Vexations of the Heartland

What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart
of America

By Thomas Frank • Metropolitan Books • 320 PAGES• $24.00

Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts From the Heart of
America

By Garrison Keillor • Viking • 237 PAGES • $19.95

Few developments have changed American politics more in the past generation than the Republican breakthrough into blue-collar America. White working-class voters were a pillar of the New Deal coalition that allowed Democrats to dominate national politics for the generation after Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But those voters began turning away from Democrats amid the cultural tumult of the 1960s, and the party has never entirely regained their allegiance. From the “silent majority” of Richard Nixon's era to the “Reagan Democrats” who flocked to Ronald Reagan, the angry white men of the 1990s, and the churchgoing legions who backed George W. Bush in 2000, voters of modest means have become central to the Republican political strategy.

This fundamental shift remains a source of endless frustration and puzzlement for liberals. While working-class voters migrated toward the GOP over the past 35 years, Republicans have regularly pursued economic policies, particularly in slashing the top income-tax rates, that offer far greater benefits to the most affluent than to their new constituents. Recently, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that 32 percent of the benefits of Bush's tax cuts fell to just the top 1 percent of earners.

Such numbers leave author Thomas Frank somewhere between stupefied and exasperated in his crisp, impassioned, and often elegant book. He presents the affinity for the GOP among working-class voters as a “derangement” that makes no more sense than if the cattle somehow conspired to help sharpen the knives at the slaughterhouse. “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about,” Frank writes on his very first page. “This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.”

Frank takes his title from an 1896 essay in which Kansas journalist William Allen White, editor of The Emporia Gazette, eviscerated the left-wing populist followers of William Jennings Bryan. Frank, also a native Kansan, similarly wants to explain and puncture the conservative populism that has powered the GOP advance into working-class America since the 1960s.

Frank is a talented stylist and engaging storyteller, and his stew of memoir, journalism, and essay produces many fresh insights. But ultimately his explanation for the success of populism on the right is too narrow, and his analysis of the Democratic response, especially under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, too simplistic. The paradoxical result is a book that, for all its virtues, is too sanguine about the electoral challenge Democrats face and too pessimistic about their ability to overcome it.

Frank tells his story largely through the experience of Kansas, where a moderate Republican establishment that gave the nation Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Dole, and Nancy Kassebaum has been overwhelmed by the rise of blue-collar conservative activists driven almost entirely by such social issues as opposition to abortion. As Frank explores his own conversion from right to left, recounts the dizzying internecine warfare between moderates and conservatives in the Kansas GOP, and visits an assortment of true believers, the results are entertaining and earnest. Frank sometimes lets his disdain for the right cloud his understanding; he seems incapable, for example, of imagining that social issues might trump material concerns for some middle-income voters. But he is often funny and rarely condescending.

Yet because Kansas has been reliably Republican roughly forever, Frank's story is mostly useful in explaining the generational change in the GOP that has marginalized moderates and elevated conservatives -- a change neatly encapsulated by the distance between George Bush Senior's in-box presidency and his son's crusading conservatism.

Frank has larger aims. Expanding from the Kansas experience, he presents the GOP renaissance since the 1960s as the fruit of a simple but brilliantly executed sleight of hand: an agenda that distracts the masses with cultural grievances while showering economic benefits on the very elite the masses are directed to despise. “Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends,” he writes, summarizing his 320 pages with admirable concision.

The great success of conservative populism, he concludes, has been to change the way millions of average Americans think about liberalism. In Roosevelt's era, Americans saw liberalism mostly as a means of protecting the economic interests of average families. Now, Frank argues, conservatives have effectively redefined liberalism as an agenda with principal goals that are cultural rather than economic. “Whatever the target,” he writes, “the conservative social critique always boils down to the same simple message, liberalism … is an affectation of the loathsome rich, as bizarre as their taste for Corgi dogs and extra-virgin olive oil.” I'm not sure what a Corgi dog is, but I'm guessing you wouldn't find many of them yelping out the window of a pickup truck.

Socially conservative and religiously devout voters have indeed become the bedrock of the GOP coalition: In 2000, white voters who attended church more than once a week voted for Bush over Al Gore by about 4 to 1. But Frank errs by emphasizing cultural issues to the virtual exclusion of all others in explaining the Democrats' retreat among the white working class. That narrow focus may be understandable given his book's grounding in Kansas, where social issues -- from abortion to the teaching of evolution -- have generated most of the past decade's political turmoil. Yet by slighting other factors that have fueled the GOP's breakthroughs, he minimizes the breadth of the challenge Democrats face with working families.

Frank touches on the role of racially tinged issues, from crime to welfare, in dissolving the Democrats' ties to working-class voters. Those issues provided a strong tailwind for the gop in working- and middle-class white communities from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, but Frank is right that liberals are too quick to blame their setbacks solely on coded appeals to racism. And however powerful those issues were earlier, they lost much of their sting as Clinton's policies both contributed to a decline in crime and welfare dependency and left the Democrats holding much more centrist ground on both fronts.

