[Paleopsych] Recapturing Kansas

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In These Times: Recapturing Kansas

                       By Emily Udell January 12, 2005

    How did conservatives win the heart of America?

    That is the question Tom Frank explores in his bestselling book What's
    the Matter with Kansas?, an incisive analysis of the Republican
    transformation of traditional economic populism into the Great
    Backlash. Frank's book, which has become a post-election touchstone
    for progressive pundits, looks beyond the red state/blue state
    paradigm to explain how the mirage of "moral values" issues ("God,
    guns and gays") has subverted public dialogue about economic issues
    and convinced working class Americans to vote against their economic

    Frank--who is also the author of The Conquest of Cool and One Market
    Under God, founder and editor of the Chicago-based magazine The
    Baffler, and a contributing editor for Harper's--recently spoke with
    In These Times and its affiliated radio show "[3]Fire on the Prairie,"
    from his home in Washington, D.C.

    Can you give some historical background for what you call the "Great

    What I mean by that term is populist conservatism. It's this angry
    right-wing sensibility that speaks in--or pretends to speak in--the
    voice of the working class. It got its start, more or less, in 1968,
    with the candidacy of George Wallace. The issues that the Backlash has
    embraced have changed a lot over the years. In the early days it was
    pretty much racist. Today, you have the same angry, hard-done-by
    sensibility, but it's attached to different issues - the most famous
    being abortion, and, in this latest election, gay marriage.

    The Great Backlash has a way of thinking about the people vs. the
    elite, which is one of the classic hallmarks of populists. According
    to your standard populism--your left-wing variety--it's working people
    against owners, or blue collar against white collar. It's about social
    class. According to the Backlash, it's basically everybody against
    what they call the "liberal elite," who they generally identify by
    their tastes and fancy college educations. But it's an amorphous term,
    they'll apply it to anybody they feel like. It's not a solid
    sociological category. Nonetheless, it's extremely powerful. And
    conservatives throw this idea around all the time, basically
    unchallenged by liberals or by the left.

    Do you think the traditional values of the left have as much appeal as
    the cultural values of the right? And is there a motivation besides
    just winning for Democrats to adopt a real values stance? As you wrote
    in your book, where is the soft money in that?

    I think they definitely have as much appeal as the right-wing values.
    One of the most interesting things about the right-wing movement
    that's so powerful today is that is borrows--or steals, if you will
    --so much of its language and its blueprint from the old left. The
    stereotype of liberals as these high-hat blue bloods, these effete,
    devitalized weaklings is straight out of your proletarian literature
    of the '30s. Only back then it was a description of rich people.

    I think the values of the left still have power. But something has
    become apparent to me since I moved to Washington, D.C. [from
    Chicago]. There is this aversion, bordering on hatred, for the left,
    especially among Democrats. People who dominate discussions in
    Democratic circles despise the left, and there is no way in hell they
    are going to embrace the values of the left. You can try to explain to
    them how they need to do it for strategic purposes or in order to win
    elections, [but] it doesn't matter. The Democratic centrists got their
    way [in the 2004 presidential election], they got their candidate,
    they got their way on everything, and they still lost. And who gets
    the blame? It's going to be the left.

    Is there a danger that Democrats could manipulate the language of
    economic populism (like the conservatives manipulate the language of
    culture) but still pander to big business?

    You mean could they do this in a disingenuous fashion? Of course they
    could. But I don't think it would play very well. When you're talking
    about economic populism, you're talking about bread and butter issues.
    The Republicans have the advantage in that their populism is a matter
    of fantasy. And so their voters don't really care that they never gain
    any ground on their populist issues. Because they don't really expect

    If the labor movement had more traction in this country, then would
    the Democrats be more inclined to embrace traditional populist values?

    There's no question about that. The problem is that unions have been
    beaten pretty badly. There's always hope. Back in the '30s, the labor
    movement just came out of nowhere, and had its great organizing
    drives. And it did it more or less by itself, not with a lot of help
    from the Democratic Party. The funny thing was that when that
    happened, it was in the middle of a depression. ... ordinarily that's
    a very difficult time to be organizing people and they really captured
    this cultural position where it was very attractive to join a union.

