Review of What’s the Matter With America?

I’m not one for reading books cover to cover; I hardly ever read novels, most of my reading matter is nowadays computer related (and most of my bookshelves are dominated by religious and travel literature). Every so often though, a book comes along which you just gets you hooked, and once you’re into it, you can’t bear to put it down.

What’s The Matter With America, or if you live in America, What’s The Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank (Secker and Warburg, 2004), is in my experience, one such book. Basically WTM is about Frank’s home state of Kansas, and how it’s been affected by the “conservative” backlash which has swept the USA in recent times. Kansas was once a liberal, even radical, state, founded by emigrants from the north-west as a bulwark against the slaveholders, which was invaded by slaveholding “pukes” from Missouri who forced on them a “bogus legislature” which outlawed even the discussion of slavery. It was a hotbed of “Populism” and other radical movements were well-recieved in the state, but until the early 1990s, the state was dominated by moderate Republicans.

In the early 1990s, however, anti-abortionists mounted a campaign in the state, launching an all-out assault on the local Republicans, denouncing them as “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only), and this led to conservative Republicans pushing “family values” and similar “backlash” policies at the local people. What these “backlash” politicians usually deliver, however, is unrestrained free-market economics in an already economically-depressed region; they do nothing to stop the cultural decline they so bitterly lament, they hype issues like evolution teaching in schools and abortion, neither of which they could actually fix if they tried; their contributions to local political discussion amounts to what Frank calls the “plen-T-plaint” - “a curious amassing of petty, unrelated beefs about the world”.

These fake conservatives, in fact, eliminate discussion about economics from political life; in fact, the people they end up benefiting are the wealthy. In Kansas, these people are mostly the old-school moderate Republicans the new conservatives encourage people to despise. The backlash encourages anti-intellectualism, talking up the “Real America” as where “humble” ordinary people drink beer and not lattes, but the people behind it are anything but humble - they’re extremely wealthy, and sometimes corrupt, however ostentatious their religion. But their local leaders are often selfless and determned in pursuing the politics which harm them and their families:

The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistably against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privelege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills [a suburb of Kansas City], hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. “We are here,” they scream, “to cut your taxes.”

Frank lays the blame partly at the Democrats’ door, for going after business and abandoning the workers, who they assume have nowhere else to go. Democrats stop talking about class issues, leaving that to the Republicans who emphasise issues like gun rights, which it seems a lot of Americans value. Frank is not optimistic, however, because in his observation, trends which started in Kansas have a tendency to “go national”, naming the Civil War, Prohibition, Populism and (wait for it) Pizza Hut. From what I’ve read, this seems already to have happened, and liberals are on the defensive almost everywhere.

I don’t know if I should recommend this book, because I don’t live in the USA (haven’t ever been there) so I don’t know exactly how bad things are. All I can say is I found it a thoroughly interesting read. What do you Americans out there think?

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