The matter with Kansas now: The Tea Party, the 1 percent and delusional Democrats

Democrats believe demographics alone will defeat the Tea Party. It's a smug fantasy: Economic populism's the answer

Topics: What's The Matter With Kansas, Paul Krugman, Sam Brownback, Clinton, triangulation, Newt Gingrich, Democratic Leadership Council, Editor's Picks,

The matter with Kansas now: The Tea Party, the 1 percent and delusional Democrats

It is a strange thing to say in the year 2014, as the political battle-lines grow harder and our bitter-enders ever more bitter, but there was a time when I didn’t think of my home state of Kansas as a particularly right-wing place.

It is true that the Kansas City suburb where I grew up teemed with standard-issue business-class Republicans back in the ’70s and ’80s; I had been one myself once upon a time. But I also knew that Kansas was the kind of place that valued education, that built big boring suburbs, that never did anything risky or exciting. Its politics in those days were utterly forgettable, dominated by a succession of bland Republican moderates and unambitious Democrats. We were the epitome of unremarkableness. When the notorious “Summer of Mercy” took place in 1991 — the event that marked the beginning of the state’s long march to the right — I remember reading about it from graduate school in Chicago and thinking how strange it was that Operation Rescue had chosen Wichita as the place to make its stand. After all, Kansas wasn’t in the South.

It wasn’t until several years later that I began to understand what a fascinating, upside-down extravaganza it was to see the right eat its way through the good sense of the nation. Of course, many others had written about the movement by then, largely in the key of horror and tearful deploring. But relatively few seemed to get the sheer literary potential of the nation’s big right turn, and as I surveyed the political headlines day after day, I grew more and more amazed at what was going on.

Here was a faction that had made the folkways of ordinary Americans into a kind of a cult — and yet its signature economic policies had brought catastrophic harm down on those same ordinary Americans. Here was a ruling philosophy that, thanks to its sacrosanct conception of itself as the foe of the state, could never acknowledge that it actually ruled. Here was a form of common-man-hailing populism that had raised up an economic elite the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the nineteenth century. What a spectacle it was! What a circus of delusion, deceit, devotion and disaster! Best of all, it was a movement in whose ranks I had once marched myself, which meant I had a certain innate understanding of it.

As conservatism rolled up its victories and built out its culture of endless grievance — the Gingrich Congress was elected in 1994, Fox News launched a few years later, George W. Bush ascended the throne a few years after that — I wondered how I might best approach the subject. I wasn’t interested in producing a screeching denunciation of this Republican figure or that; the world had enough of those already. Nor did I mean to write a traditional Beltway-style “politics” book, about the heroic progress of some candidate in an election or some bill in Congress. Ugh.

The right needed to be taken seriously as a social movement, I thought. Its triumphs were at the same time preposterous and yet the greatest contemporary subjects of them all, and I wanted to approach them in the appropriate manner. I imagined myself somehow following the paths of both H. L. Mencken and W. J. Bryan — the pretension-puncturing of Mencken without the right-wing bullshit, that is, and the crusading spirit of Bryan minus the fundamentalism. I wanted to plumb the deep ironies of the American condition, like my favorite historians Richard Hofstadter and Christopher Lasch. I wanted to hold up a mirror and show this country what we looked like. But how would I do it? Where would I set my story?

Well, in 1999, newspapers started reporting on a nasty dispute in my home state of Kansas over the right way to teach the theory of evolution. A mass conservative awakening, it seemed, had been sweeping across the place for several years, gradually gaining strength, causing headaches for establishment Republicans and extincting Democrats wholesale.

On inspection, it was obvious that this was the place. Everything came together in Kansas; it was the exact expression of what ailed us. For decades the state had served as journalistic shorthand for all that was average in our land, and yet it also had a history of revolt. What’s more, in the years after Bush’s election, it had been drafted into the most fatuous journalistic conceit of them all, the conflict of the “red states” and the “blue”; the great fake showdown between all-American authenticity and highbrow liberal phoniness. As I drove around the state, however, I noticed something else, something that was little remarked upon in those days: Like other heartland locales, Kansas had not exactly thrived during the neoliberal decades. Why were these people signing up for the politics of their bosses?

*

“What’s the Matter With Kansas?” was published in the spring of 2004, just about 10 years ago. I remember finishing the book in a state of some excitement, with a giant map of Johnson County hanging over my desk. I knew at the time that I was on to something: All across the country, the right seemed to have momentum and fiery self-righteousness — in service of a stupid and barbaric philosophy, to be sure — while liberals were cringing and weak and anxious to compromise, even though they were often in the right.

