What's Wrong With Kansas?
Source News for Social Justice Action
Date 04/06/17/02:08

What's Wrong With Kansas? A Conversation With Thomas Frank

June 14, 2004

Editor's Note: Dissident Voice considers Thomas Frank
one of the finest and wittiest writers on politics and
culture today. He is a founding editor of The Baffler
magazine, and author of the must-read books "One Market
Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the
End of Economic Democracy" and "The Conquest of Cool:
Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip
Consumerism." His latest book is "What's the Matter
With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of
America" (Metropolitan Books, 2004). By far the best
and most insightful book I've read in a couple of
years. Frank uses Kansas as a metaphor for the rest of
the country in order to examine why so many working and
middle-class Americans consistently act against their
own self-interests. The following is a publisher's
interview with Thomas Frank. Thanks to Henry Holt and

Q: When you ask, What's the Matter With Kansas?, do you
just mean the rectangular state in the middle of the
country, or is Kansas symbolic of something larger?

Frank: In the book I do discuss certain events and
personalities in the actual state of Kansas, but I also
use "Kansas" as a metaphor for the U.S.A. According to
journalistic convention, Kansas is the distilled
essence of the country, the very heart of America. It's
a perfect microcosm, the place we look when we want to
ponder the big question of who we are as a people.
Incidentally, this is not only a journalistic
convention, but a marketing one, too: Kansas is dead-
average in so many statistical ways that it is a
natural choice for test-marketers looking to see how
some new product (a just-invented McDonald's sandwich,
say) will play in Peoria.

Q: And so what is the matter with Kansas?

Frank: The same thing that's been the matter with
America for so many years: the culture wars. The cloud
of inexhaustible right-wing outrage that hovers over so
much of the country. Kansas, like many places in
America, once had a tradition of progressivism and
outright radicalism. Today, though, like many other
places, the state's political center just seems to move
farther to the right in response to events. During the
Nineties the state erupted in a sort of right-wing
populist revolt, tossing out its old-school pragmatic
leaders and replacing them with the most conservative
Republicans available. It made national headlines when
anti-abortion activists descended in massive numbers on
Wichita in 1991, and it made world headlines when its
State Board of Education took up the battle against
evolution in 1999. Today Kansas is the sort of place
where the angry, suspicious worldview typified by Fox
News or the books of Ann Coulter is a common part of
everyday life. So I went there to study the indignant
conservative mindset up close.

The reason I say there's something "the matter" with
all this is that, in becoming more and more
conservative, Kansas is voting against its own economic
interests. Large parts of the state are in deep
economic crisis (in many cases a crisis either brought
on or worsened by the free-market policies of the
Republican party) and yet the state's voters insist on
re-electing the very people who are screwing them,
running up colossal majorities for George Bush,
lowering taxes and privatizing and deregulating, even
when these things are manifestly unhealthy for the

Q: After the last election we heard a lot about a
cultural conflict between the "red states" that voted
for George W. Bush and the "blue states" that voted for
Al Gore. Is this what you're getting at with your book?

Frank: Yes, but not in the usual way. When some pundit
starts talking about the red states versus the blue,
what they're usually trying to do is associate
president Bush with the humble, "heartland" values of
the Midwest and thus give him the grassroots legitimacy
that, as a minority president, he does not enjoy. (At
the same time, they are usually also trying to smear
his opponents by associating them with the corruption
and snob tastes of the Eastern cities.) My own take is
different. I point out that the "heartland" isn't that
simple; that you have corruption and snob tastes in
Republican Kansas just like you do in New York, and
that in certain cases, the Republicanism of these salt-
of-the-earth red states is downright self-destructive.
This is a book about good people in hard times who,
despite noble intentions, have made terrible choices.
While I liked many of the conservatives I met in
Kansas, and while I have a deep affection for the
state (after all, it's my home state (this is not one of
those fake-populist books celebrating the nobility of
the eternal heartland or praising Wal-Mart or supplying
the recipe for grandma's special casserole.

Q: Your title, What's the Matter With Kansas?, comes
from a famous 1896 essay by William Allen White. What
statement are you trying to make by echoing White?

Frank: When he wrote the essay, "What's the Matter With
Kansas?", William Allen White was a conservative editor
of a small-town newspaper who was outraged by the wave
of Populist sentiment that was then so powerful in
Kansas. In the 1890s, remember, Populism was a movement
of the left, fighting "the elite" by demanding things
like a federal farm program, national ownership of the
railroads, fair play for labor unions, an income tax,
and a fiat currency. (All things which were partially
achieved in later years.) In his essay, White angrily
berated these radical Kansans for making the state look
bad in the eyes of big money and thus for bringing
economic ruin. It was a powerful piece of work, and it
became an instant classic, reprinted in huge numbers by
the McKinley campaign for use against the Democratic
and Populist candidate, William Jennings Bryan.

Today's conservative Kansas rebels are politically the
exact opposite of the rebels of 1896, trying to reverse
or destroy the achievements of their ancestors. They
most definitely are bringing ruin on the state. And yet
while they do so they constantly use the class-war
language of populism, always depicting Republicanism as
a movement of regular folks overthrowing the haughty
impositions of the "liberal elite." The worst offender
in this regard is George Bush himself, who complains
about being the victim of liberal-elite snobbery even
while he works to make the country's real elite more of
an elite than ever. His political managers, meanwhile,
love to compare their man to the pro-business William
McKinley, the guy who beat the original Populists, even
while they endlessly salute the "heartland" values of
red-state America.

Q: So how could I not use White's title? The historical
parallels and reversals are just too many to resist.

Frank: One of the words you use a lot in the book is
"backlash." You talk about "the Great Backlash,"
"backlash conservatism," and a "backlash mentality."
What do you mean by this?

