What’s the Matter with Kansas?, by Thomas Frank

What's the Matter with Kansas

I remember watching a talk by Noam Chomsky on TV many years ago, where he made the point that while we tend to associate propaganda with dictatorships or totalitarian regimes, you can make the case that the more “free” a society is in the conventional sense, the more effective the propaganda has to be.

The idea is, if you’re Hitler or Stalin, yes, you make up a bunch of lies and spread them through the controlled media and schools and such. But since the people creating the propaganda in a dictatorship know that anyone who dissents from the official line is subject to being imprisoned, tortured, or killed, they really don’t have to be all that persuasive. They just say things to glorify the leader, and if it’s so crude and implausible that most folks won’t believe it, so what? They’ll still give it lip service to avoid having the secret police break down their door.

So propaganda in a country like that is kind of an afterthought. You have other ways to keep people in line besides getting them to believe you and like you.

In the United States, though, Chomsky continued, even ordinary people occasionally vote and make decisions that in principle could greatly upset present power structures, and they do so under a pretty minimal threat of coercion compared to most other countries past and present. Here the propaganda stakes are much higher, and as a result you see propaganda raised to an art form. Very talented folks use all the abilities they have to spread certain beliefs that will redound to the benefit of their paymasters.

Though really a lot of it’s not as mercenary as “paymasters” implies. As Chomsky points out, much of the propaganda is so internalized by those with a stake in the system that it’s not like you have to bribe them with some additional incentive to get them to espouse it. The system sort of generates its own propaganda, not always as a result of puppetmasters intentionally pulling certain strings to get the results they want. (Key phrase being “not always.” There’s certainly no shortage of conscious lying and manipulation going on in public discourse.)

This came to mind reading What’s the Matter with Kansas?, because basically it’s about how so many voters at the bottom have been manipulated to vote against their self-interest (and I would say against rationality and morality for that matter—let’s not make it like their only flaw is not being self-interested enough) in favor of the interests of those on top.

Mostly it’s about Kansas specifically, and how it has gone from a state with a serious (leftist) radical streak to one of the reddest of red states. In broad terms, much of what the author says about Kansas is intended to be generalizable to the country as a whole, though the precise strength of the various factors at play cannot be expected to be identical from place to place.

By massive margins, non-rich Kansas voters, he says, favor candidates who, once elected, favor the rich and make things miserable for everyone else. Why?

I think the answer he gives to this question makes sense. Prior to reading the book, my answer (if the question were asked about the country as a whole, not just Kansas) would have been somewhat different, but would have overlapped substantially with his. Even now after considering the case he makes, I would probably give certain factors different weight than he does, but overall I’m mostly with him.

It’s mostly not a quantifiable, provable thing. A fair amount of his evidence is anecdotal, and his position to some extent comes down to: “This is the impression I get after talking to various ordinary people and various political insiders and such, and watching and listening to the media that influences them.” I don’t claim my position is any better grounded; I too just have various impressions based on what I’ve seen and heard from people over the years. But I’ve come to slightly different conclusions.

One factor he downplays—I’m inclined to say downplays a bit too much—is race. Multiple times he criticizes liberals for facilely dismissing conservative working class people as simple racists. Usually he seems to think this factor is exaggerated in general, though at least once he acknowledges that maybe it’s still significant in some areas of the country, but that it’s not a big factor in Kansas itself (where there aren’t even many blacks around to hate).

I don’t know. I’m sure he’s right that people shouldn’t just attribute it all to race, and then not bother with any further analysis. And I don’t disagree that the factors he thinks have more explanatory power are indeed important. But I think an awful lot of people are still motivated by some form or other of racism.

Or more broadly they are motivated by their opposition to some group like that, some “Other.” Blacks I’d say are still the main Other, but sometimes it might be gays, immigrants, atheists, etc. A vote for a conservative is a vote to protect “us” from the evil “them” that liberals and the government unjustly favor over “us.”

The author agrees that non-rich people who vote for conservatives are often doing it due to their revulsion against a certain group, but contends that that group typically isn’t a racial one (or gender, ethnic, religious, etc.).

It’s sort of a class one. In a breathtaking switcheroo, conservatives have largely succeeded in getting non-rich people to express how much they want to stick it to the rich by voting for candidates who blatantly favor the rich.

That’s because they’ve been trained to be very selective in choosing which rich or elite folks to despise. Non-rich conservative voters feel little or no resentment toward rich corporations who manipulatively market to them, control what goods and services are available, drive down their wages, crush unions, send jobs overseas, etc. Those rich are fine, especially when they loudly espouse “regular folks” values on social and religious issues and such.

