Politics in the Heartland

Ex-Kansan Ponders The State of His Home

Posted July 19, 2004 at 3:05pm

Thomas Frank has a problem, and its name is Kansas. Actually, he says, it isn’t really Kansas per se, but the political conservatism the Jayhawk State and others have embraced at their own peril.

And so the 39-year-old Frank, author of the iconoclastically titled books “One Market Under God,” and “The Conquest of Cool,” has turned his attention to chronicling the cultural and economic psychology behind his home state’s relatively recent rightward lurch in his latest release, “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”

“It’s a study of the red-state mindset,” he said last week via phone from the Senate Periodical Press Gallery, where Frank, Washington correspondent for Harper’s magazine, was covering the debate over the proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

“I chose Kansas to study the populist conservative mentality,” Frank continued, adding that he lifted the deliberatively incendiary title from a famous 1896 essay by journalist William Allan White, which asked the same question in respect to the then-politically ascendant left-wing populism. After all, the same state that today embraces George W. Bush is also the state which, more so than others, once embraced 1890s Populism, the presidential candidacy of the socialist Eugene Debs, and even abortion.

“First of all, I’m from there and second of all it’s famous for being a very average place,” Frank added, ex-

plaining why he selected Kansas as his prototype for his examination of red-state America’s populist backlash against its once relatively progressive roots. (In Frank’s view, “the push that started Kansas hurtling down the crevasse of reaction” was Operation Rescue’s massive abortion protests in the summer of 1991 — an outpouring of activism that galvanized an extensive grassroots conservative political organization, and in turn swept much of Kansas’ more moderate Republican leadership out of power and propelled what Frank terms “reptilian Republicans” into position as “the state’s dominant political faction.”)

But despite Kansas’ reputation for normalcy, much of the state Frank describes doesn’t appear to be a place the average person would want to visit. As Frank traverses its terrain in his father’s Toyota Camry or in a rented Dodge Intrepid — interviewing local conservative activists and exploring Kansas Main Streets along the way — everywhere, it seems, he finds the worst sort of dystopia: the dilapidated “trailer-park cities” of Garden City; Wichita’s “eerily empty” main drag lined with statues instead of real people; and the profusion of “rotting plywood” that is but one of the many harbingers of the once-prosperous farm towns’ “irreversible decay.”

One exception to the generally dreary portrait he paints is the Kansas City suburb of Mission Hills, which is populated by acres of “mansions, whimsical and sober, ensconced in vast carefully maintained lawns that roll tastefully to the horizon.”

And here seems to lie the crux of the self-described “old-school, Franklin Roosevelt” liberal’s rather ironic argument, that the very political conservatism which rallies the working and middle classes to its cause by championing a values-based agenda ultimately delivers only the worst sort of laissez-faire capitalism: deregulation, outsourcing, the jettisoning of overtime pay and unions, all actions more likely to benefit the inhabitants of the rarefied, distinctly corporate (and socially moderate) Mission Hills milieu, than the bulk of Kansans (and most other red staters) who choose values over what Frank believes are their true economic interests at the ballot box.

Frank points to the Senate’s recent vote on an amendment to ban same-sex marriage as a “classic” example of how Republicans use values to distract voters from practical, bread- and-butter issues. (A legerdemain, he believes is made easier due to Democrats’ willingness to “take economic issues off the table,” thus shifting the debate to solely cultural issues and rendering the Party of Jackson vulnerable to Republican cries that it represents an out-of-touch “liberal elite.”)

Stopping gay marriage “is all important and yet at the same time they also will admit this is not going to do anything. They are not going to pass the amendment,” he said.

“All [Middle Americans] have to show for their Republican loyalty are lower wages, more dangerous jobs, dirtier air, a new overlord class that comports itself like King Farouk — and, of course, a crap culture whose moral freefall continues without significant interference from the grand-standing Christers whom they send triumphantly back to Washington every couple of years,” Frank writes in one of the book’s representative riffs.

But such assertions haven’t won him many friends in the Kansas Congressional delegation, several of whose members are viciously lampooned in the book as less-than-pure religious zealots whose primary practical purpose has been to advance the power and reach of a corporate world that Frank believes “wields the Republican Party as its personal political sidearm.”

“There’s probably a reason why he doesn’t live in Kansas anymore,” said Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R), who dubbed Frank “an angry liberal” who was “angry at the world and at Kansas voters.”

The five-term Representative said he isn’t about to apologize for supporting the kind of free market values — i.e., lower taxes, smaller government, individual freedom — he believes are responsible for bringing “the economy back after the tech bubble burst, after the recession …. after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.”

“The author would like to take us back to the old days of using horses to farm, but Kansans aren’t willing to do that,” Tiahrt added.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R), whom Frank singles out in the book for the Senator’s “distinguished service to God and mammon,” was similarly dismissive of Frank’s hypothesis. Values, Brownback said, have always been “central to the future of this country” and to conservatism.

“We’ve had a reduction in the number of abortions. … We’ve capped the number of people getting divorces.

“You have to have a country with a great moral sense,” he said.

Furthermore, Brownback said it was “ridiculous” to blame conservative policies for the decimation of the heartland’s economic prospects. Brownback said he and others in Congress were trying to reverse the very trends Frank laments through legislation such as the New Homestead Act, which would provide economic incentives to attract both people and business back to America’s small towns.

“I really wish he would have looked at the long-term agriculture trends,” he said. “We are producing more agriculture with far fewer people involved in it.”

What’s more, if conservatism were truly culpable for the bleak outlook, states such as North Dakota (whose Congressional delegation is solidly Democratic) should have avoided similar depopulation and economic trends, Brownback said.

“Why isn’t it, ‘What’s the Matter with North Dakota?’” countered Brownback “Why aren’t the Dakotas being repopulated?”

Brownback also rejected Frank’s assertion in the book that he was “a member of one of the wealthiest families in the state” as “just false.”

“I’m the son of a pig farmer,” the fourth-generation Jayhawker said, as he swung his suitcoat over his shoulder with a wince. “I wish he would have taken the time to find out how I grew up.”

Meanwhile, the delegation’s lone Democrat, Rep. Dennis Moore, whose anomalous victory Frank credits to internecine Republican battles between the GOP’s conservative and moderate wings, genially pivoted when asked if he thought there was anything particularly wrong with Kansas’ political culture.

“I think it’s not just happening in Kansas, it’s happening in our country right now,” said Moore, a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, adding that he opposed the way the GOP had tried to “hijack” moral issues. “The Republican Party doesn’t own the flag … [it] doesn’t own the Bible.”

So what does Frank, who concedes his work is “a polemic” of sorts, ultimately want to see happen in Kansas?

“I want to see small farmers prosper. I want to see small towns prosper. I want to see more equality.”

He paused, before adding jokingly: “I want to see people happy and singing and laughing.”