Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Return from Oz

This week's book is What's The Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won The Heart of America, by Thomas Frank. Sorry about the photo, but be thankful I didn't attempt a "Dust in the Wind" joke.

Every comment I read on this book when it came out last year, and there were a lot of them, seemed to boil it down to two words: economic populism. Of course, at that time people were preoccupied with the election, and every new piece of political writing was being evaluated as campaign advice. Since I didn't think economic populism was especially good campaign advice for the Dems in 2004, I was prepared to dislike the book, but boiling it down to a slogan misses the point. Late in the book Frank does fault the Democratic Party for shirking its responsibility to educate voters about economic progressivism. But he's talking about a long-term project. George W. Bush is not a major presence in this book, and Frank literally does not mention John Kerry.

Frank inparts some valuable history lessons about his home state: its anti-slavery heritage, the rise of prairie ie populism, the oddball preachers and politicians that Kansas has produced. He mixes in some autobiographical musings about his childhood, the changes he has seen in his hometown, the experiences, particularly at the state university in Lawrence, that led him to a liberal perspective. He also does a neat thing: he interviews some actual conservatives, and treats them with respect and understanding and even a little admiration. The most vivid figures in the book include Tim Gruba, "an upside-down Cesar Chavez" who for years has been a driving force behind Kansas's grassroots pro-life movement--all the while holding a job as a line worker in a soda bottling plant. And there's Kay O'Connor, who refinances her house and sinks the proceeds into her pet cause, the school vouchers movement.

The main thrust of the book is the conservative backlash, the inversion of populism into a force for conservatism, the right-wing "Plen-T-Plaint" that features a lot of anger and venting but precious little analysis. I think my favorite line from the book is "[E]very one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking." Ain't that the truth. But the most important passage may be near the end:

[In People magazine] liberalism is a matter of shallow
appearances; it is arrogant and condescending... In an America
where the chief sources of one's ideas about life's possibilities are TV and the
movies, it's not hard to be convinced that we inhabit a liberal-dominated

Like any industry, though, the culture business exists
primarily to advance its own fortunes, not those of the Democratic Party.
Winning an audience of teenagers, for example, is the goal that has made the
dick joke into a sort of gold standard, not winning elections for liberals.
Encouraging demographic self-recognition and self-expression through products
is, similarly, the bread and butter not of leftist ideology but of consumerism.
These things are part of the culture industry's very DNA. They are as subject to
change by an offended American electorate as is the occupant of the Danish

Never understanding this is a source of strength for the
backlash. Its leaders rage against the liberalism of Hollywood. Its voters toss
a few liberals out of office and are surprised to see that Hollywood doesn't
care. They toss out more liberals and still nothing changes. They return an
entire phalanx of pro-business blowhards to Washington, and still the culture
industry goes on its merry way. But at least those backlash politicians that
they elect are willing to do one thing differently: they stand there on the
floor of the U.S. Senate and shout no to it all. And this is
the critical point: in a media world where what people shout overshadows what
they actually do, the backlash sometimes appears to be the only dissenter out
there, the only movement that has a place for the uncool and the funny-looking
and the pious, for all the stock buffoons that our mainstream culture glories in
lampooning. In this sense the backlash is becoming a perpetual alter-ego to the
culture industry, a feature of American life as permanent and as strange as
Hollywood itself.

If I could only read one book to gain an understanding of the contemporary American polity, it would be What's The Matter With Kansas?

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