God's country

Thomas Frank goes to the heartland
By CATHERINE TUMBER  |  July 25, 2011

GOD’S WAY In Frank’s argument, for heartland conservatives, a free market, like the ‘right to life,’ is ordained by the Almighty.
This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2004 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

We live in Massachusetts, with troubles of our own. So why should we care about What's the Matter with Kansas?, the title of Thomas Frank's new book? Because the native Kansan engages the most important political question of our time: why do so many of America's working poor vote persistently against their own economic interests, allowing the wealthy Republican beneficiaries of their loyalty to blight their neighborhoods and siphon off their wealth?

Frank, the editor of the indie journal the Baffler and the author of two excellent books on market culture, approaches this question from the distinctly American tradition of Midwestern populism. Given that Kansas was at one time the epicenter of heartland abolitionism, agrarian dissent, and anti-monopoly politics, he argues, the state offers a perfect case study in how the right purloined the older rhetoric of class resentment and "producer virtue," along with the more recent identity politics of authenticity, and put them in the service of corporate power nationwide, in what Frank calls "inverted class warfare."

Anyone familiar with Ann Coulter knows the drill: liberals are comparable to Stalinists in the reach of their control and the darkness of their moral treachery. As they drive their Volvos and drink their lattes, "liberal elites" visit abortion and homosexuality, self-serving taxes and gun-control laws on the humble, God-fearing working people of America. But listen closely to such cultural tirades, Frank argues, and you'll hear the unmistakable tones of class grievance without as much as a nod toward economics. Somehow, these self-styled "fellow rubes of the fly-over" don't see that the conservative business interests they keep in power are in those jets too — and in much greater numbers. Meanwhile, their moral crusades don't go very far while the market proceeds to attack their economic security unabated.

Frank attributes the rise of Kansan conservative cultural politics less to "playing the race card," as most liberals would have it, than to the abortion fight. That's why moderate Republicans' fateful embrace of the "Cons," as Frank calls cultural conservatives, took place a decade or so later than the rest of the country's, when Operation Rescue came to town in the mid '90s. As they watched local political offices suddenly snatched up by Cons statewide, socially liberal, fiscally conservative "Mods" made a devil's bargain and learned to keep their mouths shut about the conservative movement culture emerging in their midst.

But though Frank's account is partly a story of moderate capitulation to cultural conservatism, it's more interesting as an attempt to explain why Kansas firebreathers came to embrace the free market. Developing his argument in One Market Under God that free-market ideology has morphed into theology, he argues that the new right's unappeasable hostility to liberalism can be put down to a deeper opposition to artifice. According to this line of thinking, distant experts, obscurantist artists, and self-important intellectuals all interfere with the natural order of things that, like the invisible hand of the market itself, is ordained by the Almighty. And above all, anything that smacks of state intervention is a sure sign of hubris, the handiwork of know-it-all liberal elites tampering with the divine. Regulating both corporate power and access to abortion are thus seen as two sides of the same moral coin.

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