By "backlash" I mean populist conservatism of the kind
pioneered in the Sixties by George Wallace and Richard
Nixon, perfected by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush,
and crafted into an entertainment form by Fox News.
Instead of selling conservative politics on economic
grounds, it imagines conservatism as a revolt of the
little people against a high and mighty liberal elite.
Its object is to fight back against artists who dip
crosses in urine, Hollywood stars who wear outrageous
clothes, Ivy League journalists who slant the news, and
snob judges who remove Ten Commandments monuments from
the parks, and so on. The "Great Backlash" refers to
the long ascendancy of this style of conservatism, ever
since 1968. The "backlash mentality" refers to the
culture of the movement, to the way its members view
the world we live in.

The backlash is so commonplace and so universal today
that it's sometimes difficult to remember how strange
and how historically recent it is. Before the Sixties,
the working class was something conservatives wanted
nothing to do with; today conservatives talk about the
honest, hard-working people of "red America" as though
they were the GOP's natural constituency, while
ignoring the nuts and bolts of economic issues.

Q: At times in the book you describe the backlash as a
cultural phenomenon. What are some of its main

Frank: The basic cultural earmark of the backlash is
its constant use of the language of class conflict. It
understands liberalism as the imposition of an elite,
not as something constructed over the decades by
working-class people, minorities, and
environmentalists. Liberals are parasites, it insists,
pressing their idle schemes down on the hard-working
world. Another peculiarity of the backlash is its
fantasy of victimhood. Populist conservatives
understand themselves as people with a terrible
grievance against society, against a liberal order that
insults them, discriminates against them, and even
persecutes them. They are chronically outraged,
offended by everything, but also convinced that they
are powerless to change the world. Finally, they are
deeply anti-intellectual, hostile not only to elite
college teachers but to the professions generally and,
beyond that, suspicious of most complex explanations
for how the world works.

As I note in the book, this is a curious set of beliefs
for a faction that has enjoyed such spectacular
political success in the last thirty years. So if we
want to understand why America has moved so sharply to
the right since the Sixties (and why it has pushed the
world in the same direction (I believe we must start by
examining the backlash.

Q: You say that you have a special, personal insight
into the backlash mentality. How so?

Frank: I grew up in suburban Kansas City, a place where
the backlash grievance is sometimes second nature, and
as a schoolboy in the Seventies and Eighties I embraced
the backlash worldview with the zealotry of a true
believer. I was a Reagan youth. So I believe I
understand the sense of frustration from which the
backlash arises and the fundamentally decent democratic
impulses (the hair-trigger suspicion of "elites," for
example (that it builds upon. My subsequent personal
experiences, such as my later turn to the left, are
also why I persist in believing that many backlash
voters can be brought back to the liberal fold. That
is, they could if there were any politicians out there
willing to make the effort.

Q: How did liberals let all this happen, and what can
they do to remedy the situation?

Frank: There is no doubt that liberals bear a lot of
the blame for the backlash. Back in the Sixties and
Seventies, Democratic Party leaders decided to turn
their backs on the working-class voters who until then
had been the party's central constituency, and to try
to find a new constituency in groups like college
students, environmentalists, and so on. They called
this the "New Politics," and it was a terrible mistake.
Among other things, it is one of the sources of the
"liberal elite" stereotype, in a historical sense. And
while there have been numerous Democrats who have tried
to resurrect the alliance with the working class over
the years, the dominant, Clinton wing of the party
clings to this failed strategy. They essentially agree
with the Republicans on economic issues, write off the
working class, and try instead to win the votes (and
the campaign contributions) of educated, professional
people by taking liberal stands on social issues. Their
idea of politics is a war of enlightened CEOs versus
backwards CEOs.

This strategy has been disastrous in the extreme. While
stripping away any economic reason for working people
to vote Democratic, it has simultaneously played into
the "liberal elite" stereotype which is the
Republicans' strongest weapon. The result is what you
see around you: Republicans talk constantly about class
grievances, albeit in a coded and inverted way, while
Democrats never bring it up at all, desperately trying
to prove their "centrist" bona fides. What liberals
must do to beat the backlash, it seems obvious to me,
is to resurrect old-fashioned, upper-case-P populism,
and to wage non-coded, non-inverted class war. They
must at the very minimum counter Republican appeals to
social class with their own appeals to social class.

Q: In your other books you have written about the use
of countercultural language by the advertising industry
("The Conquest of Cool," 1997) and the use of
liberationist language by Wall Street and corporate
management ("One Market Under God," 2000). What
connects those books to this one?

Frank: All three books are about the colossal abuse of
the language of democracy in the aftermath of the
Sixties. And all three are about the many bizarre
cultural inversions of the world we live in:
Consumerism as nonconformity; Wall Street as an ally of
the common man; the CEO as Deadhead (and now, the
Republicans as the party of the working class.

In other words, they're all about the sheer weirdness
of our times. We inhabit a nation where the culture
screams constantly about how rebellious and
nonconformist and Xtreme we are, but where the politics
constantly move to the right. My larger point is that
these two aspects of our times are connected to each
other; that our pseudo-revolutionary culture in some
way helps to generate our reactionary politics, and
vice-versa. We talk a lot about both parts of American
life, but always separately (pondering one in the front
pages and the other in the "Business" or "Style"
section. My object is to consider both at the same
time, to point out that these two aspects of America
thrive symbiotically on one another's excesses. The
white-collar rebels shock and annoy the pious; the
blue-collar Republicans are duly shocked and annoyed;
and they vote to shower even more power, more tax cuts,
more deregulation, on the white-collar rebels whom they
despise so deeply. This topsy-turvy system works.

Q: How was the food in Kansas?

Frank: Fantastic.

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