Thomas Frank
What's the Matter With Kansas

This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible.

In Kansas the shift is more staggering than elsewhere, simply because it has been so decisive, so extreme. The people who were once radical are now reactionary. Though they speak today in the same aggrieved language of victimization, and though they face the same array of economic forces as their hard-bitten ancestors, today’s populists make demands that are precisely the opposite. Tear down the federal farm programs, they cry. Privatize the utilities. Repeal the progressive taxes. All that Kansas asks today is a little help nailing itself to that cross of gold.

Lawrence Goodwyn, the historian of nineteenth century Populism, proposes that “movement culture” is critical to mass protest: “The people need to see themselves experimenting in democratic forms,” he has written.

As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal.

While the Wichita Cons [Conservatives, as opposed to Moderates] worked hard to build their movement, they would not have succeeded so extravagantly had it not been for the simultaneous suicide of the rival movement, the one that traditionally spoke for working-class people. I am referring, of course, to the Clinton administration’s famous policy of “triangulation,” its grand effort to minimize the differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic issues. Among the nations pundit corps “triangulation” has always been considered a stroke of genius, signaling the end of liberalism’s old-fashioned “class warfare” and also of the Democrats’ faith in “big government.” Clinton’s New Democrats, it was thought, had brought the dawn of an era in which all parties agreed on the sanctity of the free market. As political strategy, though, Clinton’s move to accommodate the right was the purest folly. It simply pulled the rug out from under any possible organizing effort on the left. While the Cons were busy polarizing the electorate, the Dems were meekly seeking the center. In Wichita Republicanism appeared dynamic and confidant; the Democrats looked dispirited, weak, spent.

However well it was received on Wall Street, Clinton’s strategy played right into the hands of Mark Gietzen and hundreds of other Christian conservative organizers like him around the country. If basic economic issues are removed from the table, Gietzen has written, only the social issues remain to distinguish the parties.

After all, as Kay O’Connor put it so well, the people on top know what they have to do to stay there, and in a pinch they can easily overlook the easy piety of the new Republican masses, the social conservatives who raise their voices in praise of Jesus but cast their votes to exalt Caesar.

...the resentment of intellectuals as a dominant class is a tradition of long standing on the right. The origin of this ill will lies not so much in some ancient culture war but in a defensive maneuver taken long ago by a business class that felt itself to be under attack. Anti-intellectualism in its present form can be dated back to the thirties, when President Roosevelt turned a flock of college professors loose on the economic structure of the nation. Intellectuals designed the New Deal’s regulatory apparatus, they set up Social Security, they did studies and wrote papers, all of which was regarded by the business community of the time as inexcusable and arrogant meddling with the rights of private property.

In every social issue Republicans perceive the same pattern: a conflict of the authentic and the natural and the democratic with the arrogant and the meddling and the foolish. This is the thread that units each of the issues that I’ve mentioned in this book, from rails-to-trails to the metric system to farm subsidies to zoning laws; in every twentieth-century reform effort conservatives can see nothing but imposition, the fanciful designs of man pressed down on the immutable way of God, a.k.a. the free market.

Ironically, the rise of professionalism among journalists is also one of the cultural factors that has made possible the right’s erasure of the economic. As the media scholar Robert McChesney has pointed out, professionalism’s emphasis on legitimacy and expertise has caused mainstream journalism to define news almost exclusively as the doings of the state, government officials, and rival politicians; the corporate world is not considered a legitimate subject for critical inquiry or the attention of the general public. As McChesney points out, this lack of true journalistic scrutiny is what made possible such costly debacles as the Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies.

In the seventies, and especially while the war was still going on, the victimhood of Vietnam vets often had a leftist cast to it. The vets saw themselves as victims then because their love for their country had been manipulated in the service of a pointless and even obscene cause. The Johnson administration’s “best and brightest,” drafted from the corporate world, were manufacturing corpses the way they made cars or appliances, and selling the slaughter with a form of patriotism as hollow as the TV commercials of the fifties.

Like everything else, however, the political valence of Vietnam-related martyrdom has been switched. What you hear more commonly today is that the soldiers were victimized by betrayal, first by liberals in government and then by the antiwar movement, as symbolized by the clueless Fonda. The mistake wasn’t taking the wrong side in the wrong war; it was letting those intellectuals—now transformed from cold corporate titans into a treasonable liberal elite—keep us from prevailing, from unleashing sufficient lethality on the Vietnamese countryside. Conservatives like Barry Goldwater made this argument at the time, of course, but it took decades for the idea to win the sort of mainstream audience it has today. This may be conservatism’s most striking cultural victory of all, a perfect inversion: the fifties-style patriotism that was once thought to have victimized the Vietnam generation is today thought to be a cause that is sanctified by their death and suffering. What their blood calls out for is not skepticism but ever blinder patriotism.

In the seventies conservatives came to believe that the legacy of Vietnam was the “Vietnam syndrome,” a debilitating fear of sending in the troops lest lives (and votes) be lost. A more obvious legacy these days is the ferocious new militarism in which setbacks in the field are routinely blamed on liberals in Congress and in the media, and in which it is thought to be socially acceptable for old soldiers to revel in their brutalization and even to boast about their personal kill-skills. (Example: the popular “sniper” bumper sticker that threatens, “Don’t run, you’ll only die tired.”)

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