Back to Kansas

Thomas Frank talks about returning to his home state, Republicans as underdogs, and why Democrats are chasing down right-leaning policies.

August 20, 2004  |  Why does the pro-life Kansas factory worker who listens to Rush Limbaugh repeatedly vote for the party that is less likely to protect his safety, his job, and his pension? Why do blue-collar workers all over America, who embrace a moral agenda focused on things like opposition to abortion and gay marriage and support for school prayer, consistently vote against their own interests?

In ‘What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,’ Thomas Frank looks to his traditionally “red-voting” native state of Kansas to examine the GOP’s success in building the most unnatural of alliances: between blue-collar Midwesterners and Wall Street millionaires, between workers and bosses, between populists and right-wingers.

The bio on Thomas Frank’s website reads: “Born on the wild plains of Kansas, Tom pulled himself up by his bootstraps, learned to read, write, and cipher. He likes big steaks, bar-b-que, and most other meat dishes.”

Let me add: Founding editor of The Baffler, Frank is the author of One Market Under God and The Conquest of Cool, and a contributor to Harper’s, The Nation, and The New York Times op-ed page.

Thomas Frank: First let me point out that we put that bio up on the website as a joke and I just never got around to taking it down.

Terrence McNally: I reckon you were ciphering good by the time you got to the University of Chicago.

…First briefly, Thomas, I want to ask what were you like growing up in Kansas, when did you leave, and why did you choose to return there to write this book?

I grew up in a very affluent suburb of Kansas City. I was a teenage conservative, if you can imagine that. I was a big fan of Ronald Reagan. As I look back on those years, I internalized the politics of world that I was growing up in. The adults around me were all well-to-do businessmen who regarded things like taxation as being fundamentally illegitimate. Government was just a nest of criminals and so were labor unions.

My parents were both from Massachusetts, both Catholic, both lifetime Democrats. At twelve I said “This Nixon guy isn’t so bad.” We rebel in whatever ways we can or we go along in whatever ways we can.

What changed it for me was when I got out into the wider world and discovered that business wasn’t the kind of perfect meritocracy that these adults had told me it was. The free market wasn’t a system that fairly rewarded people for their contributions.

I left Kansas for good in about 1987 and moved to Chicago. Why did I go back there to write this book? In about ’99 a friend of mine from Kansas City was getting married. He’d kept in touch with all the political goings on there, and he said “You know, those people that you grew up around that you used to think were the most Republican people you would ever meet, well those people are now on the left edge of the spectrum because the state has moved so far to the right. That’s was about the same time that Kansas was making headlines fighting again over evolution (being taught in schools). That’s when I decided “Wow, I should look into this to see what’s happened there.”

You’re focusing on one of the problems that most troubles me about politics and democracy over at least the last 30-35 years: people voting against their own interests. What is it going to take to once again have a party in this country that will do two things: (1) serve the interests of the majority of Americans, and (2) find a way to successfully communicate that fact to voters?

It’s funny. That seems like such a rational thing to want, so, so “normal” …And yet it’s farther from being reality than ever, in my opinion. We have wandered off into a place where if the Democrats, heaven forbid, return to their roots and start talking about workplace issues, the other of our two big political parties will invent some new hot button cultural issue to bring us back onto the path. This year it looks like gay marriage is going to be the big thing.

When a group has a shopping cart full of cultural issues and they’ve also got terrorism, they’ve got an awful lot to fog the mind, don’t they?

Oh, yeah.

Though the margin’s been closing since the ’70s, and the real growth has been among Independents and “Choose Not to Vote’ – there are still fewer Republicans than Democrats, yet the Right dominates the White House, the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court and much of the rest of the federal courts, plus the military and a majority of governorships. When one adds unrepresentative reapportionment and election by TV ads, they no longer even need majorities to dominate government. How have they pulled that off?

