What's the Matter with Kansas?
How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
By Thomas Frank
(Metropolitan Books, Hardcover, 9780805073393, 320pp.)
Publication Date: June 2004
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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One of “our most insightful social observers”* cracks the great political mystery of our time: how conservatism, once a marker of class privilege, became the creed of millions of ordinary Americans
With his acclaimed wit and acuity, Thomas Frank turns his eye on what he calls the “thirty-year backlash”—the populist revolt against a supposedly liberal establishment. The high point of that backlash is the Republican Party’s success in building the most unnatural of alliances: between blue-collar Midwesterners and Wall Street business interests, workers and bosses, populists and right-wingers.
In asking “what ’s the matter with Kansas?”—how a place famous for its radicalism became one of the most conservative states in the union—Frank, a native Kansan and onetime Republican, seeks to answer some broader American riddles: Why do so many of us vote against our economic interests? Where’s the outrage at corporate manipulators? And whatever happened to middle-American progressivism? The questions are urgent as well as provocative. Frank answers them by examining pop conservatism—the bestsellers, the radio talk shows, the vicious political combat—and showing how our long culture wars have left us with an electorate far more concerned with their leaders’ “values” and down-home qualities than with their stands on hard questions of policy.
A brilliant analysis—and funny to boot—What’s the Matter with Kansas? presents a critical assessment of who we are, while telling a remarkable story of how a group of frat boys, lawyers, and CEOs came to convince a nation that they spoke on behalf of the People.
*Los Angeles Times
Thomas Frank is the author of Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas?, and One Market Under God. A former opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and a monthly columnist for Harper's. He lives outside Washington, D.C.
"Drunk on tax cuts, favors for corporations and above all else, their undying lust for the culture wars most of us lost interest in years ago, conservatives have driven Middle America into a ditch, Mr. Frank argues in this brilliant book. His examination of how the right has prolonged the battles over pop culture, abortion and religion (and meanwhile accrued great power and financial gain) will not single-handedly eject President Bush from the White House—but it does contain the kind of nuanced ideas that should be talking points for the Kerry campaign . . . Mr. Frank's willingness to scold his own side; his irreverence and his facility with language; his ability to make the connections that other writers fail to make—all of this puts What's the Matter with Kansas? in a different league from most of the political books that have come out in recent years. Even better, its understanding of the methodology that has given Republicans the Presidency and control of both houses of Congress makes it a road map for upending the G.O.P. Here's hoping somebody slips a copy to John Kerry."—Kevin Canfield, The New York Observer
"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
"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
"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 Enhrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed
"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