The main premises of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” were straightforward enough. First, I pointed out that the great right turn, which began in the 1970s and continues to this day, has not served average people well. Second, that a large and increasing number of those average people were voting for privatizing and deregulating Republicans even as their situation grew worse. From these two points arose the obvious question: Why?

Today, in the seventh year of the Slump from Hell, it is commonplace to decry the 1 Percent and describe, as (for example) George Packer does in “The Unwinding,” the ugly things deindustrialization has done to the Midwest and that depopulation has done to farm country. But back in the early oughts things were different. In those days we were coming off an economic boom during which consensus commentators had spoken of the Market as a kind of god and of its doings as the very incarnation of reason. I disagreed: To open your eyes and acknowledge the dilapidation of small-town America and the fate of manufacturing cities like Wichita, I thought, was to call the whole rotten consensus into question.

And thus we came to the book’s central problem: Why did the people on the receiving end of so many of these developments have such trouble seeing it that way? Once upon a time, the Midwest had been famous for its hard-times uprisings. And, yes, the people I encountered in Kansas there were angry, all right. But not at the forces that were tearing their world apart, or not directly anyway. For modern Kansans, economic destruction seemed to trigger the exact opposite reaction as it had for their ancestors. As I put it, in one of my favorite passages in the book,

“Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: To the right, to the right, farther to the right. 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.”

We see this paradoxical law of political gravity everywhere now, of course. The financial crisis of 2008, brought on by deregulated banks, triggered a movement whose holiest cause is deregulation and which, in turn, secured control of the House of Representatives for a ferociously market-minded Republican majority. (For the record, the Tea Party movement and the Kansas conservatives I studied 10 years ago also differ in certain important respects.)

When you looked at Kansas political battles up close, the beginnings of an explanation became clear immediately: It was about class. Again and again, the category that split the two sides — in this case, moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans — was social status. The mods triumphed in the rich suburbs; they were lawyers, newspaper publishers, professionals. The cons won in the blue-collar suburbs; they tended to hold humbler jobs. One conservative leader I interviewed was a line worker at a soda-pop bottling plant.

I filled the book with anecdotes about the inverted class struggle in Kansas, some of them shocking, some of them amusing, but the vignette that still makes me chuckle is one I read in the Washington Post. The state’s wealthy governor, a moderate Republican, was hobnobbing with the attorneys at a prestigious Kansas City law firm one day in 1998; the mood was one of pleasant professional joviality, till one person worked up her nerve and chastised the governor to his face. Who among them dared? A secretary at the law firm, who faulted this celebrated Republican for insufficient conservatism.

What I found was that the descendents of the Populists were in rebellion; they were furious at “elites” and their social betters; it’s just that the politics of the situation had been inverted. (“Like a French Revolution in reverse — one in which the sans-culottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy,” I wrote.) This was the dark secret of the whole nasty business: The right had developed an entire ersatz proletarian movement, a full-blown astrology of class discontent in which the hard-working average citizen was invited to feel himself imposed upon by upper-class liberals. Class animus was — is — central to who they are and how they think about the world. And it has caught on. In a place like Wichita, Kansas, you encounter it on every street corner. Hating “elites,” hating Hollywood, hating government, hating scientists — these are all part of everyday life. Yes, the reasoning behind this philosophy may be faulty; its origins may be suspicious; but it is powerful stuff, and in lots of heartland locales these days, it is just about the only form of social grievance being offered.

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I say “secret,” but in truth the thing was obvious. It is everywhere — bestseller lists, cable news, AM radio, the floor of Congress. Polls have steadily tracked the migration of the white working-class vote to the GOP, and the disastrous results of this shift are plain to anyone with access to a Web browser. It is “secret” only because looking deeply into this situation was and is something that few are really interested in doing.

Why not? Well, for conservatives, the whole thing is mentally off-limits thanks to the blatant contradictions between their populist rhetoric and their rich-enriching policy deeds. They may talk proletarian righteousness constantly, but always in an evasive, sentimental way, more Norman Rockwell than John L. Lewis. If you want something more than rhetoric from them — something more solid than anger-stirring culture-war clichés — you basically have to be the Koch Brothers.

For the ruling faction of the Democratic party, meanwhile, I felt like the Kansas story triggered a bout of guilty conscience. To begin with, there was something true at the core of all the conservative bullshit: we really are ruled by a meritocratic, professional elite — just look at the members of the president’s cabinet, or who gets interviewed on NPR — and a great number of meritocratic believers really are found in the ranks of the Democrats. As a party, they are openly in love with expertise; it is who they are; it means more to them than any ideology. It’s the awful story of “The Best and the Brightest” repeating itself over and over and over again.

