The morning after Election Day 2004, when Democrats and liberals started asking what had hit them, Thomas Frank had an answer ready and waiting. What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, his biting analysis of the culture wars and the bamboozlement of the American working class, was quickly on every wagging tongue in Washington. Since then the book has hit multiple best seller lists and Frank has turned up as a guest on everything from Hardball With Chris Matthews to The Daily Show. A former Chicagoan (and Reader contributor) and the longtime editor of the Woodlawn-based Baffler, Frank now lives in D.C. with his wife, Wendy Edelberg, and their two children. He'll be in town later this month to promote the book's paperback edition, which includes a new afterword on the presidential election.
Michael Lenehan: On November 3, you became the smartest guy in America.
Thomas Frank: It's strange, isn't it? And our baby was born on the fifth. I had three days there where my opinion was much sought after.
ML: Since you're so smart, I guess you had already told all your friends that Bush was going to win.
TF: No, I wasn't saying that. I know all these people here in D.C., they were all convinced that Kerry was going to win. And they all had good reasons for it, and, you know, they're experts and I'm not, so I believed what they were telling me. But I never claimed to be an expert. I was studying stuff that's in the past, I had no idea what would actually happen.
ML: For the benefit of readers who still don't know: What is the matter with Kansas?
TF: It's the culture wars. As the gap between the classes grows, and the lot of working-class people gets worse and worse, those people are becoming more and more conservative. And they are more and more endorsing the very economic policies that are screwing them over. Why are they doing it? Because of the 30-year culture war. Which in some ways started in Chicago, in Grant Park.
ML: One of your assumptions is that people vote, or ought to vote, according to their economic interests. But maybe they don't. Maybe abortion trumps pocketbook issues.
TF: Well it certainly does nowadays. And by the way, I've done a lot of interviews on conservative radio shows since the book came out, and this is the argument that they always make: why shouldn't these cultural issues trump economic issues? And the thing is, there're always going to be people for whom these issues are so compelling that they'll trump anything, but the reason the culture war issues are so powerful is that nobody is out there making the economic case. We aren't discussing what Chicago School economics are doing to the country. We're just not even talking about it.
The classic example here is the Social Security privatization scheme that Bush is promoting now. This is deeply unpopular. And if the election had been fought over that issue, Kerry might have won. I think of those small towns out on the plains where the whole town is surviving on Social Security payments, that's all they've got, and these people are unbelievably pissed off at Bush--you know, they didn't vote for this, they didn't vote for Social Security privatization, it was barely even discussed in the campaign. It came up once in one of the debates, and then Kerry, his only objection to it was that it would blow a hole in the federal budget--which is true, but that's not what gets people riled up, that's not what Social Security is about, it's something much more fundamental than that. There are numerous issues like that where you have to make the case.
ML: But that would be "class warfare!" Why do you think it's so easy for the Republicans to stop any argument about economic self-interest by raising the bugaboo of class warfare?
TF: It's really simple. It's because of the power of money in politics. This is an anecdote I heard the other day, and I don't know if it's true or not, but do you remember in the primaries Kerry had this line about "Benedict Arnold CEOs"? It was a pretty good line--it was about outsourcing. And he dropped it. Didn't talk about it anymore. And someone told me that they asked someone on his campaign staff why they got rid of that, and it was because Wall Street didn't like it. And that's pretty much the story of what's happened to the Democrats. They are constrained from talking the way Democrats used to talk--like Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy--they can't talk that way anymore, because it scares the investors, it scares the people who fund their campaigns. And the basic fact of politics these days is, you've got to have money to run your campaign, to run TV commercials.
The funny thing is, this leaves the Republicans a free hand to do class warfare from their end--and they do it all the time. They constantly snob-baited poor old John Kerry; in fact they snob-bait me! This is their weapon. Whenever I'm on these conservative radio shows, this is almost the first thing they do: they call you an elitist. And then I go to great lengths to take that away from them, to say, you know, I'm not an elitist, for reasons x, y, and z, and then they fight over that, because if you take that away from them they have nothing left. The other arguments aren't convincing. This is what's really powerful, this is what really mobilizes people, the idea that liberals are this obnoxious clique, this roiling class of know-it-all professionals.
ML: And the good, common people of the heartland are their victims! Your book explains how conservatives have appropriated the status of victimhood and turned it toward their advantage. I'm wondering if the pendulum can swing back, so that the poor and the disenfranchised and the lefties and the Democrats get to be the victims again. Do you see any hope for that?
TF: I don't think it would be all that hard for them to make a comeback. One of the reasons is that all the language that the conservatives use to describe the sort of upside-down class war--you know, their war against the intellectuals, and their war against the latte sippers and Volvo drivers and all this stuff--all that language is stolen from the left. I always make the comparison between these guys, your contemporary conservatives, and Mike Gold, who was a columnist for the Daily Worker starting in the 30s. One of his favorite things to do was to mock what he would call bourgeois writers for all these same things--for being devitalized, for being affected, for liking things French. They didn't have lattes in those days, but you know, every other kind of dainty, deracinated, devitalized product . . .
ML: You've had a lot of contact with the conservative punditocracy lately. Have you learned anything about them? Are they going to show up in a future work?
TF: I've always been fascinated by conservatives because I used to be one myself, and when I was one I found it a really, really compelling way of looking at the world, and very convincing. And that was one of the things I wanted to do with this book--try to understand that earlier Tom Frank, and why this was so moving to me. I'm always drawn to these things that are contradictions. Like, working-class people voting for Bush: it's weird just on the face of it, and I want to try and understand it. But I think the next book is going to be about the opposite subject: What's the matter with the liberals? Why don't they ever get it? Why can't they get back on their feet?
ML: What's the matter with the Baffler? Why haven't we seen one lately?
TF: I'm working on a new issue right now! We've got all the essays, I just have to get off my ass and put it out. And I'm doing that right now. It's very funny, and it's Chicago-related, and it has to do with all the stuff we've been talking about. What's made it so slow is the success of this book. This thing has taken all my time since it came out. Which has been a great shock to me.
What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
When: Mon 5/16, 5:30 PM
Where: Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Fairmont Hotel; 200 N. Columbus
When: Mon 5/16, 9 PM
Where: Hideout, with Kelly Hogan, Waco Brothers, Edward Burch; 1354 W. Wabansia
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pilar Vergara.