Thomas Frank was on The Daily Show last year before the election, and though I’d meant to pick up his book ever since, I’d forgotten until I saw it at the library last week.
What’s the Matter With Kansas? is somewhat inconsistent, but its impression on me was overwhelmingly positive. Frank begins by posing this question: why do the poor people of Middle America (the red state farmers and blue-collar workers) vote against their own economic interests? It’s a question that has fascinated me ever since I read a similar article at Alternet in the middle of last year. The answer lies in that fact that “liberal” and “conservative” are not the easy binary we see them as.
Frank frames his debate in the context of his home state, Kansas, a place that has historically wended radical (think 19th-century Populism) but is today thought of as perhaps one of the reddest of red states (short of maybe Texas or Alabama). Why the change? Without spoiling Frank’s book for you, I will simply say that the answer involves a number of factors, not the least of which is a gradual reframing of the liberal/conservative labels from their historical meanings into a fight over morals and authenticity rather than economics interests. The big-business Moderates and the pro-life Conservatives get lumped into the same Republicanism, but they are different creatures entirely. In fact, in the new “class warfare” of modern politics, in which Liberals are characterized entirely as East coast snobs who wear turtlenecks, drink lattés, and are too smart for their own good, the Moderates seem more like leftists, even though their corporate interests are entirely disparate.
So you see, it’s a complicated web, and I think that Frank does a good job of working through it. Personally, I think he reaches his dizzying climax in Chapter 6, but then there are another 100 or so pages, which was a bit of a downer. Regardless, it’s an excellently written book, a smart book, and one that I’m sorry to say I didn’t pick up sooner.