Among the Intellectualoids

What’s the Matter With Thomas Frank?

He hasn't changed, even if the new documentary based on his book undercuts the book's patronizing arguments.

By 3.22.10

Directed by Joe Winston and Laura Cohen, the documentary version of Thomas Frank's book What's The Matter With Kansas? has just been released. Its timing could not be better given the new level of honesty that many liberal pundits have descended to in recent months.

As the American public has become more and more opposed to President Obama's agenda, many in the intelligentsia have responded with outright condescension and contempt.

When polls showed that a majority of Americans though the stimulus had been wasted Joe Klein of Time thundered, "It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you're a nation of dodos." When Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., suggested turning Medicare into a voucher system through which seniors would purchase their own insurance policies, Jonathan Cohn at the New Republic claimed "it's not clear how many seniors really have the ability to navigate the world of health care with the sort of sophistication to really hunt down the most cost-effective care, even if, as Ryan promises, they'd have more information at their disposal." Richard Cohen recently lamented that the one of the main reasons health care reform hadn't passed was that "the country suffers from a surfeit of democracy." Frustrated that cap-and-trade legislation was going no where in the U.S. Senate, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman let off a bizarre missive in which he claimed that one-party autocracy was better than democracy "when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today."

What is intriguing about these instances is that they come from people who are usually very circumspect and subtle about their condescension and contempt and worried that they should at least show some respect for the majority of Americans.

One person who has never suffered such compunction is left-wing polemicist Thomas Frank. In 2004, Frank published What's The Matter With Kansas?, the quintessential lament about people who don't realize that their true interests are in voting for politicians who support liberal policies.

On page one of his book Frank declares that "People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about." In short, Republicans and conservatives hoodwink much of the middle class, like those good people in Kansas, into believing that what really matters are the social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. In so doing, those people overlook the GOP and conservatives' economic policies that benefit the wealthy but harm the common folk.

"American conservatism depends on its continued dominance and even for its very existence on people never making connections about the world, connections that until recent were treated as obvious or self-evident everywhere on the planet," writes Frank. Those connections include the ones "between the small towns (people) profess to love and the market forces that are slowly grinding those small towns backing into the red-state dust." This "country seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion…of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life."

Frank's book paints a bleak picture of the Midwest. Yet, somehow, that gets lost in the documentary, to the point that viewers seem to notice. After a showing at Washington D.C.'s E Street Cinema last Friday, Frank and Winston put in an appearance to answer audience questions. One gentleman asked, "The theme of the book…was that people really wound up voting against their own interest. Do you feel that the movie really portrays that?"

Frank's response was in character: "It's there in the movie, you sometimes have to keep your eyes open. There are so many beautiful, ironic juxtapositions. You have to keep your eyes open. Look, I've seen it twenty times, okay." He referred to main streets that were boarded up and a scene that shows a crumbling building at the corner of 1st and Main Street.

Yet if phenomenon of people voting against their economic interests is rampant, as Frank claims in the book, then why is it so hard to find in the film? Why do most of the people in the movie seem to be doing rather well financially? Two of the families profiled, the Williards and the Bardens, live in rather nice middle-class homes. The Bardens are able to send their daughter to Patrick Henry College in Virginia. The Williards live in a nice house on a farm. Later in the film, it is reported that the Williard husband loses $300,000 in an investment scheme. While the result is tragic, if the Williards are voting against their economic interests, then how did they have that kind of money to invest in the first place?

Indeed, the movie undermines, albeit unintentionally, Frank's thesis. The Williard wife, Angel, started living with a man shortly after she left for college. She became pregnant by that man, dropped out of school, and gave birth to a disabled son. The boy's father was abusive to her, so much so that she contemplated suicide. She eventually asked God for guidance.

Following this, she returned to Kansas, and became involved in religion. Her new lifestyle led her to a husband who works as an emergency room physician, three beautiful daughters and a farm.

In Angel's experience, it's not hard to see how social issues are connected to economic experiences. Much research demonstrates that there are few ways that a woman is more likely to trap herself in poverty than by having a child out of wedlock-- a fate that Angel nearly suffered. By turning to religion and settling into a family life, she appears to have prospered.

Perhaps the folks in Kansas know a lot better what their interests are than Frank thinks they do.

I asked Frank why his hometown of Shawnee, Kansas, didn't make an appearance in the film. Also lacking was Johnson County in which Shawnee is located and whose economic situation Frank so laments in his book.

Frank replied that while Winston did film in Johnson County, he didn't use it so he could keep "geographic unity" in the movie. Winston didn't address the question.

Perhaps the concern was geographic unity. Or perhaps it's that we'd have seen a Johnson County not much like the one Frank describes in the book. As Steven Malanga pointed out, "Shawnee and the rest of Johnson County, have done especially well. For three years in the 1990s, the Shawnee area's unemployment rate actually dipped below 3%, making it one of the tightest labor markets anywhere." Furthermore, "And though Mr. Frank describes the place as practically desolate, Shawnee's population grew by a robust 27% during the 1990s. Even more astonishing, today, only 3.3% of its citizens live below the poverty level, compared with about 12.5% nationally."

Polemical works like Frank's tend to reveal more about their authors that they do about the people they are supposedly studying. For Frank it is axiomatic the leftist ideas lead to better economic results than conservative ones. If people are voting for conservative politicians, then those folks must be deluded somehow.

A genuine examination might actually ask these people about their economic situation and how that is related to social issues that they care about. If Frank were to do that, he might have to end up questioning whether liberal ideas really do lead to better results. Yet Frank suffers from what Thomas Sowell calls "The Vision of the Anointed." It is a vision held by many intellectuals in our society, a belief in their own superior knowledge and virtue that leads to a belief that they are an anointed elite who is qualified to make decisions for the rest of us in order to lead humanity to a better life. (For more on the incentive and constraints that foster this type of thinking, see Thomas Sowell's great new work, Intellectuals and Society.) To acknowledge that the people of Kansas are best suited to know their own interest and vote accordingly would mean that Frank would have to give up his belief in his superior knowledge and virtue.

At the end of the talk Friday, Frank stated that he was working on a new book about the Tea Party movement. Readers beware…If his new book is much like What's The Matter With Kansas?, you can look forward to learning more about Frank's sense of moral superiority than what motivates Tea Partiers.


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About the Author

David Hogberg is a writer living in Maryland.  He is author of the book, Medicare’s Victims: How the U.S. Government’s Largest Health Care Program Harms Patients and Impairs Physicians.