August 20, 2004


Presenting a political riddle
by Rhiannon Ross

"Daddy," I say to my 71-year-old father. "The Republican Party does not represent you."

My father runs a small business in the southwest corner of Missouri — a "stone's throw" from the Kansas border.

Thomas Frank, author of the controversial book, What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan Books, 2004), agrees. He asserts that heartland populists who vote Republican are voting against their economic self-interests. He calls that way of thinking, "deranged."

While I would never call my father deranged, not even behind his back, Frank makes a valid point. Big Business politics do not economically benefit the small businessman, the assembly line worker or the farmer…no matter which side of the rainbow they call home.

My father, however, has always been a Republican. For him, less government is more...more freedom from government interference in both his financial and personal affairs, and more freedom to succeed or fail on his own terms. And he doesn't believe the very rich owe him a wooden nickel.

But the voters Frank targets are heartland Democrats who have switched to the Republican Party. This includes his father.
Frank blames this sociological phenomenon on what he terms the "Great Backlash," an ultra-conservative response to the decadent ‘60s.

"While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues, summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art — which it then marries to pro-business economic policies."

This Great Backlash, says Frank, also has created a new divide within the Republican Party, manifesting itself as a "Culture War" between the conservatives or "Cons" and the moderates or "Mods." One of today's most controversial cultural issues within the party is abortion.

So how does all of this impact the populist?

Today's populist, says Frank, has been abandoned by the Democratic Party, which increasingly supports pro-business initiatives and pursues Mod campaign dollars. So the populist responds to the only significant differences that remain between the parties: cultural values.

Frank accuses the politically shrewd — primarily the Cons — of using cultural values to their advantage. "Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends," he says.

The Democratic Party also is guilty, charges Frank, of ignoring class differences or the "Two Americas."

In sociology, the term "Two Americas" refers to the unequal distribution of wealth, the rich and the poor. However, since the 2000 election, it has come to represent the conservative vs. progressive agenda, now colorized on the political map as red states vs. blue states.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, by selecting John Edwards as his vice presidential running mate, has chosen to adopt the original meaning of the Two Americas as part of his party platform.

But is this enough to lure the populist sons and daughters home to the Democratic Party? And if not, how do these new converts of the Republican way rationalize the outsourcing of jobs and the increased violations of privacy rights occurring under a Republican regime? Perhaps the deeper reality, suggests Frank, is that neither party represents the populist but exists only to serve the U.S. plutocracy.

Frank borrows his title from an essay of the same name written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Kansas journalist William Allen White, who criticized 19th century Populists or the People's Party (not to be confused with today's populists or common wo/man) for their support of socialism. White, however, would later discount the essay.

Frank chose Kansas — his home state — because the political transformation here has been dramatic: "A reliable hotbed of leftist reform movements a hundred years ago that today ranks among the nation's most eager audiences for bearers of backlash buncombe."

Kansas, he says, also serves as a microcosm of the economic deterioration that occurs when working class towns and family farms embrace the Republican agenda.

But Wal-Mart and ConAgra aren't the only forces on the prairie that have contributed to its financial decline. Other factors deserve consideration, such as increasing drought (Kansas is facing the Second Coming of the Dust Bowl), the usual exodus of the young, the decline of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the Information Age.

Overall, Frank's research is impressive — he interviewed state legislators, professors and reporters, as well as referenced information from archived news articles, books and statistics. But he neglects to mention a key piece of worker's legislation. Kansas, along with 21 other states, including heartland states Nebraska and Iowa, is a Right to Work state. Right to Work states do not require workers to join unions. The outcome usually means lower wages for employees of Big Business. In Kansas, Right to Work is another example of how the state booted government regulations — and any possible protections given to workers — out of residents’ lives.

Frank also tends to write in the same condescending tone he says Republicans despise in progressives; the tone he claims drives the poor and uneducated away from what they perceive as the "elitist" — and increasingly "Hollywood" — Democratic message.

In his introduction, he says, "For us it is the Democrats that are the party of workers, of the poor, of the weak and the victimized. Understanding this, we think, is basic; it is part of the ABCs of adulthood."

But perhaps what we detect here is not arrogance but anger.

And it's easy to understand why Frank is angry, why perhaps we all should be angry. For far too many, The American Dream has become The American Illusion, where fewer have more and more have less.

Rhiannon Ross lives in Kansas. She can be contacted at or


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