Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What's The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank

What's The Matter With Kansas?
Thomas Frank

This was an interesting book to read in an election year. But before I review the book, let's start with the confessions of bias on my side. Note that these thoughts are those of an engineer, not a politician, so they may not be all that well thought out. Read on at your own risk.

I'm mostly a small 'l' libertarian, though I have some leftist leanings. Generally I favor less government intrusion into people's private lives and a reasonable social safety net. I think that governments provide useful services: schools, courts, roads, international relations, and so on. I'm not averse to paying my share of taxes to see those things happen. Social issues bring out my "leftmost" leanings. Gay marriage? I'm in favor, and why would anyone want to stop them from marrying? Where's the threat? I support abortion rights, but I'd really rather we had a world where it wasn't necessary. Church and state should be two separate and distinct entities in all case. And so on.

On the other hand, I don't really trust labor unions. There may be times and places when they are needed, but they look to me like any other group of people in power. As a result they need checks and balances on their actions. In addition it is my belief that no one should ever be forced to join a union if he or she doesn't want to do so.

I also don't think that government debt is something we can ignore. Deficit spending might be reasonable under rare conditions, war for example, or possibly some sort of stimulus to get out of recession. But adding to our nation's national debt on an annual basis looks patently stupid to me, though I recognize the great difficulty of reducing spending in any specific place or program.

With that set of beliefs - and others I didn't bother to list - I don't feel I am well represented by any political party. By my own definition I'm a moderate, but everyone probably feels they are a moderate in comparison to others.

Regardless of what I am, the current political environment has left me feeling a lot more threatened by the Republicans than the Democrats. Their combination of rampant religious zealotry, intrusive (in the extreme) social policies, and their complete disregard for fiscal sanity have lead me to the conclusion that they must be removed from power before they destroy the nation. That's not to say that everything they stand for is bad, but I really dislike most of it as it has been implemented, at least since Reagan took office.

So what's all that got to do with this book? Well, the subtitle of the book is "How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." It's a diatribe about why the "red states" - like Kansas - vote Republican despite the fact that Republican policies have been a disaster for them. The book was published in 2004. George Bush was at the height of his powers and, well, I hope you remember it.

Frank describes some of the history of Kansas along the way. At various points in the past it was home to all kinds of left leaning leaders and movements. He documents some of the reasons behind the shift to conservative politics - as he sees them - and he carries on about the inanities of the situation.

One of his points is that the most conservative Republicans use wedge issues - like abortion, teaching evolution in the schools, or gay rights - to wind up their core base, but they never actually do anything about those issues. Instead, once in power, they work for conservative economic principles and avoid the social causes. He claims those who are motivated by social (wedge) issues will work for free and drag all kinds of like minded folks in with them to overwhelm the ballot boxes, while those who are less affected (or less concerned) don't turn out in nearly the same numbers at election time.

My problems with the book are mild but real. Despite it's well researched nature - there are 40 pages of detailed end notes, for example - it's still a political rant. At times the author sides with groups like labor unions without even pondering if they are always in the right. At other times it can be hard to tell truth from the author's opinion. That's pretty normal in a political text of this type, but it still annoys me to some degree.

My other issue is a bit more serious, at least in my opinion. I think I disagree with Frank about the actions of conservative Republicans in power. He thinks they don't work towards change on the social issues and instead work on conservative economic issues. Perhaps I have been successfully brainwashed by one side or the other, but I worry that the Republicans do make changes in places that matter, and they have an affect on those social issues.

The appointment of supreme court justices, for example, is one place where a conservative nut-case like George Bush can make a long lasting impact on issues, both social and economic. The infamous "faith based initiative" is another place where things can go wrong quickly, and where government and religion can get entwined with long lasting results.

In a general way, conservatives in power have changed the tone of the discussion about those wedge issues, and are definitely trying to move things in their direction. It probably wasn't possible, for example, to outlaw abortion when Bush took office. But the day when it can be outlawed is definitely closer now than it was before. I think Frank makes light of this very real issue, and thus underestimates the depth and nature of the Republican threat.

As we go into the 2008 election, things are somewhat different than they were when the book was written. It's interesting to compare and contrast.

The Iraq war is extremely unpopular - even among Republicans - and Bush is grossly out of step with the country on that. Afghanistan is slowly slipping back into chaos, which is definitely not good, but it hasn't made the news all that much yet.

On the election side, John McCain is the Republican nominee, but he has the problem of not being pious enough for the Republican base. They may vote for him anyway, but I suspect they will be holding their noses while they do so. Thus far it doesn't look like he's a strong uniter of those who are involved mostly because of those wedge issues, but I could be wrong. He's also a strong supporter of the Iraq war, which could be a big negative for him as well.

The Democrats have finally settled on Obama, a man with some serious leadership potential. But he comes loaded with his own set of questions. The big one in my mind is just how racist is this nation? How many whites will vote for him?

The social scene in America is still murky. The whole "red state/blue state" divide is a crock, of course, and always has been. At the state level, we were basically evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats back in 2000, and I don't think it's changed all that much since. But what is happening in the trenches is less clear.

Are enough religious voters sick of the claptrap put out by the religious right? Are they willing to stand up and vote to put some sanity back into the system? Will the Democrats unite behind Obama after a bruising primary, or will they fall back to squabbling over petty details and lose sight of the big picture?

I am not sanguine about the future of America. I think the changes that the Bush administration has put in place will last far too many years, and that's even if the electorate throws them all out in 2008 and puts the Democrats in charge of both the White House and Congress. In addition, though, I don't trust the Democrats all that much either. What we're dealing with here is human nature, and the reality is that people in power tend to want to stay in power, and they want to do things that help themselves and their friends.

Politics in America is a game for the very rich these days. The rest of us get the dregs and we make our decisions about who we want to "represent" us based on the contents of 30 second television commercials.

Frank's book isn't exactly upbeat about the future, but it was written four years ago. I suspect he'll be happy if the Democrats take the White House in 2008, and he might be optimistic about the future as a result. I see it a bit differently.

Some Bush policies will be overturned or rolled back quickly, I admit. But others won't (or can't) be changed that rapidly, and the nation's overall stance on social issues has moved to the right for so long now that moving it back towards the center will take many years, much longer than Obama could be in office.

But even worse is the fact that corruption will set in. On that issue it doesn't matter who wins the White House or Congress. Obama or McCain, it doesn't matter. We'll be hearing about back room deals and corruption soon after someone takes over, and a few years later the tell-all books will be coming out.

Read What's The Matter With Kansas? if politics interests you. Note the history of change in the way the Midwest has voted and why, but also keep a jaundiced eye out and note those places where you think truth and opinion aren't clearly delineated. Nothing discussed in politics is simple, of course - if it was we'd have done it or fixed it and moved on to other things - but if Frank is guilty of anything here it may be that he's oversimplifying some very complex issues.