Can We Do About Kansas: Thomas Frank
Frank is ecstatic.
Limbaugh denounced me yesterday and I’m walking on air,” Frank
explains. “It’s fantastic. I wonder… when do I
get my oxycontin?”
far as I can tell, Frank, an A-list cultural critic and author of
the deliciously wry and chillingly insightful new book What’s
the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America doesn’t
need any hillbilly heroin. He sounds sufficiently cranked on a book
tour buzz. So when Rush Limbaugh, a pop conservative icon with big
numbers in the heartland, slams Frank, it's time to celebrate. It’s
a guarantee that the name “Thomas Frank” will reverberate
in bookstores across America — just ask Al Franken.
Franken, Frank is no newcomer to political controversy. Any liberal
worth his latte fondly recollects Frank’s two previous books, The
Conquest of Cool and One
Market Under God. The well-versed rejoiced in his founding
of The Baffler magazine
in 1988. It was and remains The Baffler’s goal to “attempt
to restore a sense of outrage and urgency to the literature of the
conservatism has perfected a way of talking about social class without
admitting the grievances associated with social class," Frank says
on Weekly Signals, a
KUCI radio show I co-host with Mike Kaspar. "Instead of ‘class’ being
a matter of work, or income, or whatever background people are born
into, ‘class’ for pop conservatives is about authenticity.”
has many variations — from the oat bran attitude of Cultural
Creatives to the be-real-and-represent rhetoric of Hollywood
homies. I ask Frank what's the litmus test for authenticity in the
you born in the heartland? Are you a Middle American? Are you humble
and god fearing and do you go to church? That’s authenticity
for pop conservatives,” according to Frank. “That’s
what makes people members of the Red State Class — good, honest
a lifelong Blue Stater I have to wonder, "what about the rest
of us? Are we pagan babies, heathens and nattering nabobs of negativity
according to the pop-con code?"
you know about people like us — in that other class in America?” Frank
says. “We’re supposed to be these deracinated effete
lovers of all things French who drive Volvos and sail yachts.”
ne pas moi. I’m surrounded by the over-refined here in Orange
County, California, but I’m certainly not part of their club.
THEY usually drive Mercedes, THEIR food is Frenchified and THEIR
privatized view includes sailboats on the Pacific. Most of the effete
here are conservative. George Argyros (G.W. Bush’s Ambassador
to Spain), Tom Fuentes (County Republican Chair, 1984-2004), and
Donald Bren (a key player in California Republican politics) belong
to Orange County’s über upper crust. But conservative
elites, I’m about to discover, are overlooked in pop-con philosophy.
County is somewhat the birthplace of pop conservatism,” Frank
says. “The John Birch Society is the granddaddy of all this.
The Birchers, however, are a little bit too loony, what with their
conspiracy theories of the universe. If you tone their language down
a little and replace ‘godless communists’ with ‘liberal
elite,’ it’s basically the same stuff, only now it’s
everywhere. It’s been secularized. The language was adopted
by Nixon and Agnew and eventually perfected by Ronald Reagan and
George W. Bush.”
is obviously not this great threat anymore, “ Frank continues. “Today,
conservatives talk to Middle America about class without ever acknowledging
that most Middle Americans work for a boss that makes 500 times more
than they do. It’s hilarious that they denounce somebody else
for being part of the elite.”
This pop-con pretzel logic and language twisitng has resulted
in a national phenomenon Frank calls “ the great backlash.” According
to What’s the Matter with Kansas? the great backlash “provides
a ready-made identity in which the glamour of authenticity, combined
with the narcissism of victimhood, is available to almost anyone. You’re
the salt of the earth, the beating heart of America, the
backlash tells all those cranky suburbanites who tune in to Fox
News, and yet you are unfairly and outrageously persecuted. But
now they, too, can enjoy the instant righteousness that is flaunted
by every other aggrieved group.”
a result of the great backlash, there’s a pop conservative
president in the White House whose party controls both houses of
Congress. But in spite of George W. Bush and the political correctness
of Red State authenticity, Middle America continues to froth at
the mouth in the belief that, as Frank says, “we still have
this liberal elite that sells us out, leaving criminals loose to
prey on hardworking average Americas — good common folk beset
by this intellectual cadre of know-it-alls who want to tell them
how to run their lives.”
does Middle America get in return for their votes?
are some places where conservatives have done amazing things when
they get into office, but it’s not about values or cultural
issues. It’s about economics,” Frank clarifies. “They’ve
deregulated, privatized, made free trade agreements, rolled back
anti-trust enforcement, and beaten back the labor movement. They’ve
managed to keep wages down in America. They’re responsible
for all the things we associate with the rising tide of inequality.
That’s the great accomplishment of conservatism in these times.
What they’ve given us is a bridge to the 19th century, back
to a Victorian standard of income distribution.
conservatives win the blue-collar vote and the vote of average Americans
based on values and cultural issues, but once in office they never
deliver. They choose cultural issues where victory is basically impossible,
like the whole thing about building ten commandment monuments everywhere.
That’s such an obvious violation of church and state that,
of course, it’s going to lose. But they do it just to provoke
these fights, so that their followers can feel that they are victims
in a liberal universe."
in the late 1980s, pop-conservatives latched on to Piss
Christ, the Andres Serrano photograph of a crucifix submerged
in urine, as the flash point for victims in the liberal universe.
While pop-cons screamed about abolishing the National Endowment
for the Arts, Piss Christ became the heartland’s
symbol for a leftist elite art establishment run amok. Yet, the
present pop-con administration increased
funding for the NEA by the largest margin in 20 years. Go figure.
“It doesn’t matter what they do to the NEA,” Frank says. “The
art world is not going to stop offending Middle America. Serrano wanted Middle
America to get mad about Piss Christ, for God’s sake. That was his goal.
For that to become a campaign issue . . . that’s golden. That’s like
me being denounced by Rush Limbaugh. Meanwhile, pop conservatism’s language
of treason just keeps rolling along picking up momentum all on its own.
generally has been very bad for blue collar America. That’s
the central irony here,” Frank says. “Conservatives bring
in working class voters on cultural issues, but they never give them
anything in return. They have managed to destroy these people’s
standard of living. It’s the most amazing thing. The Democratic
Party is the minority party in America. That’s what they get
for fighting the Culture War.”
to Frank, liberals must address Middle America if they ever want
to win it back. That’s where What the Matter With Kansas? ends,
leaving its readers to answer the question: What can we DO about
Kansas? Or more precisely what can we do about Rush Limbaugh's Middle
America — that ocean of pop-con devotees stretching from sea
to shining sea, echoing the language of the great backlash in San
Bernardino, California; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Lynchburg, Virginia;
Missoula, Montana; and everywhere between?
we play them for suckers, like the pop-cons did?
we promise them tax breaks and give them wars?
we look them in the eyes and tell them they're being had?
we abolish gay marriage and embrace SUVs?
we hire a new public relations firm?
we stop drinking lattes and start hating controversial art?
we start a revolution?
we hire more focus groups?
we search for the liberal Limbaugh?
do we stay the course, keep the faith and pray that the winds of
change are soon upon us?
the answer, luck has to be on our side. As Jonathan Swift said "you
do not reason a man out of something he was not reasoned into."
— Nathan Callahan,
June 28, 2004