BOOKS » What's the Matter with Kansas?
What’s the matter with America? What explains the dysfunction at the dark heart of our politics?
Over the last thirty-five years the Republicans have transformed themselves from an aristocratic minority into the nation’s dominant political party, a brawling, beer-drinking buddy of the working man. The strategy by which they have won this triumph is instantly familiar and yet so bizarre it’s sometimes hard to believe it’s actually happened: Think of Richard Nixon extolling the virtues of the “silent majority,” or Ronald Reagan shaking his head at those crazy college professors, or George W. Bush sticking up for the “regular Americans,” or the army of pundits who have written so eloquently in recent months about the humble folk of the “red states.”
And then think of the political changes that this sappy stuff has helped to sell: Privatization. Deregulation. Monopolies in every industry from banking to radio to meatpacking. The destruction of the welfare state. The beatdown of the labor movement. The transformation of the Midwest into the rust belt. And, shimmering in the heavens above all this, the rise of a new plutocracy, a class of overlords so taken with their own magnificence that they are moved to compare themselves to the Almighty.
What we are observing, then, is a populist movement that has done irreversible harm to the material interests of the common people it professes to love so tenderly-a form of class animosity that rages against a shadowy “elite” while enthroning a new aristocracy of bankers, brokers, and corporate thieves.
In the burned-over districts of conservatism the right-wing class war grown so powerful that it has taken over the environmental niche once held by the left. It is the dissenting movement out there, the voice of the hard-done-by, and in places like Kansas it draws headlines with its high-profile campaigns against evolution and abortion.
This is what’s the matter with Kansas, and with America. From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the Websites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing, with a promotion and a bonus every year, and with a long parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifullymanicured planned communities. But on closer inspection the country we have inhabited for the last three decades seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy patriots reciting the Pledge while they resolutely strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of hardened blue-collar workers in midwestern burgs cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a “rust belt,” will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.
Some kind words about What’s the Matter With Kansas?
“When I read Thomas Frank, I hear a faint bugle in the background. It’s the cavalry-to-the-rescue call: There you are, surrounded by Republicans-outmanned, outgunned, and damn near out of both ammunition and humor-when up shows Thomas Frank. A heartland populist, Frank is hilariously funny on what makes us red-staters different from blue-staters (not), and he actually knows evangelical Christians, antiabortion activists, gun-nuts, and Bubbas. I promise y’all, this is the only way to understand why so many Americans have decided to vote against their own economic and political interests. And Frank explores the subject with scholarship, understanding, passion, and-thank you, Mark Twain-such tart humor.” — Molly Ivins
“This is the true story of how conservatives punk’d a nation. Tom Frank has stripped the right-wing hustle to its core: It is bread and circuses-only without bread. Written like poem, every line in its perfect place, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is the best new book I’ve read in years, on any subject.” — Rick Perlstein, author of “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus”
“What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is the most insightful analysis of American right-wing pseudopopulism to come along in the last decade. As for Kansas: However far it’s drifted into delusion, you’ve got to love a state that could produce someone as wickedly funny, compassionate, and non-stop brilliant as Tom Frank.” — Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed”
“A wise reporter and a splendid wit; Tom Frank understands the grassroots Right as well as anyone in America. He is the second coming of H. L. Mencken-but with much better politics.” — Michael Kazin, author of “The Populist Persuasion: An American History”
“Frank combines top-flight journalism with first-person reflections to dig deep into the Kansas psyche. Both exhilarating and a little scary, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” should help flat-landers and coastal types alike understand how traditional Republicanism gave way to the politics of the Christian Right in the heart of the heart of the country.” — Burdett Loomis, professor and chair, Department of Political Science at the University of Kansas
“A fire-and-brimstone essay on false consciousness on the Great Plains. ‘The poorest county in America . . . is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns,’ writes native Kansan and Baffler founding editor Frank, ‘and in the election of 2000 the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, carried it by a majority greater than 80 percent.’ How, Frank wonders, can it be that such a polity-honest toilers descended from free-soil, abolitionist progressives and prairie socialists-could back such a man who showed little concern then and has showed little concern since for the plight of the working class? And how can it be that such a place would forget its origins as a hotbed of what the historian Walter Prescott Webb called ‘persistent radicalism,’ as the seedbed of Social Security and of agrarian reform, to side with the bosses, to back an ideology that promises the destruction of the liberal state’s social-welfare safety net? Whatever the root causes, many of which seem to have something to do with fear and loathing of big-city types and ethnic minorities, Kansas voters-and even the Vietnam vets among them-seem to have picked up on the mantra that the ’snobs on the coasts’ are the enemy, and that Bush (’a man so ham-handed in his invocations of the Lord that he occasionally slips into blasphemy’) and company are friends and deliverers . . . Even so, he sees the tiniest ray of hope for modern progressives: after all, he notes, the one Kansas county that sports a NASCAR track went for Al Gore in 2000. A bracing, unabashedly partisan, and very smart work of red-state trendspotting.” — Kirkus Reviews
My thoughts on the 2004 election as backlash set-piece. This is from the afterword I wrote for the paperback edition of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”, serialized here in the New York Review of Books, May 12, 22005.
Download a short, distilled audio version of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” from Audible.com.
The first few chapters of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” were excerpted in the April, 2004 issue of Harper’s Magazine, under the excellent title, “Lie Down for America”.
Here is another excerpt from the book, in this case from the final chapter. The subject of this chapter is the responsibility of liberalism itself for the delusional politics of the backlash, and I make the case as bluntly as I can, July 20, 2004.
