What's the Matter with Kansas?

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is one of those books that covers a generational trend without explicitly stating it or possibly even realizing it. In this case it’s about the rise of Boomers in politics, and how they have transformed it from the realm of material policy (as it was pre-1960s) to the realm of values (as it has been ever since). Generation X has jumped onto this bandwagon - witness the blogosphere, where Gen-Xers endlessly overwork the arguments that Boomers have started.

In Frank’s book we see how the transformation of politics into a culture war has empowered the Republicans and brought ruin to the Democrats. Frank uses his home state of Kansas as a showcase, explaining how a conservative backlash of Middle Americans has struck out at the “trendy East Coast liberal elite,” voted solidly Republican, and destroyed its own economic fortunes by handing power not to themselves, but to the very elites they proclaim to be resisting. Snobbish upper crust liberals, after all, benefit more than most from the Bush tax cuts. This is something John Kerry did try to explain to the American people during the domestic policy national debates, but apparently they didn’t get it.

As Frank describes it, this oddity is an inversion of the subversive politics of Kansas’ radical leftist past, and also a lamentable disaster. The culture war in politics is a smokescreen for the accretion of power to the corporate right, which uses the GOP as its policy lever, aided by the rubes who vote ignorantly for anti-abortion and anti-evolution candidates who can never deliver the promised cultural salvation, since it is by definition impossible to achieve.

Frank uses Kansas Senator Sam Brownback as an example of the quintessential culture warrior and smoke and mirrors showman. Brownback is a Boomer with perfect conservative “red state” credentials – religious, pro-life, supremely concerned about the moral sewer into which America has sunk. And, coincidentally, a member of one of the state’s wealthiest families.

Sam Brownback is detracted by many as a hypocritical CEO-loving GOP crony, but admired by others as a champion of the downtrodden: defending the rights of Christians persecuted in foreign lands, and of the victims of human trafficking. One of the main theses of Frank’s book is that values-laden politics is hollow, so Brownback’s causes have no reality to them: how can he meaningfully affect the welfare of these persecuted peoples from his Senate seat?

This is where Frank fails to understand the significance of Senator Brownback’s generation and its lifecycle. At this stage of its existence, the Boomer generation is poised to take complete command of America’s values domain and lead the nation in a new era of radical transformation in the public sphere and of political action with extreme material consequence. We’re already getting a hint of that with the efforts to reform Social Security, and to stabilize and rebuild Iraq. And we haven’t even begun to see the fight over judicial nominations really get going.

The subtitle of Frank’s book is “How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” He seems to have accepted that the country has achieved a values consensus, or at least a majority point of view. So what’s his beef? It’s that these values are used by politicians in a shell game, for the aggrandizement of the elites - since values don’t actually translate into public policy in the final analysis. What’s missing is the will to enact sweeping reforms with far-reaching effects. Once that gets underway, everything should finally make sense to Thomas Frank.

Imagine, if you will, a President Sam Brownback. He knows the greatest poverty and oppression in the world lies in the continent of Africa, which is also where the greatest terrorist threat now lives, since Al-Qaeda has fled there after the Middle East has finally been stabilized. Imagine serious nation-building efforts to raise up the poorest of the poor African countries, which might include invasions to depose an intransigent dictator or two. Imagine a corps a hundred thousand strong of enthusiastic young Millennials, guided by competent middle-aged Gen-Xers, joining up to serve in one or two year tours, helping to build infrastructure and train indigenous peoples and do police work. This would be Boomer values finally bearing fruition, and a chance to shake off the hypocrisy charge for good.

Year: 2004
Author: Thomas Frank (Generation X, born 1965)

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