The “bad” rich, or bad elites, are intellectual snobs whose education comes from classrooms and books (especially in Ivy League schools) rather than the “real world,” busybodies who try to change regular people’s lifestyles for some (perhaps environmental or social justice) reason, the politically correct commissars in the media who force people to think and talk only in liberal ways, atheist scientists who insult the religious beliefs of the common people, Hollywood and pop culture folks who are enticing the country ever further away from conventional religious morality, etc.

Basically, inauthentic, posturing, liberal snobs who constantly transmit the message that they are better than the non-elite, and that they are entitled to run the world.

As odious as their ideas are, it’s their lifestyle and image that are experienced as especially grating. You know, they wear Birkenstocks, or they drive Volvos, or they drink lattes, or whatever.

Of course even a moment’s thought reveals that the people who for the most part really do run the world have a lot of the same traits that these liberal boogeymen supposedly have. They are disproportionately educated (disproportionately at Ivy League universities), consider themselves superior to the non-rich, drive cars and wear clothes that set themselves apart from the non-rich, and on and on.

I dare say the typical fellow high up the corporate ladder is a lot more snobbish and elitist—more inclined to drink fancy French wines and strain every nerve to avoid rubbing shoulders with the masses—than the typical union official or college professor.

But somehow that doesn’t count. Anything business-related is pretty much taken off the table. If you’re a conservative, and your life is worse because of the ruthless, amoral business decisions of the economic elite, well that’s just the default, the unquestionable norm, the natural way of things in the absence of know-it-all interventions by intellectual pinhead social engineers. But vast numbers of other “liberal” things that don’t adversely affect you nearly as much (or adversely affect you only on the level of offense rather than harm, or don’t really affect you at all, or even benefit you) are so odious to you that there’s a danger your head might explode if you contemplate them too much.

So progressive taxation, the teaching of evolution, affirmative action, legal abortion, environmental regulations, etc. are all perceived as being imposed by the liberal elite to harm the masses that they have such contempt for. These—again, unlike self-interested business decisions made to further enrich the 1%—are treated as deviations from the natural order of things.

Of course this doesn’t all happen in a vacuum. It’s not like working people one day woke up and spontaneously decided to oppose anyone who favored things like higher wages and better working conditions for them. It’s the result of decades of propaganda. The Right has presented certain narratives—over and over and over and over—until these narratives are indistinguishable from reality to much of the population: Rich people got that way by working hard, anyone receiving government assistance is a freeloader taking advantage of folks like you, the ultra-rich and anyone else like you who would prefer to pay less in taxes have a common enemy in the government, regulations have the intent and effect of strangling honest business people who just want to pursue the American Dream, Christians are an oppressed minority, people on the Left don’t support “the troops,” unions selfishly grab more of the pie so there will be less for regular working people like you, etc.

One thing the author emphasizes that I completely agree with is that one of the main tactics on the Right is to paint themselves as victims. As much as they whine about minorities and women and such claiming victimhood, only maybe 10% of the most obnoxious, strident liberal “victims” achieve the level of constant self-pity as half or more of conservatives. (Not to mention that the former have more legitimate reasons to think of themselves as victims.)

The author makes the point that in Kansas at least, “wedge” issues have been very effective, especially abortion. Again, he doesn’t put nearly the emphasis on racial issues that I or many people would as explanatory of the working class’s shift rightward (e.g., the Republicans “southern strategy”), but he certainly sees abortion playing a huge role in bringing over to the conservative side massive numbers of people who otherwise would have been apolitical or even would have favored their self-interest by supporting liberal candidates and causes.

Actually much of the book isn’t even about liberal versus conservative or Democrat versus Republican. A lot of the history and politics he examines is the fight within the Republican party in Kansas, between the “moderates” and what we would now call the Tea Party types.

The moderate Republicans are hard core pro-rich economically, but typically don’t get too worked up over social issues, tend to still have some civility to them, aren’t likely to have beliefs that sound “kooky” to educated people, and are elitist in kind of the old fashion sense of thinking that people like them who are raised in the right neighborhoods and go to the right schools are supposed to run things. Those to their right, who have had increasing success in squeezing them out in recent years, are the anti-elitist, faux populist types who are obsessed with the social issues and who are just as hard core pro-rich economically, or ignore economic issues as much as possible.

