What Can We Do About Kansas?
Thomas Frank is ecstatic.
"Rush Limbaugh denounced me yesterday, and I'm walking on air," Frank says. "It's fantastic. I wonder, when do I get my Oxycontin?"
As far as I can tell, Frank, the A-list cultural critic and author of the deliciously wry and chillingly insightful new book What's the Matter With Kansas? How conservatives won the heart of America doesn't need any hillbilly heroin; he sounds sufficiently cranked on a book-tour buzz. Frank is no newcomer. Any liberal worth his latte fondly recollects Frank's two previous books, The Conquest of Cool and One Market Under God. The well-versed will celebrate his founding of The Bafflermagazine in 1988. It was and remains The Baffler's goal to "attempt to restore a sense of outrage and urgency to the literature of the Left."
"Pop conservatism has perfected a way of talking about social class without admitting the grievances associated with social class," Frank said on Weekly Signals, a KUCI radio show I co-host with Mike Kaspar. "Instead of class being a matter of work, or income or what background people are born into, class for pop conservatives is about authenticity."
Authenticity has many variations—from the oat-bran attitude of Cultural Creatives to the "be real and represent" of Hollywood homies. I asked Frank what was the litmus test for authenticity in the pop-con world.
"Are you born in the Heartland? Are you a Middle American? Are you humble and god-fearing, and do you go to church? That's authenticity for pop conservatives," Frank says. "That's what makes people members of the Red State Class—good, honest American proletariats."
As a lifelong Blue Stater I wonder, what about the rest of us? Are we pagan babies, heathens and nattering nabobs of negativity according to the pop-con code?
"Don't you know about people like us—in that other class in America?" Frank said. "We're supposed to be these deracinated effete lovers of all things French who drive Volvos and sail yachts."
C'est ne pas moi. I'm surrounded by the overrefined here in Orange County, but I'm certainly not part of their club. THEY usually drive Mercedes, THEIR food is Frenchified, and THEIR privatized view includes sailboats on the Pacific. Most of the effete here are conservative. George Argyros (G.W. Bush's ambassador to Spain), Tom Fuentes (county Republican Party chairman from 1984 to 2004), and Donald Bren (a key player in California Republican politics) belong to Orange County's ber upper crust. But conservative elites, I'm about to discover, are overlooked in pop-con philosophy.
"Orange County is somewhat the birthplace of pop conservatism," Frank said. "The John Birch Society is the granddaddy of all this. The Birchers, however, are a little bit too loony, what with their conspiracy theories of the universe. If you tone their language down a little and replace 'godless communists' with 'liberal elite,' it's basically the same stuff, only now it's everywhere. It's been secularized. The language was adopted by Nixon and Agnew and eventually perfected by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
"Communism is obviously not this great threat anymore," Frank continued. "Today, conservatives talk to Middle America about class without ever acknowledging that most Middle Americans work for a boss who makes 500 times more than they do. It's hilarious that they denounce somebody else for being part of the elite."
This pop-con pretzel logic and twisting of language has resulted in a national phenomenon Frank calls "the great backlash." According to What's the Matter with Kansas? the great backlash "provides a ready-made identity in which the glamour of authenticity, combined with the narcissism of victimhood, is available to almost anyone. You're the salt of the earth, the beating heart of America, the backlash tells all those cranky suburbanites who tune in to Fox News, and yet you are unfairly and outrageously persecuted. But now they, too, can enjoy the instant righteousness that is flaunted by every other aggrieved group."
As a result of the great backlash, there's a pop-conservative president in the White House whose party controls both houses of Congress. But in spite of George W. Bush and the political correctness of Middle American authenticity, Middle America continues to froth at the mouth in the belief that, as Frank said, "we still have this liberal elite that sells us out, leaving criminals loose to prey on hardworking average Americans—good common folk beset by this intellectual cadre of know-it-alls who want to tell them how to run their lives."
What does Middle America get in return for their votes?
"There are some places where conservatives have done amazing things when they get into office, but it's not about values or cultural issues. It's about economics," Frank said. "They've deregulated, privatized, made free trade agreements, rolled back anti-trust enforcement, beaten back the labor movement. They've managed to keep wages down in America. They're responsible for all the things we associate with the rising tide of inequality. That's the great accomplishment of conservatism in these times. What they've given us is a bridge to the 19th century, back to a Victorian standard of income distribution.
"Pop conservatives win the blue-collar vote and the vote of average Americans based on values and cultural issues, but once in office, they never deliver. They choose cultural issues where victory is basically impossible, like the whole thing about building 10 Commandment monuments everywhere. That's such an obvious violation of church and state that of course it's going to lose. But they do it just to provoke these fights, so that their followers can feel they are victims in a liberal universe."
Frank said liberals must address Middle America if they ever want to win it back. That's where What's the Matter With Kansas? ends, leaving its readers to answer the question: What can we do about Kansas? Or, more precisely, what can we do about Rush Limbaugh's Middle America—that ocean of pop-con devotees stretching from sea to shining sea, echoing the language of the great backlash in San Bernardino, California; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Lynchburg, Virginia; Missoula, Montana; and everywhere in between?
Do we play them for suckers like the pop-cons did?
Do we promise them tax breaks and give them wars?
Do we look them in the eyes and tell them they're being had?
Do we abolish gay marriage and embrace SUVs?
Do we hire a new public-relations firm?
Do we stop drinking lattes and start hating controversial art?
Do we start a revolution?
Do we hire more focus groups?
Do we search for the liberal Limbaugh?
Or do we stay the course, keep the faith and pray that the winds of change are soon upon us?
What's the matter with Kansas? How conservatives won the Heart of America By Thomas Frank; Henry Holt & Co. Hardcover, 306 Pages, $24.
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