeastern rural town of Garden City, where companies such as Tyson and ConAgra hire labor from "Southeast Asia, Mexico, and points south" to work in highly dangerous, low-paying, non-union jobs. Workers in Garden City are forced to live in trailer parks with "dilapidated and unpaved and rubbish-strewn" streets, receiving sub-par social and educational services because guess who isn’t paying property taxes. "This is economic growth, yes," concedes Frank, "but it is the sort of growth that makes a city less wealthy and less healthy as its population increases."

Yet, says Frank, in Kansas the "gravity of discontent" pulls even poor and working-class victims of these policies "to the right." The turning point came, according to Frank, in 1991, when Operation Rescue organized forty-six days of protest that drew an estimated at 30,000 people to blockade abortion clinics in Wichita–an event which put the wind in the sails of the evangelical religious right, which then proceeded to take over the Kansas Republican Party from the moderates ("Mods") who had previously controlled it.

What particularly irks Frank about this peculiarly upside-down situation is that Kansas once had a vibrant abolitionist and left-populist tradition. Kansas was the home of John Brown and the abolitionists who flocked to Kansas to keep it from becoming a slave state. Using a bit of geographical license, Frank explains that Kansas was part of a region "that gave the country socialists like Eugene Debs, fiery progressives like Robert LaFollette, and practical unionists like Walter Reuther." Debs was from Indiana and LaFollette from Wisconsin.

Most importantly, Kansas was a hot-bed of agrarian radicalism that exploded across the South and parts of the Midwest in the 1890s, a struggle in which mostly poor farmers banded together against the "money-power." For Frank, the culmination of the populist tradition was the 1896 Democratic presidential run of William Jennings Bryan, "a Nebraskan, a leftist, and a fundamentalist Christian," which "swept most of the country outside the Northeast and Upper Midwest."

The backlash has developed its base of support over the last few decades through a right-wing version of populism that Frank argues pitted "hard-working" Americans, (whether they are workers making $20,000 a year or bosses making millions) against the "parasites"–liberal intellectuals, college professors, and, at the bottom of the totem pole, "welfare cheats."

The stars of the right-wing "noise machine," from Rush Limbaugh to Anne Coulter, play on variations of this theme, always presenting the Right as a movement of ordinary Americans, pressed on all sides, an embattled, forgotten majority, fighting it out with the "liberal elite." Never mind that it is a well-oiled, well-funded, corporate-backed machine that controls major think tanks and media networks, churches and other religious institutions–and that it has the ear of the nation’s most powerful man. Never mind that its leaders, such as Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, are millionaires. Never mind that they have had liberals on the defensive for more than two decades–the backlash always sells itself as the oppressed underdog, about to have its bibles and hunting rifles taken away.

Frank calls the modern backlash a "French revolution in reverse–one in which Sans-Culottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy." Indeed, he even goes so far as to call it a "class war." He notes, for example, that in Kansas, the right-wing evangelical, anti-abortion activists who took over the Kansas Republican Party from the ground up in the 1990s were from the poorer suburbs, while the traditional moderate party leadership came from wealthier districts. For Frank, then, the backlash is a kind of inverted workers’ movement. He points out that the leader of the local Right to Life is a factory worker.

Frank offers some thoughtful answers that go some way to explaining the phenomenon, the main one being that the Democrats have failed to make any kind of class appeal. "Liberalism," he argues, "deserves a large part of the blame for the backlash phenomenon." Liberalism has "ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency," turning instead over the last decade or so to "affluent, white collar professionals" rather than workers. Maintaining liberal positions on social issues like abortion, he argues, the Democrats became fervently neoliberal on economic questions. Under the leadership of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the Democratic Party began making "endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, on NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it," remaking "themselves as the other pro-business party." Frank notes the irony that while the Republicans "talk constantly about class–in a coded way, to be sure–…[the] Democrats are afraid to bring it up."

His final point is perhaps the most important one. It is that working-class struggle is what won things like Social security and social welfare in the first place, and that Struggle will be needed again to turn it around. "Social Security, the FDA, and all the rest of it," he writes,

didn’t spring out of the ground fully formed in response to the obvious excesses of a laissez-faire system; they were the result of decades of movement building, of bloody fights between workers and state militias, of agitating, educating, and thankless organizing.

"The right understands the central significance of movement-building," Frank laments, and the conservative "movement culture" today "has little left-wing counterpart anymore." Though he doesn’t develop this idea, this "movement culture" has the benefit of hundreds of millions of dollars from corporate-backed, right-wing think tanks, and religious right organizations and foundations–as well as "faith-based" charity networks that are increasingly the only place the poor in many states can go for assistance. In a period in which the Left has been in decline along with the union movement, the Right not only has a clear playing field in places like Kansas, it has the money and resources to back it up.

