What’s the Matter with Kansas?

This was my first foray into politics, and I did it by asking the biggest question of them all: Why do so many decent, average people support a politics that does them such obvious harm?

I answered that question by doing a close study of my home state of Kansas, the most decent, average state of them all. Kansas is a place with a radical past but which has become in recent decades the greatest culture-war battlefield of them all, as its workers and farmers enlist in futile right-wing crusades over abortion and the theory of evolution . . . and as the Republican party successfully strengthens corporations in their simultaneous war against workers and farmers. How has this happened?

My answer, in short, was that the culture wars allowed the GOP to capture the populist language of social class and present themselves as the embodiment of working-class anti-elitism. At the same time, thanks to the changing nature of the Democratic Party, real populism largely disappeared from the spectrum of the acceptable.

To my great surprise Kansas became the subject of intense controversy. It launched an entire genre of books about conservatism. It was widely thought to explain the counterintuitive election results of 2004.

  • “This is the true story of how conservatives punk’d a nation,” wrote Rick Perlstein. “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.”
  • The legendary British columnist Nick Cohen found my style “so dazzlingly witty and scornful it can stand comparison with the works of Twain or Mencken.”
  • “Forget Bill Clinton’s autobiography,” wrote Steve Greenlee of the Boston Globe. “‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?’ is the must-read of this election season. Republican voters need to read it to better understand their party and their leaders. Democrats need to read it to better understand their opponents and their conundrum.”

The book’s influence endures. In her 2017 campaign memoir, Hillary Clinton describes reading Kansas after her shocking defeat in 2016. Steve Bannon, the man who defeated her, said this to an interviewer from Frontline in 2019: “The Republican party is totally dysfunctional. It’s essentially a working-class party. The votes all come from working class or lower-middle class people, predominantly. And it doesn’t represent their interests. There’s this book written by this guy called What’s the Matter With Kansas where he kinda walks through how . . . the donor class, the Singers and the Kochs, had this entirely different concept.”

  • Although there is no audio book of “Kansas,” there is a 44 minute lecture by me on the main themes of the book. It’s on Audible.com.
  • The first few chapters of “Kansas” were excerpted in Harper’s Magazine under the awesome title “Lie Down for America.” Read them here.
  • In which I move to Washington, DC, to the great annoyance of Republicans and centrist Democrats alike.
  • One of my very first TV appearances ever, with the great Bill Moyers. I was nervous.
  • Here I am on C-Span talking about the book.
  • A political scientist named Larry Bartels attacked the book a number of times, trying to persuade people that Kansas was wrong and they had nothing to worry about. An interesting historical chapter in and of itself. Here is: His original criticism (2005); my original response (2005); my look back at the whole episode from the vantage of 2021.

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