This book puts forward the argument that the right’s political strategy since the ’60s has been built on fanning class resentment but disguising it as a culture war. The result is a cycle of backlash against “liberal elites” that pushes U.S. politics rightward each time it occurs. Its analysis and predictions are particularly insightful in light of the last election.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004) by Thomas Frank
This book is fascinating. At the center of the book is a very simple idea, an explanation of what is driving the right and radicalization of the right in the U.S. The process described by the author rests on two key pieces: (1) the conflation of socioeconomic class with the cultural characteristics that tend to be exhibited at different rates in different socioeconomic classes, and (2) the use of the notion of authenticity (of culture) to arouse resentment in people of one culture with the other. What these two things together accomplish is to keep low-to-middle class people in a state of perpetual anger (“backlash” as the book terms it) at the wealthy while obfuscating the socioeconomic basis of that anger. The result of the obfuscation is that people are constantly rebelling against the wealthy politicians for being out of touch, but then (once they gain power) go on to implement economic policies that benefit the rich and powerful. As such, the rich and powerful have no incentive to change what they’re doing (in fact, every incentive to keep people angry) because even when they are overthrown, they win. This strategy, the author argues, started as a backlash against the ’60s but continues to this day; is apparently self-sustaining / able to regenerate itself even as people die off; and has so far succeeded in rolling back most of the economic reform made by labor movements and old leftists in the past century.
Let me break down each of these pieces in more detail:
The book provides examples of how people appeal to a notion of Real America to differentiate between the authentic population and the fakes. This is often done by appealing to a notion of Blue America and Red America, which each have their own culture, hobbies, tastes, character, personality, religion, values, upbringing, etc. and demonizing the “out of touch” “liberal elite cosmopolitan” culture of Blue America (this is a good example for our modern age).
|Blue America||Red America|
|Urban, developed, modern, technological||Rural, backwater, old, manual|
|Rich, white collar||Poor, blue collar|
|Educated, enlightened, open-minded, tolerant||Uneducated, racist, close-minded, intolerant|
|Hollywood, academics, businessmen, yuppies/hipsters||Hillbillies, hicks|
|Classical music, opera, theatre||Country music|
|Snobby, pretentious, elitist||Down-to-earth, unassuming, humble|
|Atheist, hedonistic, immoral||Christian, hard-working, moral|
|Out of touch, cold, isolated/alienated||Understanding, warm, communal|
|Disloyal, unpatriotic, internationalist/globalist||Loyal, patriotic, nativist/protectionist|
|Effeminate, sissy, weak, clean||Masculine, tough guy, strong, rough|
|Minority, but powerful||Majority, but powerless|
It is hard for me to say how big of a phenomenon this promotion of cultural authenticity is, but I do know that I have a notion of what “Real America” is, and it doesn’t include me. Visually, the image I think of is most similar to ’50s and ’60s advertising — cozy homes, smiling housewives… gingham??
Other people have described it as the aesthetic of a Norman Rockwell painting. In any case, the image is not only centered on certain people (white people), and certain places (rural or small-town America, probably in the Midwest), but also certain times (mid-20th century or earlier). This image of Real America, as far as I can tell, is shaped by a lot of things including literature one might read growing up (for me: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, etc.).
I think this notion of Real America and authenticity can be (and has been) used to shut out many groups of low-to-middle class people who live in Blue America from being real or authentically American.
For example, race: the images of Real America largely depict/focus on a white America, despite the fact that non-white people were a significant portion of the population at the time of those images were made. Similar to the issue of representation today, people who are not white are largely ignored, rendered invisible, or designated “special interest” or “niche”. As such, Asians, Latinxs, etc. are seen as modern, unauthentic, and new just by virtue of their race.
Another example is age: many of my millennial friends (outside of my academic social group) are working class and living the life of retail struggle. Yet millennials, who grew up after a technological revolution, are demonized for being narcissistic, entitled, and completely ruined by the availability of technology and wastefully indulgent for consuming such delicacies as avocadoes and coffee. The focus on fairly shallow differences in culture, personality, tastes, or use of technology is used to portray millennials’ culture as pretentious and inauthentic, making them for sure not a part of Real America. Moreover, it deflects from the elephant in the room, that millennials are unusually poor and less upwardly-mobile than generations before them (more on that later).
The book also talks about how anti-intellectualism (where intellectualism is seen as artifice, artificiality, opposite of authenticity) and anti-Semitism predate but underpin the backlash theory and its hatred of liberal cosmopolitan elites. If you look at the list of traits above, you can see how a narrative of Blue America and Red America functions as essentially dog-whistled anti-Semitism.
Instead of culture, the author instead wishes people would talk about class: the economic hierarchy marked by differences in income, parents’ expenditures on children, financial security, lifestyle one can afford to spend on, how physically taxing is the work you do, whether you own capital or sell your labor, etc.