Unless, Frank argues, the Democratic Party is able to rejuvenate itself by rehabilitating its New Deal past,

Maybe someday soon the political choices of Americans everywhere will be whittled down to the two factions of the Republican Party. Whether the Mods still call themselves "Republicans" then or have switched to being Democrats won’t really matter; both groups will be what Kansas call "fiscal conservatives," which is to say, "friends of business," and the issues that motivated our parents’ Democratic Party will be permanently off the table.

What’s the matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?

There are a few minor, and one major, weakness in Frank’s book. First, the scale of the backlash in Kansas, which Frank may be in danger of exaggerating. Kansas has only had three presidential elections, from 1896 to the present, where the Democrats won the state; four in Nebraska. Though it is true that a more conservative Republicanism swept the state in the 1990s, we need to keep in perspective the fact that in the last 100 years these states have been among the most conservative farm-belt states in the country (and the most rural, with the possible exception of Iowa).

In making a case that the right-wing backlash has played upon social themes such as abortion and gays in order to deliver up pro-capitalist policies, Frank also argues that these movements never achieve, and are not intended to achieve, any real rollback in these areas. "This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon," he contends. "Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act."

There’s truth to the argument that the backlash aimed at harnessing a popular base to promote a corporate agenda. There’s also an element of truth to Frank’s argument that the Christian Right fights battles around issues on which it cannot completely set back the clock (for example, on the issue of women working outside the home).

Nevertheless, it is patently wrong to argue that no inroads have been made by the Right on the question of abortion or affirmative action. Though abortion remains legal and some forms of affirmative action survive, both have been severely restricted over the last few decades–often with acquiescence from liberals.

Ideologically, the backlash sold itself not as a movement to restore the fortunes of the rich, but as a movement to restore morals in a decaying, decadent society. It played on the fear and insecurity accompanying the shifting roles of men and women as a result of the entry of women into the work force, and the growth of social movements in the 1960s, combined with the increasing economic insecurity workers have faced in the same period. Frank describes the ideology of the backlash, but isn’t as good at explaining the economic and psychological mechanisms that might draw some workers’ to the backlash message of scapegoating and resentment.

E-raced from the Kansas backlash?

One of the more bizarre claims Frank makes is that of the "racial elements of modern conservatism"–playing on "white fears" by pressing "hotbutton issues like busing, welfare and integration"–"none…is an important factor" in the story of the Kansas backlash. Indeed, he claims, "If anything, the conservative movement in Kansas is conspicuous for its tolerance on racial issues."

His proof? Drawing on a historic tradition of Kansas abolitionism, Kansas conservatives accuse their opponents of being "bigots," or members of "hate groups"; Sam Brownback supports "open immigration policies"; and anti-abortionists delight in calling themselves "abolitionists." All and sundry conservative issues, he tells us, from anti-gay bigotry to fighting against a woman’s right to choose, are cloaked in the language of "civil rights." Here Frank is guilty of muddying the distinction between the appropriation and manipulation of the language of the Left and the civil rights movement by the conservative Right, and the reactionary positions they are harnessed to.

George Bush, in proposing to gut affirmative action, makes allusions to Martin Luther King and the traditions of the civil rights movement. Indeed, from the beginning the backlash against affirmative action presented itself as a movement fighting against "reverse discrimination." That hardly qualifies it as non-racist. This has been a conscious right-wing strategy to throw its opponents onto the defensive: Those who are against school prayer are for "suppressing free speech," proponents of vouchers are merely standing up for "school choice," and so on.

In attempting to argue that race in Kansas was not a factor in the backlash, Frank offers an extremely selective history. Abolitionism and populism may have a place in Kansas history, but so does ugly Jim Crow racism. On June 10, 1882, a white mob in Lawrence lynched three Black men who were suspected in the murder of a white man. In the 1920s, the Klan chapter in Wichita was bigger than the total population of Blacks in the city (6,000 to 5,600).

Though we can agree with Frank that Kansas was and is "not Alabama in the sixties," it imposed segregation in most public institutions, including elementary schools, theaters, restaurants, swimming pools, and high school sports teams, until a movement changed it. Indeed, the first successful student sit-ins at lunch counters took place not in Greensboro, NC, but at a drug store chain in Wichita in 1958.

As Frank admits, the backlash since its emergence in the seventies has always used coded language to disguise its racism–crime (young Black men), welfare (young Black mothers). It isn’t as though the Kansas conservative movements in their various guises over the years have been somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of the country or have somehow been open to the ideology of the Right but have heroically resisted its central racist props.

