What’s The Matter With Kansas?

Thomas Frank, in his 2004 book, What’s The Matter With Kansas? sees Republicans as the evil party of the rich, Democrats as the saintly party of working folks, and it infuriates him that so many working folks nevertheless vote Republican. They are, he says, duped by “culture” issues like abortion, prayer, and guns, as Trojan horses for Republican economic policies ruinous for them.

Frank mocks the red state/blue state stereotypes of effete latte-drinking coastal liberals versus down-to-earth Middle Americans. Yet his book reeks venomous contempt for Middle Americans – at least those who vote Republican – whom he calls “deranged” and “lunatics.”

It does flummox guys like him when people vote what they see as their values, rather than (what guys like him see as) their economic self-interest. In other words, they’re insufficiently materialistic. And these same pundits in other contexts denounce “money-worshipping” American materialism. How very odd.

In Frank’s view, all Republicans want is to fatten corporate profits and enrich plutocrats at the expense of ordinary Americans – whom they care nothing for, or actually thirst to impoverish, for some unexplained malign reason.

There’s something here I don’t get. Where is all this corporate profit supposed to come from? If ordinary folks are being driven to the wall, by these economic policies, then who’s going to buy all the products that corporations produce and sell to get those profits?

Frank’s ultimate villain is “unrestrained” capitalism, an evil criminal system, a “bad” economic idea that Republicans supposedly insanely worship. But that’s a straw man. We don’t have unrestrained capitalism, and no one advocates it. Businesses are subject to laws just like individuals are. What we do have is people supplying the needs and wants of others, motivated by, and compensated by, earnings. Missing from Frank’s book is any hint of an alternative economic system capable of giving us the “good jobs at good wages” whose supposed disappearance he bemoans. His sort seem to think we can somehow have good jobs at good wages without good businesses earning good profits. Talk about voodoo economics!

That’s one fundamental reason why it’s debatable that Democratic economic policies truly do favor working people. For working people to prosper, you need an economy full of vibrant businesses that can successfully compete in the global economy. Democrats never seem to embrace this reality. Further, through most of U.S. history, Democrats – especially those old-time prairie radicals whom Frank lionizes – understood perfectly how protectionism favors business interests over those of working people, consumers, and the nation as a whole. Somewhere along the line, Democrats lost their bearings on this issue. And so they pander to economic ignorance by condemning outsourcing, which is actually a way for U.S. businesses to maintain global competitiveness — without which they cannot employ any Americans.

I read this book, with its bleak portrayal of supposed middle class destruction, while on a cruise – no “budget” cruise, mind you – but I saw no one who looked like a fatcat. No, these passengers were the most ordinary of Americans (including much ethnic diversity) – obviously able to afford a luxury vacation which, not so long ago, would have been only for the richest few. That mass affluence is what capitalism has actually given us. And I noted too the thousand ways in which the cruise line (Celebrity) strove to give its customers a great time, so they’ll go home and talk it up to their friends. That’s how this competitive corporation was garnering its profits. That is capitalism, Adam Smith style. (I wonder if you’d get nightly chocolates on your pillow on a government-run cruise line.)

I’m fed up with the polemical style epitomized by Frank’s book, demonizing opposing viewpoints and imputing evil motives. It’s disgusting and it’s poisoning our politics. I threw the book away after subjecting myself to only half.

3 Responses to “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”

  1. Timberati Says:

    While I can understand your frustration. I think it may be slightly misplaced. I gave Frank the benefit of the doubt (especially since I saw GW Bush dismantling the fiscal policies put in place under Clinton that had balanced the budget for the first time in 40 years) since he’s writing this during the Bush II years. I think what Franks would have better said was the corporate welfare system that the big businesses set up (again under Bush I, Bush II, and Reagan) was not in the poor’s interest.

    Corporations try to get gov’t favors and handouts which hurts free trade and thereby hurts the poor. Corporations try to get monopolies which hurt the poor.

    Frank also notes that the Kansans have lost their populism (not a bad thing in my opinion) and have been sold out by big business simply for their vote on issues important to the Chistianists which the Republicans know will not pass.

    FSR REPLY: I agree with you about corporate welfare, but this is hardly an exclusively Republican thing. Democrats are equally guilty (look at GM & Chrysler!), especially when it comes to protectionism, though Republicans are not a whole lot better on that issue. I believe in the free market — not a government-meddled market. The former is good for average people — the latter is not. While of course we do need laws against anti-social business behavior, just like laws against anti-social individual acts, that kind of government oversight, which actually helps the market to function properly, is a very different thing from the kind of interventionism that promotes particular business interests. Government should strive for an economic environment that is conducive to business generally — not help particular individual businesses, which distorts the free market.

  2. Timberati Says:

    I think we have over-lapping agreement. Free markets in goods and services that are consumed relatively quickly (haircuts and hamburgers are what Ridley cites) are good and need very little oversight (though there are bad eggs–pun intended–in these arenas too).

    Interestingly, the Economist magazine just printed an apology of sorts about the GM & Chrysler bailouts, saying overall the federal government handled them well and in many ways acted as a bankruptcy court might.

  3. Lee Says:

    The failure of the dominant businesses in Detroit is not just an intellectual exercise in capitalism. With mass layoffs, there would be many people who could no longer spend as much as they used to; businesses from pizzarias to coin collectors that were otherwise running excellently could be caught up and destroyed, as businesses dominoed into bankruptcy. The economy of the whole city could evaporate, leaving destitution and starvation. As people leave to find jobs, we are left with a wasteland. People would be afraid to open pizzarias in places that might possibly tip this way, with ramifications throughout the country. Sure, capitalism is much more efficient at getting out the chaff, but this scenario is too much too fast. If a government takeover isn’t the right answer, what is?

    But that’s the exception not the rule. I rate Obama and the Democrats as comparable to Bush and the Republicans in terms of being owned by the corporates who rob our government / us.

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