For years the battle raged across my family’s kitchen table. My second-generation, inner-city, working-class parents complained angrily about welfare fraud, affirmative action, the coddling of criminals, too-welcoming immigration policies and overly generous foreign aid, while honest, hard-working Americans like themselves, “born in this country,” couldn’t get a break. My older brother sometimes joined them but mostly sat back and enjoyed my exasperation as I, the college boy, insisted shrilly but unpersuasively that all their anecdotes were just exceptions, that liberal policies were essentially fair and rational, and that instead of blaming the unfortunate they should make common cause with other little people against the rich, who, for some reason, were completely off their radar screen. Fortunately, the habits of a lifetime kept them from ever voting Republican. But what Thomas Frank calls “the Great Backlash” had won their hearts.
The central electoral phenomenon of the past thirty-five years has been the movement of working-class and lower-middle-class voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Some were Nixon Democrats, who supported the Vietnam War or were outraged by its more flamboyant opponents. Some were Wallace Democrats, who objected to busing or affirmative action and resented the pointy-headed judges and bureaucrats who imposed them. Some were Reagan Democrats, who wanted to feel good again after Jimmy Carter informed them of their malaise. Some were antiabortion Democrats, mobilized after Roe v. Wade by a newly assertive Catholic and evangelical Protestant leadership, or anti-Hollywood Democrats, offended by television’s reflection of changed attitudes to sex and authority. All had once felt a traditional allegiance to the party of FDR and the New Deal, which had been their charter of inclusion in American prosperity. No longer.
Instead, they now vote for the party that has engineered their exclusion. Real wages in the United States are roughly the same now as they were in 1980; fewer jobs provide adequate health or retirement benefits; the percentage of working people protected by unions has declined precipitously; unemployment benefits are less generous; and the federal government’s finances are so gravely impaired that Social Security and Medicare benefits may well be reduced and/or delayed, beginning with the next generation of retirees. At the same time, financial profits and the income of the richest Americans have increased dramatically. That most of the blame for all this can be laid at the door of Republican tax, labor, regulatory, agricultural, antitrust and trade policies has not shaken the allegiance of these working-class and lower-middle-class Republicans. It is, for some reason, completely off their radar screen.
The apparent blindness of the backlashers to their self-victimization has long made many of us crazy. Tom Frank has gone home to get to the bottom of it. Instead of shouting futilely across the kitchen table, he has turned his quarrel with his home state into a brilliant book, one of the best so far this decade on American politics.
Kansas has a radical past, Frank tells us. It was first settled by Free Soilers, supported by New England abolitionists, to prevent slavery spreading west from Missouri. Later in the century the Populist movement flourished in Kansas, sweeping elections statewide. One US senator whom they voted out of office complained that “for a generation, Kansas has been the testing-ground for every experiment in morals, politics, and social life.” A classic political essay ridiculing the Populists, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, gave Frank his title. Even after Populism’s defeat, Kansas kept the faith: The famous Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason was published there.
A century later Kansans are still raising hell. But they’ve given up fighting the “money power” that obsessed their Populist and Socialist forebears. Now they’re fighting for the money power. The descendants of the Eastern bankers and tycoons who drove nineteenth-century farmers, artisans and shopkeepers off the land or into bankruptcy are ConAgra, Boeing and Wal-Mart, who are turning farmers into virtual sharecroppers, eliminating union jobs and laying waste the small-town culture that conservatives claim to cherish. But they are doing this without a peep of protest from the fired-up grassroots activists who have taken over the Kansas Republican Party. On the contrary: Populist radicalism in Kansas today, though its causes are moral and religious, is fervently antigovernment and pro-free market, even as market forces devastate Kansas’s social and economic landscape.