You’ve really laid out the big picture, but if you were to say that to a Republican, they would immediately point out that they are in fact victims, that they are on the receiving end of modern life, because our culture is still being made by Hollywood and liberal elites in academia and in the newspapers. Just turn on Fox News some time. These people understand themselves as victims. They are on the receiving end of history. The fact that they control all three branches of government never enters into it. They understand themselves as a victimized majority fighting for their usurped rights.

Ever the underdog.

Exactly, and that’s a big part of the appeal of the backlash.

Define what you mean by “backlash?”

That’s my term for populist conservatism from the late 1960’s up to the present. I consider it as more or less one phenomenon, even though it has many different chapters and many different personalities. We’ve been in this historical stage where conservatives are able to win elections this way and that, talking about these hot button cultural issues and by using conservative pop culture.

A “backlash” against what?

It originally began as a backlash against the anti-war movement, and to some degree against the civil rights movement. You remember its first great leader was –

(in unison) …George Wallace.

…who was an overt racist.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, he predicted the Democrats would lose the South – and they did. Didn’t anger over integration precede – and at least for a while, exceed – any passion over teaching evolution?

Of course.

In some of their minds, those two subjects probably overlapped, but that’s another story. How does racism – perhaps the booster engine that started all this – fit in your analysis?

The whole idea of Nixon’s famous Southern strategy was to put Johnson’s prediction into effect. Goldwater voted against the civil rights bill and was the first Republican to win Southern states in a very long time. Then you have things like the Boston busing riots, the Willie Horton TV commercial, the careers of Jessie Helms and Trent Lott.

Let us remind people, lest they aren’t aware or have forgotten, that the Willie Horton ad was to some measure the brainchild of Roger Ailes who now runs Fox News.*

In recent years the backlash has tried to turn its back on its racist roots. You have now in the news one of the great exponents of pop conservatism, Alan Keyes, a black guy running for the Senate in Illinois. He’s very intelligent, an amazing public speaker, but right down the line as conservative as they come.

So the smart Nixon money was on racism, but how much mileage can you get out of claiming to be victims of integration? That gets a little old.

Racism is so universally discredited.

Exactly. But if you can graft other slights onto that energy and ride the wave…

In fact, today the backlash will look for any far-fetched way to call Democrats racists, whether it’s Social Security or school vouchers. They sense the power of the term and the ways that it’s been used against them.

One of the reasons I focused on Kansas is that it’s a state where the racial side of the backlash is very small. The issues that get people riled there today are the culture issues. Abortion is the big one, then there’s gun control and evolution.

What’s the latest on evolution in Kansas?

About a week ago they had the Republican primary. The backlash is now being fought out within the Kansas Republican party. There’s the moderate Republicans: the old traditional Kansas ruling class used to be progressive Republicans, some even used to be liberal Republicans…

Where would Bob Dole fit in?

Bob Dole would have been on the rightward edge of that. I’m talking about folks like Nancy Kassebaum, Alf Landon, even Dwight Eisenhower. In the last fifteen years, you’ve had the rise of the conservatives – the Cons I call them, as opposed to the Mods or Moderns. The Cons all come from working class neighborhoods and explicitly describe their war with the Moderns as a class war. It’s them against the traditional rulers of the state. They’re right up front about that. This class revolt they’re engaged in is a right wing class revolt.

They tend to win the primaries because they have much greater commitment. The moderates are all on vacation in August. Last Thursday they scored a huge victory over the moderates. They’ve retaken the state board of education, so be on the lookout – they’ll probably be bringing the evolution issue back in the next year or two.

So the backlash succeeds by choosing fights they can never win, by claiming to be underdogs, and by accusing the other side of playing the victim. This is pretty sophisticated stuff. But let’s talk about the role of the Democrats. You’ve used the phrase “criminally stupid” to describe their strategy and tactics since the ’70’s. Explain where they’ve gone so wrong.

The Democrats turned their backs on the blue-collar voters who used to be their main constituency –

…through the Kennedy years.

