Sierra's March/April 2005 Let's Talk book selection: What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America A book by Thomas Frank Review by Patrick Hamilton
What it's about
One of the poorest states in the country, Kansas continually votes for politicians who back corporations and the wealthy. Native son and former Young Republican Thomas Frank marvels that his state's farmers and wage-earners dig their own economic graves at the ballot box year after year, riled up by hot-button social issues that the officials they elect have little power to change.
While the environment is not the focus of this book, Frank's analysis can shed light on questions Sierra Club members have been shaking their heads about since the November election: Why would any voter who favors healthy parks, water, and air vote for candidates who would destroy them? How can we make the next day at the polls turn out differently?
Where to get it What's the Matter With Kansas is available in libraries, at bookstores, and online. Henry Holt's list price is $24.
About the author
Thomas Frank was born and raised in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, and earned a PhD in American history from the University of Chicago. He helped found and currently edits the Baffler, a magazine that critiques American culture. He has written extensively on politics and history, with a focus on labor and economic issues. His other books include The Conquest of Cool and One Market Under God.
Think of your own experience with rural America or the Midwest. Does Frank's description of the conservatives' "backlash" movement seem accurate? Does he generalize too much about the attitudes and values that lead people to vote for ultra-conservatives, or has he hit the nail on the head?
In chapter two, Frank describes the economic plight of Kansans, which he claims has been worsened by conservatives. In particular, federal policies have hurt small farmers and been a boon to conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland and ConAgra. What, if anything, should government be doing about farming?
Frank asserts that we cannot assume people make political decisions pragmatically. On page 121, he says that backlash conservatives see politics as "a crusade in which one's material interests are suspended in favor of vague cultural grievances that are all-important and yet incapable of ever being assuaged." Do you think social issues and moral values are really what persuade people at the ballot box?
Do you think of a healthy environment as a personal benefit or a value? In other words, do you try to protect the environment for your own health and enjoyment, or because you think we have a moral obligation to do so? If you see it as a value, do you think the environment can ever become an issue that motivates as effectively as issues such as homosexuality and abortion seem to in Kansas today?
Throughout the book, Frank refers back to the progressivism of the state around the turn of the century, when the abolition and labor movements had strong backing in Kansas. Has the state's essential nature changed, or do you see vestiges of that activism in today's right-wing organizers?
How does your own religious background influence your political decisions? After reading Frank's argument about the power of the church in Midwestern politics, do you feel there's something wrong with the way religious values are influencing politics in places like Kansas, or is this democracy in action?
Can Frank's explanation for why people vote against their own economic interests help us understand why people vote outside of their own environmental interests? (For example, people who would benefit from more parks and cleaner water and air routinely vote for politicians with abysmal environmental records.)
In his epilogue, Frank argues that the solution for the Democratic Party is to end the triangulation of Clinton's "New Democrats" and get back to the roots of the party, supporting labor over business. Do you agree with his solution? How would such a strategy work, when he has shown that Kansans care little about economic issues and are swayed only by moral issues at the polls?