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What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Thomas Frank


Kansas may be the center of the country, but it has hardly ever found itself atop the bell curve of American politics.

In Thomas Frank’s bestseller from 2004,  “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” he takes a look at the Sunflower state’s extremist past, present and foreseeable future. In it, he puts Kansas’ hard-line conservatism in the crosshairs, and wonders how many working class Kansans seem to vote against their own self-interest.

The reasons are many, but stem largely from a shift in the United States’ two governing parties and how they interact with voters.

In the 20th Century, the Democrat Party appealed to labor, unions and workers’ rights. Frank assesses that the neo-liberals of today (and those of the George W. Bush era) have abandoned the labor base, instead pursuing technocrats, the wealthy and the tastemakers; Namely, not working-class Americans in the heartland.

By pursuing big money and doting on big business, Frank asserts that Democrats have become a lighter shade of Republican, shifting far away from the left much of this country once looked to for the future.

Kansas, a bastion of conservative thought today, was once a breeding ground for those in the left-wing Progressive party, a party which called for transparency in politics and in business. The 1912 party platform pulled no punches in stating its goals.

“To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day,” it read.

Former president Theodore Roosevelt ran with the Progressives in 1912 as the “Bull Moose Party,” and garnered 27 percent of the vote (Socialist Eugene V. Debs got 6 percent, perhaps proving what an unusual year for politics 1912 was).

“What’s the Matter with Kansas” itself is a title derived from an editorial written by business-minded William Allen White about these left-wing fanatics in 1896. Frank flips it to analyze the right-wing anti-elite conservatism that has taken over Kansas today.

Since those halcyon days of Progressivism and progressivism (the latter, non-proper term used these days largely as a slur against left-leaning liberals and as a badge of honor for actual leftists), Kansas has swung hard to the right.

“Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right,” Frank writes. “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 CEO, 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.”

Frank points out that Republicans knew winning labor was a losing battle. The Grand Ol’ Party has been the party of big business since Lincoln. Higher wages, collective bargaining and worker benefits aren’t harmonious with high profit margins.

So the G.O.P. pivoted on social issues. Before, Democrats could see differently on abortion, universal suffrage and race relations, but could come to the table against big business because they were still in the same socio-economic class.

Roe v. Wade, school busing and other flashpoint issues set up a shift along social/religious/ethical mores, with labor splitting into the two major camps of American politics. And in Kansas, the conservatives are split between the “Mods,” AKA traditional small government, big business Republicans, and the “Cons,” the

These issues, and their progeny have become the bread and butter of what Frank calls “The Backlash.” This backlash is what allows conservative pundits to feel like a persecuted minority while controlling the federal government and the majority of statehouses, he claims.

It’s not based in fact, but in whipping up fear with moralistic screeds espoused by bloviating, hypocritical bobbleheads.

Much like my last paragraph, Frank doesn’t leave a lot of room for dissent. He has seen his beloved home state change. He sees pro-life activists lying in front of cars, protest against illegal immigration and then vote for those who continue to slash wages.

Look, if you’re a conservative reader, Frank will definitely challenge your thoughts, raise your hackles and perhaps dig you in deeper. If you’re a traditional liberal, you might feel attacked as well, as the author clearly comes down on the left, taking aim at liberals on the right and left.

That said, 13 years after “What’s the Matter with Kansas” published, much of what he has to say has only ramped up in intensity. Well-argued, the book uses Frank’s fire breathing to provoke and anger, but also to inspire thought.