The cultural differences between Blue and Red America, the author argues, often rest on a hidden class resentment, with the objects of resentment living not just a lifestyle of a “cosmopolitan liberal” but a lifestyle of the wealthy: modern, hip, classy, elevated, educated, globe-trotting, godless, interested in high quality things, dismissive and uncaring — and a minority yet extremely powerful. But the resentment is never named as class resentment, and that’s how it becomes manipulative. Because the U.S. is not good at discussing the fact that we have a class hierarchy, the battle lines in the view of the right are never quite the poor vs. the rich, but Real America vs. elite cosmopolitan liberalism, a kind of obfuscated proxy for income.
The backlash is when the anger (class resentment) of the right causes Republicans to have a rebellion in their own party, denouncing the centrist Republicans (who are richer and have more liberal values) as elitist and out of touch. This successful demonization of the left wing of the Republican party pushes the Overton window to the right, resulting in radicalization of the Republican party.
The book goes through the history of Kansan politics to detail when and how this backlash struck Kansas. It talks about Kansas’s history of Republican party domination, which goes back pretty much unbroken to the days of its founding, when the Republicans were the anti-slavery party and trying to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave-owning territory. However, there has for a long time been two wings within the Kansas Republican party. Until the 1990s, the legislature was dominated by old-style progressive/moderate Republicans (“Mods”), with an annoying but powerless conservative wing (“Cons”).
Part of the state’s history of progressive Republicanism is that the state was an early adopter of various pro-woman policies like women’s suffrage and legalized abortion. Kansas thus became a bastion of abortion rights, and in the 1990s it was home to a high-profile late-term abortion doctor (George Tiller, who was murdered by an anti-abortion activist several years after this book was written (in 2009)). This made the city he lived in (Wichita) the target of a huge anti-abortion demonstration/protest, which energized anti-abortion people into a grassroots political movement that succeeded in getting hardline religious conservatives into many local seats of power.
This backlash was successful because culturally, the wealthy and moderate Republicans are much more similar to liberal Blue America than they are to the Authentic Red America. The author describes how this works in a footnote using his wealthy suburban hometown as an example:
Despite the dismay the moderates may have felt at being overthrown in their own party, in the end they can’t be too angry because the platform the conservative wing ran on included economic policies that would in the end make them wealthier and more powerful. This is the change the author is exploring in the book — Kansas has always been angry and radical, but back in the Populist days, their demands were leftist: government subsidies, regulation, and control of utilities. Today they are the opposite: killing the welfare state, deregulation, privatization.
This book was written in the 2000s documenting a political rebellion within the Republican party that happened in the ’90s but what is unnerving is that this backlash has happened at least twice since then — first with the Tea Party and then the Alt Right, each time railing against the weakness and moderation and out-of-touch-ness of mainstream conservatives — and winning. Each time a backlash has occurred, the rebelling faction has been socially more far right than the rest of the party (the Overton window keeps moving right, to the point where neo-Nazism is making a comeback) while also holding steadfast to the economic policies that the wealthy (which they are pseudo-rebelling against) want most.
The culture of liberalism
The book also talks about what happens when you want to get people angry about culture but want to hide the economic basis of culture. When you remove money and power from the picture, the “why” behind liberalism becomes mysterious. Liberalism becomes a kind of social virus, seeking to replicate itself not because it serves some larger end but because that is just what liberalism does. Quoting from the book:
Capitalism as a driving force behind liberalism
I think a weakness of this book is that, while it points out that there is a connection between one’s class and one’s embrace of liberal ideals (these are correlated, as the author points out in his note on the social stances of wealthy Republicans) and hints that the producers of the dreaded liberal culture are the corporations the right loves so much, the author declines to go into why this connection exists and doesn’t outright name liberalism as a side product of capitalism.
However, I think this connection between capitalism and liberalism is important to go into because it helps us understand the world. Historically, capitalism has been a powerful driver of social progress (social liberalism). Not something to be tied down or slowed by tradition, it takes people’s precious social mores and eats them for breakfast. For conservatives who feel “left behind” by changing society, it is actually capitalism (which wants more people in the workforce including women and minorities; forces wages down, making dual income households necessary in many cases (killing the dream of the subservient housewife and “traditional” families); and has obvious economic incentives to portray their workforce as “diverse” and “inclusive”) that drives forward social progress by embracing “politically correct” diverse workforces, affirmative action, women’s empowerment/lean-in feminism, etc. One possible reason the book might shy away from making this observation explicitly is that, is in some wings of the left, there is the temptation to think of capitalism as being the source of all evil in the world (unfortunately, it isn’t). Also, to think of capitalism as a driver for social progress is uncomfortable for people on the left who both want social progress AND find capitalism unacceptable. (To tie it into a previous post, this is a case where social justice and economic justice DO come apart.) However, as someone in that camp, I do not think it hurts us to admit that capitalism is a force for good in some ways, because other ways of organizing society could be even better. I should stress here what I said there: criticizing capitalism does not mean abandoning issues of social justice, and you should be wary of anyone who implies it does.