    In your book you examine the debate over "authenticity"--do you
    propose to abolish this pursuit to identify the needs and values of
    the "real" American or to redefine what a "real" American is?

    I think we have to play the game of authenticity. The first step is
    recognizing that the conservatives have been doing it for a long time,
    and they've been doing it without any effective answer from our side.
    Authenticity is an incredibly powerful commodity in our day and age.
    There is this sort of culture of soft suburban liberals who are very
    into authenticity. But in their minds, authenticity is the stuff you
    read about in travel magazines, whereas Middle America is this
    horrible, plastic monstrosity that you're supposed to flee from. The
    Republicans have just reversed that. The Middle American in his Chevy
    going to McDonald's - that's authentic. They've captured this idea of
    all-American authenticity, and it has to be challenged. But you can't
    challenge it by saying American culture is hollow and conformist and
    stupid. That's not going to work.

    So you'd rather say something like the real American has two jobs and
    no healthcare?

    The Republicans are incredibly vulnerable in many ways. Both in terms
    of culture and their brand positioning, and in terms of the
    contradictions between what they say and what they do. Between this
    world of all-American, regular people that they imagine and the world
    that they give us, like you just said, where people have to work two
    jobs to stay afloat, [is a wide gap]. Hammer that contradiction.

    Unrestrained free-market capitalism is not the friend of average
    Americans. It's not the friend of tradition and of small town values.
    It's quite the opposite. It's the great destroyer. But where are you
    going to find somebody in American politics to make an argument like

    One of the things that you document in your book is how anti-abortion
    activists identify themselves with figures in the anti-slavery
    movement. And I read in another interview that you attended a party
    during Republican convention where people were putting Purple Heart
    band-aids on their clothes. You talk about how it would be really easy
    to poke holes in these various assertions that are made by
    conservatives. But if we can't even address these obvious

    The Purple Heart band-aids--those were given out at a party sponsored
    by Grover Norquist's group Americans for Tax Reform. The idea being
    that if a liberal gets one, than a Purple Heart is a joke. Everybody
    at the party had these on, and they thought it was so funny. And the
    party was being held at the New York Yacht Club. You couldn't ask for
    a more perfect set piece for what Republicans are about--they were
    toasting tax cuts, making fun of Purple Heart winners, at the New York
    Yacht Club!

    In your epilogue you wrote, "Encouraging demographic self-recognition
    and self-expression through products is, similarly, the bread and
    butter not of leftist ideology but of consumerism." What kind of
    arguments specifically do Democrats and leftists have to make to
    distinguish their ideology from a consumer ideology so as not to be
    blamed for the crap that's out there in the media?

    That's a very hard question to answer. The problem comes when
    [populist conservatives] pin people's disgust with the culture around
    them on free-floating liberalism. And it just ain't so. Just before I
    got on the phone with you, I was reading that Clear Channel is in
    trouble with the FCC for some indecency infringement. Now Clear
    Channel is not a bunch of liberals! Fox is another [example]--run by
    conservative Rupert Murdoch, the same man that brings you Fox News.
    Fox is consistently the most offensive TV network, the one that's
    willing to stoop the lowest in search of the most outrageous program.
    Market values go hand in hand with that sort of thing.

    This argument is something that instinctively makes sense, and if you
    just made it you'd find it would resonate with people. But Democrats
    are very afraid to make arguments like that about the free market.
    They don't want people thinking that they're some kind of radicals.
    And also they don't want to lose the funding from the business
    community. And this year that was so critical to them, they almost
    raised as much as W.

    So how do Democrats make the argument?

    They just have to bite the bullet and try it. We've got to do
    something new. But they're not going to do anything unless they're
    pushed, unless there are forces on the ground making them do
    something. And it's our job to stir up those forces.

    Have you heard any stories from people who've said that they've given
    your book to conservative relatives or friends?

    I have gotten some amazing letters--especially from people in Kansas.
    I got one the other day from someone that I met when I was out there,
    and she said that her dad and her brother totally fit the description
    of backlash personality type. She said that they will, when they're
    sitting around the dinner table, say things like, "Someday liberal
    blood is going to have to be shed. That's the only way this is going
    to end."

    What's your next project?

    I think I'm going to write about what the Democrats have to do. Don't
    you think that's the thing?

    Emily Udell is the advertising director at In These Times.

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