One consequence of the continued success of the more extremist conservatives may be making the book just a bit dated. The author repeatedly makes the point that little or no progress is ever made on the social issues and such that the fringe folks get so worked up about. So they vote all these Republicans into office based on their hatred of social liberalism, and the Republicans are able to do nothing about that stuff while doing everything possible to further enrich those who already have the most.

Except in recent years so many Tea Party types have ended up in government that now they can pursue their social agenda as something more than a cover for their economic agenda (at the state level more than the federal level).

Abortion is probably the most dramatic case. For a long time the right to abortion has been whittled away in small ways, but these last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the movement in that direction. State after state has passed draconian legislation making abortion as difficult as possible to obtain, including by using blatantly dishonest means to close clinics that offer abortion services. Unless and until Roe v. Wade is overturned abortion is still a right, but more and more it’s becoming a right that exists only on paper.

So it’s not just rhetoric. Sometimes conservative officeholders actually do the things they insist they want to do. They always still do all the pro-corporate and anti-worker stuff too, but they win some victories here and there on the social issues that their base is so passionate about.

The book is maybe 98% about what the conservatives are doing to win the propaganda war versus 2% about what the liberals are doing to lose it, but at the end the author does address the failures of the Democrats.

As he sees it, Democrats stopped championing the economic interests of working people and instead put the bulk of their efforts into social issues, while signaling to the business class that really they were just about as pro-business as Republicans. The idea being that that way they could keep the poor and minorities and such (where else would they go, after all?), while grabbing a lot of the “sensible” conservatives like the beleaguered Kansas moderate Republicans. So, “You can make the same unimaginable gobs of money under our leadership, but without weird religious nuts trying to turn the country into a Christian theocracy, and without the racists and demagogues and such you’ve had to endure in the Republican party.”

But what’s happened, he says, is that by muting their economic appeals to working people, they only gained a pittance of the moderate Republican types, while losing massive numbers of working class people who now focus on guns and abortion and such when the parties are largely indistinguishable on economic policy. And even if they got enough Republican moderate types to switch sides to offset their losses amongst the white working class, what kind of an accomplishment is that? You haven’t beaten the Republicans with that strategy, you’ve joined them.

I think there’s plenty of truth to that, though I’d point out that there have always been individuals amongst the Democrats in higher office that that wouldn’t describe at all, e.g., Paul Wellstone, Elizabeth Warren, etc. Not all Democrats ended up in the Democratic Leadership Council.

Anyway, I’m mostly rambling just to get various thoughts down—and there’s a lot more on my mind—but I’ll wrap it up by asking if there is any reason for hope.

I’m mostly a pessimist on that score. The author sometimes tries to present the non-rich conservatives of Kansas sympathetically, sometimes tries to avoid describing them like they are blithering idiots who’ve fallen hook, line, and sinker for the lying propaganda of Limbaugh and Coulter and such. But when you get right down to it, really the message of the book—much as he might not want to say it—is that there are a massive number of working class people who are dumb enough to have been duped into voting contrary to their self-interest.

If people—not just a fringe, but a large chunk of the population—are dumb enough to fall for the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, how could one have hope?

Maybe, as the author urges, Democrats will get better at messaging and will return to fighting for the economic interests of the non-rich, but I don’t know that that will do the trick. They’ll still be facing a foe with almost unlimited resources to establish the narratives in the public mind that they want, and with no compunction about lying and manipulating to get their way, and most of the public will still be idiots governed by their emotions who think their religion is being persecuted if they hear “Happy holidays!” more often in place of “Merry Christmas!”

The right wing propaganda is really, really effective. I wish it wasn’t, but it is. I know multiple people who would consider themselves moderate or even liberal who will drop into the conversation various nuggets they picked up from Fox News, and say them like they’re obvious facts that “everyone knows,” at least everyone who is not a doctrinaire leftist.

Maybe that hasn’t yet made them switch sides to vote for conservatives, but if they’re already parroting some of the lies, you have to wonder how long it’ll be before they do switch.

Then again, I’m also of the opinion that these things are nearly impossible to predict. Ten years ago I would have thought there was a less than 1% chance that American society would have moved as much as it has on gay rights and even gay marriage.

Maybe there’s something that can be done to get the Archie Bunkers of the world to vote for Paul Wellstone over Lester Maddox, and maybe the Democrats will be willing to do that something, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? is a solid, thought-provoking book that if it’s not right on the money is close enough to be worthwhile.


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