Just last September, Reverend Jerry Johnston’s First Family Church in Overland Park (he is a leader in the conservative’s anti gay crusade in the state) sponsored a meeting featuring the "iron-lady" of the right, Phyllis Schlafly, whose speech featured a pro-Buchanan rant against immigration. She was introduced by Kansas Republican Kris Kobach, a former aide to John Ashcroft who ran for Congress in Kansas’s 3rd District (he lost). He ran a campaign denouncing taxes, gay marriage, abortion rights, denying in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, and demanding 20,000 troops on the Mexican border. In the audience at that meeting were also seven members of Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an organization that contributed the maximum amount permissible ($5,000) to Kobach’s congressional run. FAIR’S leader, John Tanton, once argued: "Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?... As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?" Kobach also received campaign funds from Gun Owners of America, whose executive director is Larry Pratt, a man with known associations in white supremacist organizations.

Frank also is wrong about the role of William Jennings Bryan, who played a less than positive role in relation to the populist movement. Bryan was chosen by the Democratic Party to wean farmers and workers in the South and West away from the People’s Party, the political arm of the populists. The 1896 convention of the People’s Party–under tremendous pressure from the moderate free-silver "fusionist" wing of the populist movement–committed suicide by voting to accept Bryan as its candidate–a blow from which it never recovered. Bryan and the Democratic Party killed the very left populist tradition whose absence today Frank laments.

Locating the class basis of the backlash

Perhaps the biggest problem with Frank’s book is where he locates the source of the backlash. Frank can’t seem to make up his mind whether or not the backlash represents real class war or a right-wing caricature of it. He argues in one place, for example, that the backlash "is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people." But this is not the right way to understand it.

As David Moberg points out in his review of Frank’s book that appeared in In These Times:

It’s easy to misread Frank’s account to suggest that the Great Backlash is a movement of the vast majority of workers, who have collectively gone off the deep right end. But I suspect many of the Backlashers are small businessmen, sales people, farmers and other lower-middle-class types, and that many disaffected workers have just stopped voting altogether.

Moberg’s argument is confirmed indirectly by a study of the class base of the Christian Right Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA; "Small Business, Status Politics, and the Social Base of the New Christian Right," by Val Burris of the University of Oregon). In the 1990s, the OCA made similar efforts as its counterparts in Kansas to take over the local Republican Party machine using opposition to gay rights as its rallying point. The study found that small business owners, and to a lesser extent members of the salaried professional class, were heavily overrepresented in its membership. Managers and professionals (51.1 percent) were twice as prevalent in the OCA than in the general population (23.8), and small business owners (34.4 percent) were almost three times more prevalent in the OCA than in the general Oregon population (11.6 percent). Of that group, retail proprietors, were overrepresented by a ratio of approximately 17:1.

Frederick Engels, in Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany, wrote of the middle class:

Its intermediate position between the class of larger capitalists, traders, and manufacturers, the bourgeoisie properly so-called, and the proletarian or industrial class, determines its character. Aspiring to the position of the first, the least adverse turn of fortune hurls the individuals of this class down into the ranks of the second.

Though Engels was writing about a much earlier period (1852), when industrial capitalism was in its infancy, the fears and resentments of the middle class he describes are perfectly reflected in the modern conservative Right’s resentment toward the "liberal elite" and the "parasitical" poor. It is a sort of fool’s anti-capitalism. The petty-bourgeois class politics of the backlash is designed as a way of winning a mass base for what are essentially country club policies.

Workers are susceptible to the Right’s message of scapegoating and "family values" in areas where they are the least unionized, the least urbanized, and therefore, the most atomized. Economic and social dislocation and a sense of powerlessness can, in these circumstances, lead some workers toward politics based upon reactionary nostalgia. The religious Right is not a working-class movement, but rather a middle-class movement that, in the absence of a working-class movement, can appeal to sections of the working class.

The failures of liberalism

There is no doubt that Frank is touching on a very important point when he argues that the Democrats share a great deal of blame for the backlash. But his wistful recollection of the good old New Deal days is a little off the mark. The Democratic Party under Roosevelt was a pro-business party as much as it is today. The difference is that it faced a mass working-class movement then and sought ways to render it less threatening to the system. Roosevelt acted toward the radicalizing labor movement the same way Bryan acted toward the populists–to preserve the two-party system and stabilize the system as a whole.