Even more alarming for Democrats were the stark implications of “Kansas” for their grand strategy of “centrism.” As I tried to make plain back in 2004, the big political change of the last 40 years didn’t happen solely because conservatives invented catchy conspiracy theories, but also because Democrats let it happen. Democrats essentially did nothing while their pals in organized labor were clubbed to the ground; they leaped enthusiastically into action, however, when it was time to pass NAFTA and repeal Glass-Steagall. Working-class voters had nowhere else to go, they seem to have calculated, and — whoops! — they were wrong. The Kansas story represented all their decades of moderating and capitulating and triangulating coming back to haunt them.

Maybe I concealed it too well, but this critique of the Democrats was supposed to have been one of the book’s big takeaway points. It was fun to mock the culture-war fantasies of the right but in doing so I also meant to challenge Clintonism. Yes, it had worked wonders in fundraising terms, but in forswearing the economic liberalism that appealed to working-class voters, it brought them electoral disaster. Again, the proof was all around us, in all the embarrassing defeats of those years, not to mention the needless capitulations like Al Gore’s in 2000. The bland centrist style that Democrats held so dear was political poison. To beat the right, I argued, they needed to move left.

Today this sounds like advising them to dig a tunnel to Tasmania with their bare hands. It sounds preposterous. Not because the problems I wrote about in “Kansas” have been solved — deindustrialization still defines the rust belt, depopulation is still clearing out the Great Plains, inequality grows worse and worse every year — but because every Democrat knows that the way you deal with a growing right is to make friends with Big Finance and do your part to fill the Big Prison. Left populism might sound nice, but everyone in D.C. knows it can never be a practical solution to any electoral problem.

At any rate, it’s all moot now. These days, the big thinkers of the Democratic Party have concluded that they can safely ignore the things I described. They’ve got a new bunch of voters these days — the famous “coalition of the ascendant,” made up of professionals, minorities and “millennials” — and it pleases them to imagine that with this unstoppable army at their back they will win elections from here to eternity. There is no need to resolve the dilemmas I outlined in “Kansas,” no need to win back working-class voters or solve wrenching economic problems. In fact, there is no need to lift a finger to do much of anything, since vast, impersonal demographic forces are what rescued them from the trap I identified. They now have the luxury of saying, as Paul Krugman did on the day after the 2012 election, “Who cares what’s the matter with Kansas?”

*

The aftermath of the book’s publication was, to a certain degree, a life lesson in futility. It is true that I got to be on TV a lot. I also launched a catchphrase — or, rather, revived a catchphrase from the 1890s — and in so doing furnished valuable new raw material for our nation’s headline writers and book blurbers, who are forever identifying the real problem with conservative places like Kansas. I also succeeded in angering the political scientists of the nation, who came almost unanimously to regard my work — and maybe the work of all journalists and historians — as an insolent transgression of their professional monopoly over the subject of social class.

But I caused the wheezing Democratic Party steamship to alter its course by not a single degree. Now, maybe doing absolutely nothing about the Kansas conundrum will serve Democrats well in the years to come. I suspect, however, that their smug fantasy of demographically determined triumph will take them the way of all the other smug mechanical dreams to which the liberal mind is so peculiarly given. I recall, in this connection, a conversation I had about Kansas politics with a prominent national Democrat back in 2003. To him, the situation was obvious, as was its solution: The state’s Republicans had pushed too far to the right, and now they were fated for defeat by the laws of physics, by the irresistible swing of that ol’ pendulum.

You can run that by current Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and his band of ingenious right-wing henchmen. Between them they have inflicted a stinging defeat on the moderate wing of the GOP, the faction that ruled the state in my youth, and sent to Congress a delegation that in 2012 was rated the most conservative of them all. Using the traditional Republican weapon of massive tax cuts, Brownback has managed to deliver lasting damage to the state’s public schools; he has enacted laws designed to harass abortion providers and make things tough for people who show up to vote without their driver’s license; he has even defunded the state arts agency. Surveying the wreckage of Brownback’s experiment last year, one Kansas journalist was moved to pen an obituary for the state. But Governor Brownback sees things differently. Thanks to years of passionate work by his army of elite-fighting everymen, Kansas is now “open for business,” he says, under the loving mercantile gaze of a “Big God.”

Thomas Frank
Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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