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Friday, December 23, 2005
Book Report: What's the Matter with Kansas?

I borrowed this from the library for the trip back east to visit my family. The author, Thomas Frank, sets out to explain why Kansas, which demographically he sees as a natural Democratic bastion, has become a solid red state.

The book is mostly descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Democrats looking for a way to break the Republican stranglehold on the state will find it only by implication. Frank believes that the reason for Kansas voting Republican is that the Democrats have abandoned economic populism (i.e., redistributionist policies).

The problem with this explanation is that Kansas has been Republican for a lot longer than the Democrats have renounced redistributionism. He admits that no Democrat has been elected to the US Senate from Kansas since 1932.

Frank gets around this by the usual Leftist claim that somehow modern Republicans are much more conservative than the brand that applied up until the early 1990s. There is some validity to this argument in that Republicans feel free to be more conservative than they used to be when they were the minority party. But to a large degree, Republicans are more conservative because the country is more conservative.

The book is replete with undiscovered and undocumented assumptions. Throughout, Frank states that by voting Republican, the people of Kansas are committing economic suicide. Why? Obviously it is because he believes that the Democrats' policies are far better for the working and middle class, but nowhere does he explain why. It is so self-evident to him that he ignores that this is far from settled.

The book is also suffused with ill-concealed disgust with Kansas and Kansans. Frank himself grew up in Kansas, although he now lives in Chicago. He apparently believes that Kansas was in a golden age when he lived there, but it has gone completely to seed since.

His thesis is essentially that there are two types of Republicans, which he calls the Mods and the Cons. The Mods are the wealthy moderates, who are uncomfortable with the Con positions on abortion and homosexuality, but go along with the program because the Cons deliver goodies for them in the form of tax cuts. The Cons don't get much for their support of the party other than lip service to their positions.

Perhaps the most revealing part of the book is when Frank describes his conversion to liberalism. Frank claims to have been a solid conservative as a youth, participating in the high school debate team as a free-trade, pro-capitalist firebrand. But then he went to college and wasn't selected for any of the exclusive fraternities. This awakened his class consciousness and he realized that he was not a member of the elite.

The book also contains numerous contradictions. For example, in one early passage he notes that in the past, colleges weren't known as hotbeds of liberalism in the past; they were considered finishing schools for the rich. But later, when he decries the attempt by modern conservatives to see themselves as similar to the abolitionists of the 1850s, he notes that the hotbeds of anti-slavery sentiment were the colleges and universities of the time.

Frank appears to believe that if the Democrats were to embrace a more populist and redistributionist policy, that many of the Cons would be forced to choose between their wallet and their beliefs. I don't buy it. Redistribution did not work in the Soviet Union to improve the living conditions of the working class, and it is not working in Western Europe today.

In American politics, because of the two party system, if an issue arises we can usually count on one party to take one side of the issue, and one party to take the other side. But if the issue becomes largely settled (take for example, free trade) then both sides deemphasize the issue and it becomes a fringe issue. The problem for the American Left, and Frank himself, is that the issue of redistribution has been taken off the table. He may want the Democrats to bring it back, but it sure doesn't look like that's a winning approach to me.
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