Right. These were the folks who made them the dominant party in the first place. In the 1930’s the Democrats began talking about economic issues of social class. Before that, both parties had been doing silly culture wars with prohibition and that kind of thing.

What the Democrats have done that’s been so catastrophic has been to turn their backs on their traditional constituency by moving to the right on economic issues. Under Clinton it was called triangulation. Whether it was NAFTA, deregulation of various industries, or welfare reform, he basically adopted the Reagan agenda on economic issues. A lot of people in the Democratic party had been calling for this for a long time. Their answer to every defeat – whether it’s McGovern’s defeat in ’72, or Mondale in ’84 –

– or Gore’s victory – oops, Gore’s defeat in 2000.

…It’s always: “We’ve got to move to the right. Look the Republicans are on the right, we’ve got to move over there.” The Republicans, who started out with a catastrophic defeat of their own with Goldwater, never said “We’ve got to give in or change course,” and eventually they won. But the Democrats seem to think that the way they’re going to win is by constantly adopting bits of the Republican platform so they’ll be able to appeal to corporate America to get the money they need to fund their campaigns.

When Clinton signed off on NAFTA is when disaster really commenced. That’s when they lost the House and the Senate.

You quote people who say that was the turning point. “Once there’s no difference on NAFTA, I might as well go to where they agree with me on abortion…”

“If there’s no difference between the parties on the economic issues that matter to me, I’m going to vote my conscience on moral issues.”

Since I moved to Washington a few months ago, I’ve met many people whom I would describe as professional Democrats. They work for some liberal group that’s effectively an arm of the Democratic Party. When I tell them these stories and I talk to them about blue collar and workplace issues, they sort of roll their eyes. They say “You know, there really is no working class in America anymore.” And I say, “What the hell are you talking about?” And they say, “Manufacturing is no longer an important part of the economy. It’s only like ten percent of the workforce.” You’ve heard this before. And therefore those voters are not important. “The people we have to worry about are the suburban professionals…” They’ve got this all worked out in their minds.

I will guarantee you as sure as the sun’s going to rise tomorrow, if John Kerry goes down to defeat in November … the Democratic Leadership Council will blame his loss on the fact that he was too far to the left. They’ll interpret his defeat as another call for the Democrats to move farther to the right. Maybe someday they will become what the Republicans say they are today: a party of the liberal elite, of wealthy people from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, with no more working class constituency at all.

They’ll say as long as campaigns are based on television advertising, we’ve got to raise the $400 million that the Republicans will raise. What do you say to that?

I recognize that concern, but basically if that’s the case, then the left is done for. Let me remind you that in 1936 when Franklin Roosevelt ran against Alf Landon, then governor of Kansas, Landon was backed by a huge majority of the country’s newspapers and back then the newspapers were very partisan. He was backed by Wall Street, by every imaginable moneyed interest, and they pulled out all the stops to elect that guy. Roosevelt still won by a thundering landslide. It can be done.

It’s funny to be drawing our lessons from the right, but today in Kansas the moderates have all the money, yet the conservatives beat them time after time because they have more commitment.

You’re saying passionate grassroots will ultimately trump TV ads.

Absolutely. These are working class people who go door to door. I met one woman who was so dedicated to the issue of school vouchers – which is bewildering because the place she lives in Kansas has very good public schools. She’s so into undermining public schools that she mortgaged her own house to further her campaign for vouchers. She put herself into debt to fight for an issue that is going to harm people like her in the long run.

* Ailes & Horton: After the 1988 campaign Ailes claimed that he had no part in the creation of advertisements concerning Horton. According to Time Magazine (8/22/88), however: “Then, referring to the murderer who was furloughed by the Dukakis administration and later arrested for a rape and a stabbing, Ailes says, ‘[T]he only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.'” In fact, there were two ads: “Weekend Passes” which included Horton was produced by an advocacy group. “Revolving Doors,” produced by Ailes, never mentioned Horton’s name.

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