But Frank says almost nothing about the role of anti-government populism and issues of national security and strength in the realignment of working-class America. Yet both rival cultural issues as assets for the GOP. Republicans have won blue-collar support for tax cuts not only by diverting attention to cultural issues but also because millions of Americans have concluded that government either wastes their taxes or lavishes their hard-earned money on the undeserving poor. Frank's silence on the GOP's effective use of security issues over the past generation is even odder, especially in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. From Richard Nixon through George W. Bush, Republicans have benefited from a reputation for defending the nation more forcefully.

And though the war in Iraq has strained confidence in Bush's management of national security, polls show his determination to emphasize military force in combating terrorism generally finds more support on the assembly line than in the office parks. In a survey last year, researchers at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked Americans whether they agreed with the statement, “The best way to ensure peace is through military strength.” Lower-income voters and those with only high-school educations were much more likely to agree than the affluent and those with college degrees.

The wrong diagnosis of the Democratic dilemma leads Frank to the wrong solution. He wants Democrats to abandon their efforts to court upper-income voters who share the party's views on social issues and instead to amplify the volume on economic populism. The Democrats' recent experience challenges that prescription on both counts. In 2000, Gore thumped the populist tub as loudly as any liberal critic could demand. Yet his promise to represent “the people” against “the powerful” wasn't enough to stop Bush from winning most white working-class votes. Conversely, Clinton's two victories demonstrated that it was possible for Democrats to expand their electoral appeal up the income ladder while delivering tangible benefits for lower- and middle-income families.

Like many on the left, Frank casually assumes that Clinton (and the Democratic Leadership Council that hatched many of his ideas) abandoned the party's historic commitment to the less fortunate. Yet under Clinton, core Democratic constituencies gained more ground than at any time since the boom years of the 1960s. During Clinton's two terms, the number of Americans in poverty fell by 8.1 million, compared with just 77,000 during the eight years of Reagan. From 1993 through 2000, the median income grew faster for African Americans and Hispanics than it did for whites (who enjoyed a healthy increase of their own). Income for families on every rung of the economic ladder grew faster under Clinton than it did under Reagan, the Congressional Budget Office recently calculated; for those smack in the center of the income distribution, the growth was nearly twice as fast.

The very rich did very well under Clinton, with incomes also rising faster than under Reagan. But while the average federal income-tax burden on the top fifth of families fell sharply under Reagan, income taxes rose as a share of income for the top 20 percent during Clinton's two terms. That helped generate the funds Clinton used to provide health care for children of the working poor, increase the federal investment in education, and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The kicker is that while Clinton delivered these tangible benefits to his party's traditional constituencies and demanded more from the affluent in taxes, he greatly expanded the party's electoral appeal among the comfortable voters Frank believes are fool's gold for Democrats. In the three presidential elections of the 1980s, Democrats lost voters earning $50,000 a year or more by at least 25 percentage points; Clinton cut that deficit to 5 points or less in both his elections -- even while simultaneously improving the party's performance among voters earning between $15,000 and $30,000.

Clinton succeeded at both ends because he advanced an activist agenda that provided benefits to average families while confronting all of the arguments conservatives use against Democrats. He moved the party away from its post-Vietnam reluctance to use force, defanged anti-government populism by embracing a balanced budget, and showed respect for traditionalist values in his policies (particularly measures such as welfare reform that linked responsibility with opportunity) if not his personal behavior. Largely because of that personal behavior, Clinton didn't leave behind the stable majority he hoped to; but he proved, contrary to Frank, that Democrats don't have to choose between Wal-Mart and Starbucks.

Frank is an essayist, not a political strategist, so it would be wrong to hold these lapses too much against him. His book is a smart and trenchant contribution to the liberal argument, and a fun read as well.

Much the same can be said about Homegrown Democrat from Garrison Keillor, another literary midwestern populist. It's a memoir and a meditation, not a manifesto. Like Frank, Keillor sometimes strays into hyperbole (does Keillor really believe the GOP's leadership is “borderline psychopath”?). But Keillor is frequently beguiling and sometimes moving as he explains his unshakeable belief that the fundamental divide in politics is between those who believe we are obligated to care for our neighbor and those who don't. To Keillor, liberalism is nothing more than the organized expression of the impulse that causes strangers to volunteer when a neighbor is threatened by flood. “Liberalism is the politics of kindness,” he insists.

Keillor, like Frank, seems mystified that anyone who folds his own laundry would vote Republican. But the days of a political alignment defined solely, or even predominantly, by class are gone. Many Americans, on both sides of the income divide, don't consider it a “derangement” to express their cultural values at least as much as their economic interests in their vote. Overall, Frank and Keillor have written books of grace, empathy, and insight. But in assuming that Democrats can only win by resurrecting the politics of Franklin Roosevelt and Hubert Humphrey, they are steering through the rearview mirror.

Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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