So just what is the matter, America

A kind of book review of “What’s the matter with Kansas”, by Thomas Frank

This is a really interesting book of American political analysis. Basically it explores an apparent paradox – poor people, especially in rural, mid-Western America, vote for the Republican party. The book tries to explain why this is so even when it is clear, in Mr Frank’s hypothesis, that the Republicans’ economic policies contribute to the impoverishment of those who vote for them.

His basic point is that conservatives use social hot-button issues (think abortion, gun control, gay marriage) and more generally a supposed split between rural and urban values to motivate followers to vote Republican, and as part of that platform poor voters also end up with an economic policy that works against their interests, undermining their rural lifestyle, destroying their industry and towns, and concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

As one example of this phenomenon, Mr Frank considers recent Kansan economic history and in particular looks at the rise of big agriculture and resultant demise of small towns. The marvel is that the democratic response to these economic declines is for Kansans to vote even more conservatives whose policies contribute to the decline of the small towns in the first place.

Les bleus et les rouges

The book is partly a response to the blue state/red state division that was coined in the 2000 presidential election. Crudely this is the idea that America is divided into Red states in the middle of the nation that are reliably Republican and where the good people live simply, but American made, and respect decent traditional values, and those Blue states on the coasts that vote Democratic and where everything is fancy, outre and imported, including the moral code.

Mr Frank points out that, on this theory, it is authenticity rather than anything about actual behaviour that divides the salt of the earth pickup-driving residents of the Red states from the effete, Volvo-driving residents of the Blue. Of course it is purely a political division – in practice, plenty of Red Staters prefer to sip on that fake fancy coffee than to slurp up cups of drip of death at the local diner for 50 cents a pop. But a parade of conservative Republican leaders create a social contrast between Red and Blue to make common cause with the average citizens of the Red states, infuriate them with talk of how the effete residence of Blue staters are responsible for all social problems, and through this secure both their outrage about social issues and their support for right-wing economic policies that do not advance those voters’ economic interests.

The net result is a slightly bizarre political position that talks a great deal about class, but denies that economics has anything to do with it, and results in the truly weird spectacle of the working poor fighting against healthcare reform that would give them insurance, or supporting tax cuts for millionaires.

Along the way, Mr Frank reviews the political history of Kansas, his state of birth, and catalogues the remarkable transformation of Kansas from home to firebrand radical progressive political activists at the turn of the last century, to a by-word for backwardness and parochial arch-conservatism at the turn of the this (Kansas School Board vs The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being a marvellous recent example).

En route

He also reviews the ongoing conflict in the Republican party between conservatives and old-school liberals (these days sufficiently unfashionable to be a threatened species). And he talks in detail about the efforts of Republicans to paint themselves as victims of a liberal media conspiracy that works always against the common man. Those liberal elites and nasty mainstream media making the television ever ruder and society more permissive against the wishes of the majority.

In some fascinating chapters he talks to people who are conservative Republicans and tries to understand and document their stories. I found it uniquely interesting and bizarre that they think that economic institutions that would normally be on their side (e.g., minimum wages, unions, regulation of healthcare) are instead part of the problem. These people seem to want to create a low-wage, highly-competitive, race to the bottom labour market despite the obvious fact that this could undermine their own living conditions and those of their community radically. Or they are so motivated by social issues, especially abortion or religious questions, that they vote only on that basis, and they end up supporting the most conservative economic policies because only those leaders are sufficiently conservative on social policy.

I was particularly struck by the description of victimhood of the Republican party grassroots – the “backlashers” in the quote below, and the conscious pretence that they are not part of the ruling power even when their man is in the White House (the book was published in 2004):

While liberals use their control of the airwaves, newspapers, and schools to persecute average Americans – to ridicule the pious, flatter the shiftless, and indoctrinate the kids with all sorts of permissive nonsense – the Republicans are the party of the disrespected, the downtrodden, the forgotten. They are always the underdog, always in rebellion against a haughty establishment, always rising up from below.

Conservatism … can never be powerful or successful, and backlashers revel in fantasies of their own marginality and persecution.

And they combine all this with statements about their own supposed subversiveness through their willingness to stand up for the unpopular or unfashionable ideas, and to provide their lone voice support for traditional values.

Deux choses encore

Aside from being genuinely interesting social commentary about a part of society that I seldom encounter and know nearly nothing about, two things struck me.

First is the enduring relevance of this debate today for what sort of country the United States wants to be.

Mr Obama is famous partly for a speech he gave in 2004 to the Democratic National Convention that talked party about post-partisanship and the end of red state/blue state rhetoric. But the underlying debate about inequality and the limits of democracy continues to this day.

For instance, I note in today’s New York Times the continuing kerfuffle over covertly recorded comments by Mr Romney that the 47% of the nation who do not pay federal income tax are moochers who view themselves as entitled to support from everyone else. Interesting, there is a bunch of interesting data from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center that shows how the 47% of non-payers breaks down by income, and by state – lots of them are in Red states, surprise surprise).

The second thing that struck me was the enduring crapness of this narrative. It is so unconstructive and so unhelpful to draw such stark lines on the political map, leaving aside the basic fact that it isn’t even true geographically – you can see from the Wikipedia map of recent election results, that it is more complicated than just inland versus coast.

In this connection, the newspaper also records the rather damning point, so far as Mr Romney is concerned, that the reason the 47% proportion is so high is because of tax credit programmes that have been a darling of the Republican party since before Regan and that have been expanded substantially in recent years in efforts to make work pay better than welfare.

Fortunately, it may be that the peddlers of these types of rubbish messages are getting their comeuppance. I like to believe, with no evidence at all, that American voters eventually got tired of voting in people who didn’t ever make any progress on the social issues they used to attract votes and have now moved on to more radical Tea Party candidates who are actually trying to follow through on the political agenda they were elected for, no matter how batty. The result is a bunch of elected officials who vote extremely socially conversatively, and also generally want to dismantle government in fundamental ways. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out in the course of the next few years. Kansas, so they say, is now almost entirely in the hands of the more conservative factions of the Republican party.

Anyway, over to you. If you want more, there is a movie. And if you think ye olde Red State/Blue State debate is a bit out of date now, fear not. I see Mr Frank has penned another book on how the conservative right have fared since 2008.