Anyway, my view that corporate dominance is a liberalizing force in society creates a nice symmetry. If you’re following along with my write-up here, the backlash system described in the book looks something like this:
Conflation between these two forces (cultural change and economic power consolidation), and the erasure of the economic part, generates constant anger and resentment (backlash) and allows this cycle to continue, while the social positions of politicians keeps on getting more and more extreme and fringe. The cultural issues the author talks about include abortion, Christian hegemony in the West, evolution in schools, stem cell research (this one has fallen by the wayside…), etc., but an updated list for our time would include LGBT rights (the frontline issue was gay marriage, but now it’s gendered bathrooms) and climate change.
On political strategy
How to break this cycle? The author argues for the necessity of providing people an alternative way of explaining the processes in their lives to counteract the intuitive one (of a culture of liberalism) that the right has invested huge amounts of money into providing. He predicts that being marginally better on class/labor and relying on people to vote in their interests is a strategy that won’t work because people generally don’t spontaneously understand class analysis — it is not intuitive. Class consciousness has to be built up and maintained e.g. via public class analysis and structures like unions.
In particular, the author criticizes this particular strategy that some Democrats have attempted:
In attempting to pick up the alienated moderates, the Democrat strategy has been to swing right on economic issues or be hush-hush about their policies of economic reform. If you believe this theory of backlash, though, that this attempt at outreach will not work — the wealthy suburban moderate Republicans will never abandon the party despite losing the culture war within it and being politically humiliated, because even when they lose they win.
The book’s afterword (written in 2005) is a postmortem on the recent 2004 election (Bush vs. Kerry) where the author discusses how the backlash narrative was used in the campaign (boosting turnout using urgent cultural issues (abortion, gun rights, and — after the election — a war on Christmas), painting Kerry as an effeminate, France-loving out-of-touch elite, a narrative of Vietnam-era liberal betrayal (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth), Bush’s perceived authenticity and post-election abandonment of the urgent social issues while going full speed ahead with economic deregulation) and Democrats’ failure to set a class-based rival to the backlash narrative:
Welp… That doesn’t sound familiar at all.
Parallels to Strangers in Their Own Land
In a way, this book and Strangers in Their Own Land are tackling the same problem affecting two separate communities (rural and suburban Kansas and coastal Louisiana): trying to understand why people who need help keep voting for people promising to continue the hurt and pain. They both do this by examining the personal stories or intuitive myths that help people make sense of/interpret the state of the world. However, Frank examines a narrative about the world being told and reinforced by e.g. media, commentators, pundits, etc., while Hochschild examines the personal story people hold that helps them make sense of their own lives.
In addition, both books talk about specific incidents of corporate exploitation that affected the communities they focus on. Frank describes how Kansas went through three instances in the late ’90s of public utility executives scooping up profits, pushing the debt burden to locals, making wild, economic bubble type decisions, and then golden parachuting out when it inevitably all went to shit.
Like Strangers, this book also talks about how companies purposely moved from cities to rural areas because they face less opposition: labor in cities is largely unionized and journalists and consumer advocacy groups often have an antagonistic relationship with companies. Both books talk about how the mobility of companies allow them to play desperate local governments off each other in order to get the best financial package: “They play towns off against one another the way pro sports franchises do. Who will give the packers the biggest tax abatement? Who will vote the fattest bond issue? Who will let them pollute the most?”
While Strangers focuses on oil and gas drilling and how it affects local industries like fishing, a book about Kansas will of course zoom in on farmers and ranchers. One chapter has an interesting economic analysis about the antagonistic relationship/unaligned incentives between farmers (raw crop/meat producers) and agribusiness/Big Agro (people who turn raw materials into food products and/or package and distribute them), and how the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act is basically a subsidy from taxpayers to corporations. You might think what is good for farmers is good for the agribusiness and vice versa, but actually Great Depression type situations where farmers go into an overproduction spiral (farming is NOT something gracefully handled by the free market) is a bonanza for agribusiness (raw materials are dirt cheap and they maintain the same prices on the consumer end → huge profits), but a nightmare for farmers (but the government steps in with subsidies to avoid them going out of business). Nothing changes for farmer or consumer, while agribusiness makes a killing. Who picks up the tab? Taxpayers. The chapter ends by describing farmers as sharecroppers — no longer selling their produce on an actual market at all (let alone a free one) but promising their goods to a single corporation year after year as part of a contract.
This book presents a fascinating theory on what is driving the steady march rightward of U.S. politics: an intuitive narrative against an out-of-touch liberal cosmopolitan elite that inspires resentment and outrage but never names the outrage as being economic/class-based in nature. It argues that a strong economic narrative and other ways of building up class consciousness is the antidote. Its predictions have been eerily borne out multiple times in the 13 years since it was written; for that reason, I think it’s worth a read.