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How the Other Half Votes | The Nation

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How the Other Half Votes

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In 1991 the national pro-life movement staged a summer of civil disobedience in Wichita. Successful beyond expectations, it launched the religious right into Kansas politics. Their long march through the state Republican machine, against the startled and increasingly bitter opposition of the moderate establishment, is the central thread of What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank follows their contest through sermons, pamphlets, websites, diligent trawling of the Wichita, Topeka, and Kansas City press, and, most engagingly, many interviews. Indeed, much of the book is given over to Frank's respectful, bemused portrayal of these righteous rebels. Some are opportunists, steering their political careers before the prevailing ideological wind. (Senator Sam Brownback, for example, though undoubtedly pious, seems also to have a remarkable eye for the main chance.) Some are crackpots, like the ultra-ultra-orthodox Catholic man in a farmhouse on the prairie, elected Pope by his five followers. Most are earnest, thoughtful, unselfish and hardworking.

About the Author

George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern...

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To none of them, however, does it ever seem to occur that untrammeled capitalism may not ultimately be conducive to godliness, tradition and community. Family farms and the small towns they supported disappear into the maw of Archer Daniels Midland, thanks to Republican-authored agricultural deregulation. Tyson and Cargill build vast feedlots and slaughterhouses in western Kansas, staffed by low-wage immigrants with few benefits and comparatively free of pesky meat inspectors and occupational-safety monitors, thanks to Republican-imposed budget-cutting and anti-union policies. Boeing, the largest employer in Wichita, threatens to move, so the state legislature votes the company a $500 million interest-free bond issue, despite the worst budget shortfall in Kansas history and with predictable effects on teacher salaries--all this thanks to Republican (and Democratic) free-trade policies.

But none of this shakes the grassroots rebels' devotion to the free market. "Out here," Frank observes incredulously, "the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, farther to the right. Strip today's Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they're protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there's a good chance they'll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower."

Why, we liberals splutter, this amazing obtuseness? What's the matter with these Kansans? A non-rich Republican is already a puzzle; and surely these noisy champions of stability and other old-fashioned values can't help noticing that what laissez-faire means, at least for little people, is that everything solid melts into air? Why haven't they stayed and taken over the Democratic Party, where they belong, or at least thrown the plutocrats out of the Republican Party, leaving them to wander in the political wilderness where they belong?

The answer, apparently, is anti-intellectualism. Grassroots conservatives have convinced themselves--with a great deal of help from what David Brock's important new book calls "the Republican Noise Machine"--that secular intellectuals form a class (yes, the fabled "New Class") with designs on state power and popular liberties. The ravages of the market, in this view, are a misfortune, a kind of natural disaster; but the impositions of state power are potentially something worse: a tyranny. Making money is natural, therefore innocent; thinking is artificial, therefore dangerous. A Great Depression is natural and self-limiting; a New Deal is artificial and self-expanding. No doubt the tremendous residual power of anticommunism in the American mind helps explain this prejudice, for although the New Class theory finds practically no support in American history, where the state has nearly always been thoroughly subordinate to business, it does find considerable support in the dire history of Leninism, which was, after all, a tyranny of intellectuals.

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