It’s rare that a single book encapsulates an entire misbegotten mindset, but What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank manages the trick. Frank, a journalist and native Kansan who has written articles for Harper’s and The Nation, and whom the Los Angeles Times has called “one of our most insightful social observers,” argues that hardworking blue collar Kansans have been duped into voting against “their fundamental interests” — as evidenced by their consistent support of Republican candidates. According to Frank, the poor deluded hicks fail to realize that Democrats are their true allies because they favor redistributionist monetary policies and expanded government entitlements, whereas all the Republicans want to do is give tax breaks to their rich friends. The workers, in effect, are siding with their bosses. The oppressed are advancing the interests of their oppressors.
How do conservatives manage to hoodwink the good folks of Kansas? Frank’s thesis is that they tailor their message. By harping on cultural issues like abortion rights and religious freedom, and inveighing against the liberal elite of New York, Hollywood and academia, commentators like Rush Limbaugh manage to convince average workers that their true allies are Republicans — whose principal goal is to exploit them economically. The premise here, of course, is that cultural issues are mere distractions. What matters, in reality, is always economics.
But that raises a rather intriguing paradox. By Frank’s logic, liberals like him should be Republicans. If economic advantage constitutes a person’s paramount interest, indeed his only interest, then Frank himself, who’s no doubt netting a tidy sum with his current bestseller, should logically favor policies which allow him to keep as much of his income as possible. Yet Democrats want to raise taxes. So how can Frank support the Democratic Party?
The answer is that enlightened liberals, quite naturally, care about things besides their narrow economic interests. What’s unnatural, at least from Frank’s point of view, is for rubes out in Kansas to feel the same way. After all, Frank knows what’s good for them.
Call it a hunch, but maybe one reason Kansans are so conservative is the preening, condescending attitude of liberals like Frank.
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