Imagine a Jerry Springer audience of 300 million. There isn't much difference between the people on stage and those in the audience: They're all poor people getting poorer, with few opportunities except the chance to judge each other -- to yell "slut!" and "fag!" at the unfortunates up on the stage.
That, roughly, is the picture of America one gets from Tom Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, which uses Frank's native state as a case study to answer a question that has bedeviled leftists: How is it that small-town America increasingly votes for Republicans, politicians whose corporate agenda often destroys the small towns themselves? How is that America's downtrodden working-class in Kansas and elsewhere -- once the backbone of political liberalism -- now vote conservative?
Kansas has always been known for its eccentrics and political extremism. But as Frank ably recounts, in the old days the state was home to a crew of radical populists willing to take on the banks, the railroads, slave owners -- anyone who pushed other people around. But as economic conditions worsen in Kansas today, the state has come to harbor what Frank calls "a French Revolution in reverse -- one in which the [revolutionaries] pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy." Instead of taking on the banks who foreclose on their homes, Kansas peasants elect politicians who fatten the bankers' profits. Instead of challenging federal agricultural policies that hurt the family farmer, residents chain themselves to abortion clinics.
The appeal of such paradoxical "backlash" movements, Frank contends, is that they offer a rare chance for citizens to empower themselves. Few Americans can sort through the complexities of Medicare reimbursements or corporate taxation; that's why Jerry Springer doesn't do shows on those issues. But we can all form opinions on moral choices, and conservative politicians promise those opinions will be heard. You may not keep your home, job or health insurance ... but you can keep gays from marrying.
Frank is not without sympathy for Kansas' Bible-beaters and self-appointed popes (really!); some of the book's best moments are his interviews with them. But Frank, who is the editor of the Chicago-based journal The Baffler and writer of One Market Under God, has also made a career of skewering the contradictions of capitalism. Regarding one activist whose livelihood is hurt by policies he espouses, Frank notes, "Ignoring one's economic self-interest may seem like a suicidal move to you and me, but viewed a different way it is an act of noble-self denial. ... [H]e labors night and day so that others might enjoy their capital gains and never have to work at all. ... [I]s there not something Christlike about it all?"
Ironically, the Republicans who benefit from such activism rarely do anything except cut taxes. They might campaign against TV smut, but their pro-corporate ideology fattens the networks' wallets by deregulating the broadcast industry. No one notices, Frank contends, because of what he calls the "erasure of the economic"; there is simply no real discussion of economic concerns in public life any more.
Clinton-era Democrats are partly to blame. They have all but stopped discussing economic problems too. The result? "[B]y dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable [on] issues like guns and abortion," Frank writes.
Much of this will be familiar to lefties who have been tempted to vote for Nader -- which is to say, just about every lefty everywhere. For those readers, Frank's arguments will be about as easy to see coming as grain elevators on the Kansas plain. The question is what to do about it, and unfortunately, Frank has few answers. His talents have always been perceptive rather than prescriptive: His Baffler essays and books offer such a powerfully written account of their targets that it is hard not to feel powerless against them. How can we contend with the overwhelming onslaught of the backlash, of free-market idolatry and the conquest of the cool?
Frank suggests we can't. Like Kansas, he predicts, the rest of American will succumb to the "fever-dream of martyrdom," abandoning prosperity for a corporate-approved sense of personal righteousness. "Kansas," his book concludes, "is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse."
Is that view too despairing? Ask me Nov. 3.