Check out this Washington Post piece on the Kansas AG, whose request that the state’s health workers nark on kids having sex is apparently “what’s right with Kansas.” After all, “democracy without virtue is two wolves and a sheep deciding what is for dinner. . .” March 20, 2005.
Rapper 50-Cent snatches Ja Rule’s spot as the industry’s leading thug-love crooner, and my book explains how! March 3, 2005.
The “anti-soldier, pro-gay-marriage leftist front” that is AARP. Paul Krugman sees the backlash in action against Social Security, February 25, 2005.
Don’t make fun of the church where your sister-in-law got married, or Whatever happened to the Great Society? A review, December 29, 2004.
A thoughtful assessment in New Left Review. And it’s probably true: I’m not hard enough on Democrats, Nov.-Dec., 2004.
Frank Rich explains why trashy blue-state culture isn’t going anywhere, especially with red-state conservatives in power, and their trash-culture buddies cashing in, November 13, 2004.
Kristof returns to the book in his weirdly accurate day-after election wrap-up, November 4, 2004.
The prestigious New York Review of Books weighs in, October 7, 2004.
Robert Reich digs what I’m selling in this The American Prospect review, October 6, 2004.
Close but no cigar! Garrison Keillor and I miss the boat, according to this review by Ronald Brownstein in The American Prospect, October 1, 2004.
Writing in the New York Observer, Kevin Canfield asks that somebody slip a copy of the book to John Kerry, September 13, 2004.
Nick Cohen, the British newspaper columnist, uses the book as a starting point for the inquiry, What’s the matter with the American left?, September 12, 2004.
This review praises my book’s lack of cheap shots, even if Kansas “smack[s] of class warfare and income redistribution.”, September 7, 2004.
Flogged with another deceased historian. This time it’s a thousand Christopher Lasches, August 29, 2004.
For those who can read German, What’s the Matter with Kansas? is mentioned in the Suddeutsch Zeitung, August 17, 2004.
Read the review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 8, 2004.
Rush Limbaugh shows the love. The great talker himself declares admiration for my recent column in the L. A. Times. Except for his inexplicable ID-ing of me as a “huge, huge” writer for a New York tabloid (The Baffler is pretty far both from New York and from being a daily), this is remarkable stuff, July 29, 2004.
A nice review from In These Times, July 26, 2004.
Eric Alterman reviews the reviews, July 22, 2004.
“Forget Bill Clinton’s autobiography. What’s the Matter With Kansas? is the must-read of this election season” — Steve Greenlee in the Boston Globe, July 13, 2004.
Nicholas Kristof draws on Kansas to make the case for John Edwards, July 8, 2005.
Scroll down to check out this review in the Denver Post, July 8, 2004.
In the name of Americans “emancipated from material concerns,” George Will sics the Ghost of Hofstadter on me, July 8, 2004.
Barbara Erenreich uses Kansas to explain conservatives’ Michael Moore-Soy Latte-New York Times-Pinot Noir-Eastern elite conspiracy theory. She’s right, too, you know, July 1, 2004.
A review/interview with Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com, June 28, 2004.
The book is relevant even to the Pacific Northwest, June 20, 2004.
The great Paul Buhle reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, June 20, 2004.
Regular readers of the New York Times Book Review will notice an inspired variation in this year’s effort to dismiss my writing: This time they assigned the job to a graduate student! A Rhodes Scholar, no less, who, at the call of the populists of New York, rises from amongst the quadrangles of Oxford to defend the good folks of the heartland against the sneers of some liberal elitist from Kansas City. All without bothering to acknowledge that the book–like its similarly dissed predecessor–is in fact a dissection of the very “liberal elitism” narrative that is here being deployed. Ain’t irony grand, June 13, 2004.
Read the review by Steve Weinberg of the Houston Chronicle, June 11, 2004.
Read the review by Jim Miller of the San Diego Union Tribune, June 6, 2004.
Read the review by Jonathan Shainin in Newsday, June 6, 2004 (fee required to read article).
Read the review by George Scialabba in The Nation, May 27, 2004.
I am denounced by the Wichita Eagle, April 18, 2004, amazingly, months before the book was even published.
My response to Bartels, written in December 2005, can be read here. (PDF file - requires Adobe® Acrobat Reader® for viewing and printing.)
The author moves to Washington, DC and annoys Republicans and centrist Democrats alike, October 29, 2004.
Here’s an extensive interview about the book that I did with Buzzflash, August 23, 2004.
A conversation with Terrence McNally, a guy who gets it, August 20, 2004.
An interview with Stop Smiling, “the magazine for high-minded lowlifes.” I talked with JC, the magazine’s editor, in my apartment in Chicago in the summer of 2003, while hard at work on What’s the Matter With Kansas?, August 6, 2004.
Read a Q&A with me about the new book, July 2004.
A wide-ranging discussion of the commodification of dissent, circa 2000, February 9, 2000.
Interviews - Web Radio/Video Clips
Here is streaming video of me on NOW with Bill Moyers.
Frank vs. Zinsmeister on NPR. The Kansas Kid goes up against Bush’s domestic policy advisor.
My rundown on the election in an interview with Marc Cooper, February 2, 2005.
Jon Stewart and I break down the backlash, and Indian gaming, on The Daily Show, November 16, 2004.
I continue to be amazed that the Democrats can’t figure it out. This time on C-Span Streaming Video (requires realplayer), November 9, 2004.
Dutch TV investigates that mysterious America that will vote for Bush, July 25, 2004.
TV interview with Bill Moyers, July 9, 2004. Highly recommended.