Sunday, May 29, 2005

What’s the Matter With What’s the Matter with Kansas?

If you haven’t read Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, you should; it’s a well-written exploration of why so many once-liberal enclaves have turned rabidly conservative. Frank hones in on a couple of dominant themes and expounds on them in clever ways. His observation that modern conservatism, no matter how powerful, continues to portray itself as a victim of the omnipotent “liberal elite” is amazingly accurate. His central thesis is that this “backlash” mentality focuses people’s anger on “cultural issues” (e.g. abortion, homosexuality, religious persecution) and purposefully ignores core economic issues, leading people to vote for conservative politicians even when it’s against their economic interests. Frank deftly unravels the myriad contradictions that plague modern conservatism, but which fail to unravel the movement. He shows how conservatism’s contradictions are overwhelmed by righteous indignation at everything our modern culture produces (which, of course, is always attributed to latte-sipping liberals in coastal cities.)

For all its cleverness and insight, however, What’s the Matter with Kansas, suffers from two flaws; one descriptive and the other prescriptive.

One of Frank’s main contentions is that members of the working class (mostly whites) who have turned away from the Democratic Party are being duped by conservatives. In exchange for voting conservative Republicans into office, their economic interests are continually undermined and conservatives promptly ignore cultural issues once in office, hence leaving these poor saps with nothing to show for their efforts. This type of thinking plays into the narrative that Middle Americans are essentially suckers who are expertly manipulated by the modern GOP. While it is true that many Americans are largely ignorant about fundamental economic realities and policies (e.g., how many people are in the top income brackets, who benefits from the repeal of the estate tax, how Social Security actually works), Frank is simply wrong that conservatives don’t deliver the goods on cultural issues. Here’s just a partial list of what they have accomplished:

1. Anti-abortion policies: Under Bush, the GOP has banned late-term abortions (“partial birth” abortions), increased parental notification laws, banned federal funding for abortions, and removed international funding for any organizations that perform abortions. In addition there is no doubt that the looming Supreme Court vacancies present a huge opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade and with it, women’s right to legalized abortion. In summary, under Bush, abortion rights have been under constant attack and have been whittled away.

2. Anti-gay policies: While the Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage is going nowhere, conservatives have nonetheless been successful at enacting extremely discriminatory state statutes against gay marriage (and even civil unions) in numerous states, and there are plans for more ballot initiatives in 2006. Conservatives on the judiciary ruled that the Boy Scouts could discriminate based on sexual orientation; in Lawrence v. Texas, they came within one vote of making it legal in the U.S. to arrest and jail a gay person for having consensual gay sex in the privacy of their home. It is no doubt also due to conservative pressures that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” statute persists; and even this week, the Bush administration’s Office of Special Counsel stated that federal anti-discrimination law does not give it the power to prosecute employers who fire people based on their sexual orientation.

3. Anti-gun control policies: The conservative movement has been so successful at restricting gun control that Democratic leaders go out of their way to demonstrate how gun-friendly they are (remember those pathetic images of Kerry shooting ducks?). The NRA has such a stranglehold on the modern political landscape that Bush allowed the Assault Weapons ban to expire (even though he had promised to renew it), and the GOP passed legislation granting immunity to gun producers from civil lawsuits, which is an almost unprecedented degree of protection granted to a single industry. Most strikingly, even as we wage a global war against terrorism there are still so many loopholes in federal law that terrorists still have an easy time getting guns in the U.S. and no one has the backbone to stop it.

4. Anti-stem cell policy: Bush’s ruling on embryonic stem cell research is extremely restrictive and has allowed the nation to fall behind other countries in the development of the medical technologies that are likely to arise from this research. Bush has threatened to veto any legislation that weakens his restrictions (and will be tested on this pledge very soon). This issue, in particular, contradicts Frank’s main thesis. In Frank’s world the GOP always sells out to big business and corporate interests, no matter what. However, in the not-to-distant future, it is likely that no business will be bigger than medical technology. Bush’s decisions, based on his “culture of life” rationale, are directly opposed to the interests of the American biotech industry.

Summing up, Frank’s contention that modern conservatives don’t deliver on “cultural” issues is not supported by the facts. As we have often stated on VOR, it is dangerous (and somewhat elitist) to assume that large portions of the country are so ignorant that they cannot make rational choices come Election Day. Once again, I want to contend that many “red state” voters have a different utility function than most “blue state” voters, and whether the Left likes it or not, conservatives do deliver enough victories (even small ones) on the “culture war” front that they are willing to trade these for some level of economic prosperity. Working class conservatives realize that the GOP’s tax cuts are barely going to benefit them, but that is not what it most important to them; abortion and guns are. One of Frank’s great insights is to show how many people in poor rural states even feel a certain sense of martyrdom given that they are willing to suffer in the pocketbook in order to carry out what they consider “God’s work.” Yet Frank fails to acknowledge that they actually do receive some rewards for their allegiance.

The second major fault with Frank’s book is his prescription for economic policies that should be the core liberal message. While he never clearly outlines a liberal economic agenda, he touches on the many clichéd themes that define the Left these days: anti-big business, anti-corporation, anti-free trade, and generally anti-market. This is nothing but a recipe for permanent electoral failure, and also bad economics. It continues to amaze me how so few people on the Left have yet to seriously address economic issues. Frank boldly admits that economics rules the land, but his statements on the subject are little more than jumbled bumper stickers. Just when liberals should be presenting a sophisticated and coherent economic framework for life in America in the 21st century, they are reverting to tired and failed populist messages that don’t even make sense on a most basic level (here are some of my suggestions). Free trade is not the enemy, a society without a safety net is. Capitalism is not the enemy, unregulated and anti-competitive capitalism is. Not everything conservatives propose on the economic front is by definition skewed towards the rich. Case in point: school vouchers. While there are serious issues with vouchers that need to be addressed, the policy should be taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand (see my earlier piece on the topic).

A particularly egregious example of Frank’s inability to separate good from bad economics is his criticism of the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996. The Act was a serious attempt to end the system of agricultural production subsidies that costs taxpayers tens of billions a year, does little more than enrich large agribusiness firms, destroys the environment, and violates trade rules. Frank incorrectly characterizes the Act as an attempt to pull the rug out from under small farmers when it was just the opposite. A similar example of Leftist good intentions gone awry can now be witnessed in the bizarre spectacle of environmentalists joining forces with probably the worst industrial lobby in the country, the sugar producers in Florida, to block the Central American free trade pact.

In summary, while Frank has done a great service by detailing the psychological and sociological underpinnings of the modern conservative movement, he fails to give them credit for their many victories on the “culture war” front. In addition, his economic prescriptions demonstrate that the Left has yet to do its homework. Until it does so, its policies will not be taken seriously and it will continue to lose what used to be its comparative advantage vis- a- vis conservatives.


Click here for J.S.’s novel: As It Was In The Beginning.


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