Arts » Books

Surrender, Dorothy

Thomas Frank’s yellow brick road

Thomas Frank is one of the most interesting social observers writing today. First the editor of the tiny Chicago-based journal The Baffler, he came to national prominence as the author of a brilliant and brilliantly funny essay called Commodify Your Dissent, which analyzed the corporate hijacking of the culture of underground rebellion in order to sell un-cool Americans products with the implicit promise that cool could indeed be purchased at the local mall (those early-’90s Gap—or was it Mac?—ads featuring not-quite-household-name celebrities like Spaulding Gray and Henry Rollins reciting monologues for the camera come to mind). Commodify Your Dissent was sly and so well written that the reader could almost feel a bebop soundtrack running under the text. In Frank’s next book, One Market Under God, he examined the dynamics of an overheated ’90s Wall Street.

In his new book What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Frank asks the $87 billion dollar question: Why and how are economically struggling, blue-collar Midwesterners in formerly progressive Kansas persuaded again and again by the conservative, pro-business right wing to vote Republican against their own best interests? What’s the Matter with Kansas? takes its title from an 1896 essay by newspaper editor William Allen White, which attacked the socially progressive movement known as Populism that had taken over Kansas politics like a prairie fire during that period. Frank examines the historical events and the forces that, in less than 100 years, have taken all that progressive energy and goodwill and turned Kansas into the epicenter of a vicious right-wing political backlash—exactly the opposite of the climate William Allen White wrote about all those years ago.

Frank deconstructs the evolution of that backlash in his home state of Kansas, but he could just as easily be talking about Montana. He’s found that in an economically depressed and largely rural Kansas, where corporate greed, deregulation and free-market excess (Montana Power, anyone?) have taken a grievous toll, right-wing strategists have jumped into the breach and fanned the flames of class warfare by peddling hard the myth of a “latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo driving, nose-ring wearing, New York Times reading, liberal power elite” bogie-man in order to reframe and refocus contemporary American political debate away from the economic issues that are devastating working people in this country and toward cultural issues that are not only manufactured, but perpetually existent in a democracy with a religious and culturally divergent population. So much for “it’s the economy, Stupid.”

Frank rightfully places much of the burden for losing the sympathies (and votes) of the middle and working classes in Kansas (and the rest of the nation) squarely on the shoulders of the Democratic Party that, in the last 30 years, has scrambled to be all things to all people, ultimately standing for not much of anything at all. Frank writes:

“Clinton’s New Democrats, it was thought, had brought the dawn of an era in which all parties agreed on the sanctity of the free market. As political strategy, though, Clinton’s move to accommodate the right was the purest folly. It simply pulled the rug out from under any possible organizing effort on the left. While the Cons were busily polarizing the electorate, the Dems were meekly seeking the center. In Wichita Republicanism appeared dynamic and confident; the Democrats looked dispirited, weak, spent.”

When the Democratic leadership took traditional Democratic Party economic advocacy for the workingman off the table, Frank writes, all that remained for the opposition to exploit was the widening cultural divide between right and left. The false populists of the Right—the power structure composed of shamelessly looting billionaire businessmen, CEOs and frat boys posing as jus’ plain folks—fan the flames of divisive issues such as homosexual marriage, gun control, abortion, school prayer, the teaching of evolution in public schools and even, heaven help us, Hanoi Jane. The Democrats inevitably take the bait and shy away from highlighting the real issues: unbridled corporate greed and a free-market economy that has metastasized on the backs of the already sinking working and middle classes.

For example, as this review was being written, the Bush administration was successful in legislating away the right of millions of hardworking employees to legitimately earned overtime compensation. Most cataclysmically affected will be employees at the lower end of the pay scale. In doing this, the Bush administration has rolled employee rights back to the middle of the last century. Where is the outrage? Why aren’t working people rioting on the steps of the White House? Why aren’t Bush’s poll numbers visibly slipping? Why is the public’s attention being focused on the extent of John Kerry’s war wounds instead? Is this simply more evidence for the case Frank convincingly makes in What’s The Matter With Kansas?: that the working stiff has been mesmerized into enthusiastically cooperating with an agenda that is directly counter to his own best interests by the employment of a kind of ideological sleight-of-hand. It is, after all, a classic pickpocket’s trick—to create a diversion while lifting the mark’s wallet.

Frank’s style is an engaging combination of sharp journalism, first-hand reflection and wry humor, and the book is a great read. It is a good thing, too, that it is funny, because as one reads Frank’s recounting of the heartbreaking history of political events in Kansas, and as he lays bare the greedy, destructive, thinly veiled, yet wildly successful strategy of the Right, the reader has the tragic sense of watching an accident in slow motion, and knowing what the unspeakable outcome will be.

Add a comment