Wrong also is Frank’s argument that the DLC’s strategy has been to "stand rock-solid on…the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues." The Democrats have made concessions on the question of abortion. Officially, they are committed to "choice," but they’re not all that committed to abortion ("safe, legal and rare"), are unwilling to defend abortion as health care, and as long as Roe v. Wade still stands, have been willing to go along with most of the Right’s proposed restrictions.

Though he isn’t explicit, Frank seems to be suggesting that the Democratic Party should revive its populist past and offer various reforms to the working class, but put aside issues like abortion and gay rights (he certainly makes no defense of them). He complains, with justification, that middle-class liberalism has become "arrogant," "self-righteous," and "condescending," thus opening itself up to the Right’s attacks. But then, in language that wouldn’t seem strange from the mouth of a Rush Limbaugh, Frank complains of "wellborn" liberals telling the "beaten-down" "how they should stop being racist or homophobic," and that it isn’t hard to think liberals dominate the world when we see "feminist cartoons for ten-year-olds" on television (presumably referring to Shrek).

But combating the racism that divides workers from each other is key to rekindling a genuine working-class alternative in this country. Likewise, supporting women’s equality–including access to child care and abortion–is important not only to working-class women, but to working-class men, too. Frank’s comments are too close to those post-Democrats who think the party needs to play to workers on economic questions, but outflank the Republicans on "values."

Why is it important to get the class analysis of the backlash correct? Because part of the ideology of the backlash is precisely the idea, peddled both by liberals and by the Right, that workers are somehow the innate bearers of reactionary ideas. The Archie Bunker image of the white hard-hat deriding "long-haired" antiwar protesters dies hard, but it was always largely a myth. This "discovery" of a right-wing working class still infects liberals as well as the Left. In Frank’s argument that the backlash is a working-class movement, it has made its imprint on him.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Fear of Falling, notes that the working class in the late sixties "remained steadfastly more liberal than the middle class." Indeed, even in "red" Kansas today, exit polls show that votes for Republicans increase as you go up the income ladder (those in Kansas who made family incomes of $15,000—$30,000, for example, split between Bush and Kerry 50—50). Some middle-class commentators noticed the bitterness and resentment of workers toward managers and elitist intellectuals, says Ehrenreich, but

few…could imagine the real source of working-class hostility. The easy explanation, and the one dictated by the blue-collar stereotype, was that the working class was hostile to middle-class liberalism; and the easy solution was to become less liberal. This was the direction in which many erstwhile liberal intellectuals, repelled by the student movement, were already heading. The stereotype of the reactionary, authoritarian, blue-collar worker helped legitimize their rightward drift. And since the stereotype was a middle-class creation, this was also, in a sense, its function: to provide a spiritual touchstone for an emerging middle-class conservatism–and a cultural home for the "traditional values" of the middle class.

But, if anything, working-class anger should have shown that middle-class liberalism had not gone far enough.

Needed: An independent class alternative

Working-class consciousness is not uniformly conservative, moderate, or radical. It is contradictory, and open to change as new struggles and organizations emerge which appear to pose a genuine class alternative based on the principles of working-class solidarity–a fact vaguely given a nod to by Frank in his references to Kansas’s populist and socialist past. Moreover, the activist base of the right wing is not necessarily growing in Kansas. What Frank fails to mention is that when Operation Rescue–renamed Operation Save America–called a tenth-anniversary demonstration in 2001, only 200 people showed up. Perhaps ordinary Kansans care more about the things that polls say they care about–the cost in money and lives of the war in Iraq, decent jobs, and health care.

What we need to remember as we rebuild the organizations and struggles necessary to provide a real working-class alternative independent of both parties is the old adage of the labor movement–an injury to one is an injury to all. That means that the Left cannot simply offer an alternative on purely economic questions and leave the field of so-called family values to the reactionary and hypocritical Right. The working class is gay, it is women and men, it is white and Hispanic, and Black and Asian. That means any attack on the rights of women, gays, immigrants, and racial minorities is an attack on all workers, because whatever they can get away with against one group always ends up being turned on others.

The central question in Frank’s book could be made about workers who vote Democratic: How to explain why workers are giving their votes to a party that takes their vote for granted and then pushes policies which promote a corporate agenda?

One of the best answers to this came from Phil Friedeman, a retiree who spoke up at a meeting Frank delivered to an audience of more than 300 in Lawrence, Kansas, last summer. "My point was: Where’s the hope?" Friedeman told a reporter after the meeting. "Neither political party is being true to its origins and both parties are in bed with corporate interests. So should we waste any more interest on them? Or should we think about starting a political party of our own?"

What’s the Matter with Kansas offers some important food for thought–but it’s more of a snack than a full meal.

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