Thomas Frank (born March 21, 1965) is an American author who writes about what he calls "cultural politics". He is the founder and editor of The Baffler and the author of several books, most recently Listen, Liberal. Other writings include essays for Harper's Magazine, Le Monde diplomatique, and the Financial Times.
What's the Matter with Kansas? (2004)
Derangement is the signature expression of the Great Backlash, a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues — summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art — which it then marries to pro-business economic polices. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements — not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars — that are the movement’s greatest monuments. The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and de-unionization that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don’t deliver and their "New Economy" collapses. It makes possible the police pushers’ fantasies of “globalization” and a free-trade empire that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance. Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.
The Great Backlash has made the laissez-faire revival possible, but this does not mean that it speaks to us in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary; the backlash imagines itself as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history’s receiving end. That is champions today control all three branches of government matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest people on the plant does not give it pause.
- Introduction: What's the Matter with America (pp. 5-6).
Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country’s return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working class people.
The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may "matter most" to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.
- Ibid. (p. 6).
- Grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated then ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.
- Ibid. (p. 7).
- [The right] may never bring prayer back to schools, but it has rescued all manner of rightwing economic nostrums from history’s dustbins. Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson’s estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt’s anti-trust measures). With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire twentieth century.
- Ibid. (p. 8).
Class, conservatives insist, is not really about money or birth or even occupation. It is primarily a matter of authenticity, that most valuable cultural commodity. Class is about what one drives and where one shops and how one prays, and only secondarily about the work one does or the income one makes. What makes one a member of the noble proletariat is not work per se, but unpretentiousness, humility, and the rest of the qualities that our punditry claims to spy in the red states that voted for George W. Bush. The nation’s producers don’t care about unemployment or a dead-end life or a boss who makes five hundred times as much as they do. No. In red land both workers and their bosses are supposed to be united in disgust with those affected college boys at the next table, prattling on about French cheese and villas in Tuscany and the big ideas for running things that they read in books.
This sounds like a complicated maneuver, but it should be quite familiar after all these years. We see it in its most ordinary, run-of-the-mill variety every time we hear a conservative pundit or politician deplore "class warfare" — meaning any talk about the failures of free-market capitalism — and then, seconds later, hear them rail against the "media elite" or the haughty, Volvo driving "eastern establishment."
- Part II: The Fury Which Passeth All Understanding, Chapter Six: Persecuted, Powerless, and Blind (pp. 113-114).
The idea of a liberal elite is not intellectually robust. It’s never been enunciated with anything approaching scholarly rigor, it has been refuted countless times, and it falls apart under any sort of systematic scrutiny.
Yet the idea persists. It did not die with Richard Nixon or peter out with the busing controversy or depart the national scene with the wily Bill Clinton. Indeed, it has greater currency on the street today than do twenty years’ worth of blue-ribbon studies and a lifetime of responsible sociology.
- Ibid. (p. 115).
- They, the conservatives, are the real outsides, they tell us, gazing with disgust upon the ludicrous manners of the high and mighty. Or, they tell us, they are rough-and-ready proles, laughing along with us at the efforts of our social "betters" to reform and improve us. That they are often, in fact, people of privilege doing their utmost to boost the fortunes of a political party that is the traditional tool of the privileged is a contradiction that does not trouble them.
- Ibid. (p. 116).
- Apparently, there is no bad economic turn a conservative cannot do unto his buddy in the working class, as long as cultural solidarity has been cemented over a beer.
- Ibid. (p. 118).
Thanks to its chokehold on the nation’s culture, liberalism is thus in power whether its politicians are elected or not; it rules over us even though Republicans have prevailed in six out of the nine presidential elections since 1968; even though Republicans presently control all three branches of government; even though the last of the big-name, forthright liberals of the old school (Humphrey, McGovern, Church, Bayhm, Culver, etc.) either died or went down to defeat in the seventies; and even though no Democratic presidential nominee has called himself a "liberal" since Walter Mondale. Liberalism is beyond politics, a tyrant that dominates our lives in countless ways great and small, and which is virtually incapable of being overthrown.
Conservatism, on the other hand, is the doctrine of the oppressed majority. Conservatism does not defend some established order of things: It accuses; its rants; it points out hypocrisies and gleefully pounces on contradictions. While liberals use their control of the airwaves, newspapers, and schools to persecute average Americans — to ridicule the pious, flatter the shiftless, and indoctrinate the kids with all sorts of permissive nonsense — the Republicans are the party of the disrespected, the downtrodden, the forgotten. They are always the underdog, always in rebellion against a haughty establishment, always rising up from below.
All claims of the right, in other words, advance from victimhood. This is another trick the backlash has picked up from the left. Even though republicans legislate in the interests of society’s most powerful, and even though conservative social critics typically enjoy cushy sinecures at places like the American Enterprise Institute and the Wall Street Journal, they rarely claim to speak on behalf of the wealthy of the winners in the social Darwinist struggle. Just like the leftists of the early twentieth century, they see themselves in revolt against a genteel tradition, rising up against a bankrupt establishment that will tolerate no backtalk.
Conservatism, on the other hand, can never be powerful or successful, and backlashers revel in fantasies of their own marginality and persecution.
- Ibid.(pp. 119-120).
- The great goal of the backlash is to nurture a cultural class war, and the first step in doing so, as we have seen, is to deny the economic basis of social class. After all, you can hardly deride liberals as society’s "elite" or present the GOP as the party of the common man if you acknowledge the existence of the corporate world — the power that creates the nation’s real elite, that dominates its real class system, and that wields the Republican Party as its personal political system.
- Ibid. (p. 128).