What’s the Matter With Kansas: Book Review
February 1, 2010
The upcoming Tea Party Nation Convention, my fourth viewing of the excellent documentary based on this book, and the recent, brilliant Wall Street Journal piece by its author reminded me that a true classic never becomes outdated.
On April 15, 2009, large groups of disgruntled Americans across the country held protests called T.E.A. Bag Parties, in which the T.E.A. stood for Taxed Enough Already. Some of the protesters were upset about the ARRA, or Stimulus Bill, viewing it as reckless spending during a time that calls for a spending freeze. Some of them were upset about President Obama in general, prompting Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” to wonder whether they were protesting tyranny or simply kicking up a fuss about losing the election.
The most intriguing T.E.A. Baggers were those who stated they were protesting taxation. To protest taxation shortly after ninety-five percent of American workers have received a tax cut is a fascinating piece of human behavior to explore. Why would these people call for lower taxes for the rich, when we have seen for many years that trickle-down economics defy the laws of gravity and do not trickle down? Why would anyone make the effort to stand up for a cause that goes against their own best interests?
In 2004, Thomas Frank wrote an entire book to answer that question. It is the classic What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank uses Kansas, his home state and a place he calls “the heart of the heartland,” to symbolize these self-defeating Americans. In the 2000 election, eighty percent of voters in the Great Plains, including Kansas, voted for George W. Bush. These people were poor, working-class citizens living in tired, worn-out towns, and the policies being put forth by the Democratic Party would have served them much better than the Republican Party policies they wound up with instead. But, as Frank explains through the course of his book, they weren’t voting for policies. They were voting for an illusion created by the conservative Republican machine.
Beginning with anti-abortion activism in the 1990s, during which voters were told, “We have an agenda – the kingdom of God,” Republicans wrapped their policies in religion, family values, the flag, and the vision of a heartland that any God-fearing, “other”-hating, true American would be proud to call home. At some point, voting against their own interests ceased to matter in Kansas, and the issues framed by the Republicans as all-important (abortion, gay rights, gun control) became the only interests that were worth standing up for on Election Day.
The T.E.A. Bag Parties have shown that conservative Republicans are still using this disturbing strategy, and that is why Frank’s book is still timely. In the final chapter, he discusses the Democratic Party strategy, or lack thereof, circa 2004. Since then, thanks in large part to Howard Dean’s visionary leadership of the party, the Democrats finally achieved the goal of equating voters’ personal interests with universal values. For example, health care reform is good for your pocketbook, and at the same time it helps the poor and unfortunate among us. Of course, the disastrous financial collapse in 2008 helped the Democrats, too, by creating distrust of Republican leadership.
And yet, sixty-three percent of Kansas voters supported John McCain for president in 2008. Something is still the matter with Kansas. And now thew same thing is the matter with New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts.