What's the Matter with Kansas?How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
Owl Books (NY)Copyright © 2005 Thomas Frank
All right reserved.ISBN: 080507774X
Chapter One The Two Nations
In the backlash imagination, America is always in a state of quasi-civil war: on one side are the unpretentious millions of authentic Americans; on the other stand the bookish, all-powerful liberals who run the country but are contemptuous of the tastes and beliefs of the people who inhabit it. When the chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1992 announced to a national TV audience, "We are America" and "those other people are not," he was merely giving new and more blunt expression to a decades-old formula. Newt Gingrich's famous description of Democrats as "the enemy of normal Americans" was just one more winning iteration of this well-worn theme.
The current installment of this fantasy is the story of "the two Americas," the symbolic division of the country that, after the presidential election of 2000, captivated not only backlashers but a sizable chunk of the pundit class. The idea found its inspiration in the map of the electoral results that year: there were those vast stretches of inland "red" space (the networks all used red to designate Republican victories) where people voted for George W. Bush, and those tiny little "blue" coastal areas where people lived in big cities and voted for Al Gore. On the face of it there was nothing really remarkable about these red and blue blocs, especially, since in terms of the popular vote the contest was essentially a tie.
Still, many commentators divined in the 2000 map a baleful cultural cleavage, a looming crisis over identity and values. "This nation has rarely appeared more divided than it does right now," moaned David Broder, the Washington Post's pundit-in-chief, in a story published a few days after the election. The two regions were more than mere voting blocs; they were complete sociological profiles, two different Americas at loggerheads with each other.
And these pundits knew-before election night was over and just by looking at the map-what those two Americas represented. Indeed, the explanation was ready to go before the election even happened. The great dream of conservatives ever since the thirties has been a working-class movement that for once takes their side of the issues, that votes Republican and reverses the achievements of working-class movements of the past. In the starkly divided red/blue map of 2000 they thought they saw it being realized: the old Democratic regions of the South and the Great Plains were on their team now, solid masses of uninterrupted red, while the Democrats were restricted to the old-line, blueblood states of the Northeast, along with the hedonist left coast.
I do not want to minimize the change that this represents. Certain parts of the Midwest were once so reliably leftist that the historian Walter Prescott Webb, in his classic 1931 history of the region, pointed to its persistent radicalism as one of the "Mysteries of the Great Plains." Today the mystery is only heightened; it seems inconceivable that the Midwest was ever thought of as a "radical" place, as anything but the land of the bland, the easy snoozing flyover. Readers in the thirties, on the other hand, would have known instantly what Webb was talking about, since so many of the great political upheavals of their part of the twentieth century were launched from the territory west of the Ohio River. The region as they knew it was what gave the country Socialists like Eugene Debs, fiery progressives like Robert La Follette, and practical unionists like Walter Reuther; it spawned the anarchist IWW and the coldly calculating UAW; and it was periodically convulsed in gargantuan and often bloody industrial disputes. They might even have known that there were once Socialist newspapers in Kansas and Socialist voters in Oklahoma and Socialist mayors in Milwaukee, and that there were radical farmers across the region forever enlisting in militant agrarian organization with names like the Farmers' Alliance, or the Farmer-Labor Party, or the Non-Partisan League, or the Farm Holiday Association. And they would surely have been aware that Social Security, the basic element of the liberal welfare state, was largely a product of the midwestern mind.
Almost all of these associations have evaporated today. That the region's character has been altered so thoroughly-that so much of the Midwest now regards the welfare state as an alien imposition; that we have trouble even believing there was a time when progressives were described with adjectives like fiery, rather than snooty or bossy or wimpy-has to stand as one of the great reversals of American history.
So when the electoral map of 2000 is compared to that of 1896-the year of the showdown between the "great commoner," William Jennings Bryan, and the voice of business, William McKinley-a remarkable inversion is indeed evident. Bryan was a Nebraskan, a leftist, and a fundamentalist Christian, an almost unimaginable combination today, and in 1896 he swept most of the country outside the Northeast and upper Midwest, which stood rock-solid for industrial capitalism. George W. Bush's advisers love to compare their man to McKinley, and armed with the electoral map of 2000 the president's fans are able to envisage the great contest of 1896 refought with optimal results: the politics of McKinley chosen by the Middle America of Bryan.
From this one piece of evidence, the electoral map, the pundits simply veered off into authoritative-sounding cultural proclamation. Just by looking at the map, they reasoned, we could easily tell that George W. Bush was the choice of the plain people, the grassroots Americans who inhabited the place we know as the "heartland," a region of humility, guilelessness, and, above all, stout yeoman righteousness. The Democrats, on the other hand, were the party of the elite. Just by looking at the map we could see that liberals were sophisticated, wealthy, and materialistic. While the big cities blued themselves shamelessly, the land knew what it was about and went Republican, by a margin in square miles of four to one.
The attraction of such a scheme for conservatives was powerful and obvious. The red-state narrative brought majoritarian legitimacy to a president who had actually lost the popular vote. It also allowed conservatives to present their views as the philosophy of a region that Americans-even sophisticated urban ones-traditionally venerate as the repository of national virtue, a place of plain speaking and straight shooting.
The red-state/blue-state divide also helped conservatives perform one of their dearest rhetorical maneuvers, which we will call the latte libel: the suggestion that liberals are identifiable by their tastes and consumer preferences and that these tastes and preferences reveal the essential arrogance and foreignness of liberalism. While a more straightforward discussion of politics might begin by considering the economic interests that each party serves, the latte libel insists that such interests are irrelevant. Instead it's the places that people live and the things that they drink, eat, and drive that are the critical factors, the clues that bring us to the truth. In particular, the things that liberals are said to drink, eat, and drive: the Volvos, the imported cheese, and above all, the lattes.
The red-state/blue-state idea appeared to many in the media to be a scientific validation of this familiar stereotype, and before long it was a standard element of the media's pop-sociology repertoire. The "two Americas" idea became a hook for all manner of local think pieces (blue Minnesota is only separated by one thin street from red Minnesota, but my, how different those two Minnesotas are); it provided an easy tool for contextualizing the small stories (red Americans love a certain stage show in Vegas, but blue Americans don't) or for spinning the big stories (John Walker Lindh, the American who fought for the Taliban, was from California and therefore a reflection of blue-state values); and it justified countless USA Today-style contemplations of who we Americans really are, meaning mainly investigations of the burning usual-what we Americans like to listen to, watch on TV, or buy at the supermarket.
Red America, these stories typically imply, is a mysterious place whose thoughts and values are essentially foreign to society's masters. Like the "Other America" of the sixties or the "Forgotten Men" of the thirties, its vast stretches are tragically ignored by the dominant class-that is, the people who write the sitcoms and screenplays and the stories in glossy magazines, all of whom, according to the conservative commentator Michael Barone, simply "can't imagine living in such places." Which is particularly unfair of them, impudent even, because Red America is in fact the real America, the part of the country where reside, as a column in the Canadian National Post put it, "the original values of America's founding."
And since many of the pundits who were hailing the virtues of the red states-pundits, remember, who were conservatives and who supported George W. Bush-actually, physically lived in blue states that went for Gore, the rules of this idiotic game allowed them to present the latte libel in the elevated language of the confession. David Brooks, who has since made a career out of projecting the liberal stereotype onto the map, took to the pages of The Atlantic magazine to admit on behalf of everyone who lives in a blue zone that they are all snobs, toffs, wusses, ignoramuses, and utterly out of touch with the authentic life of the people.
We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books and attend more plays than the people in the Red heartland. We're more sophisticated and cosmopolitan-just ask us about our alumni trips to China or Provence, or our interest in Buddhism. But don't ask us, please, what life in Red America is like. We don't know. We don't know who Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are.... We don't know what James Dobson says on his radio program, which is listened to by millions. We don't know about Reba and Travis.... Very few of us know what goes on in Branson, Missouri, even though it has seven million visitors a year, or could name even five NASCAR drivers.... We don't know how to shoot or clean a rifle. We can't tell a military officer's rank by looking at his insignia. We don't know what soy beans look like when they're growing in a field.
One is tempted to dismiss Brooks's grand generalizations by rattling off the many ways in which he gets it wrong: by pointing out that the top three soybean producers-Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota-were in fact blue states; or by listing the many military bases located on the coasts; or by noting that when it came time to build a NASCAR track in Kansas, the county that won the honor was one of only two in the state that went for Gore. Average per capita income in that same lonely blue county, I might as well add, is $16,000, which places it well below Kansas and national averages, and far below what would be required for the putting on of elitist or cosmopolitan airs of any kind.
It's pretty much a waste of time, however, to catalog the contradictions and tautologies and huge, honking errors blowing round in a media flurry like this. The tools being used are the blunt instruments of propaganda, not the precise metrics of sociology. Yet, as with all successful propaganda, the narrative does contain a grain of truth: we all know that there are many aspects of American life that are off the culture industry's radar; that vast reaches of the country have gone from being liberal if not radical to being stoutly conservative; and that there is a small segment of the "cosmopolitan" upper middle class that considers itself socially enlightened, that knows nothing of the fine points of hayseediana, that likes lattes, and that opted for Gore.
But the "two nations" commentators showed no interest in examining the mysterious inversion of American politics in any systematic way. Their aim was simply to bolster the stereotypes using whatever tools were at hand: to cast the Democrats as the party of a wealthy, pampered, arrogant elite that lives as far as it can from real Americans; and to represent Republicanism as the faith of the hardworking common people of the heartland, an expression of their unpretentious, all-American ways just like country music and NASCAR. At this pursuit they largely succeeded. By 2003 the conservative claim to the Midwest was so uncontested that Fox News launched a talk show dealing in culture-war outrage that was called, simply, Heartland.
What characterizes the good people of Red America? Reading through the "two Americas" literature is a little like watching a series of Frank Capra one-reelers explaining the principles of some turbocharged Boy Scout Law:
A red-stater is humble. In fact, humility is, according to reigning journalistic myth, the signature quality of Red America, just as it was one of the central themes of George W. Bush's presidential campaign. "In Red America the self is small," teaches David Brooks. "People declare in a million ways, 'I am normal.'" As evidence of this modesty, Brooks refers to the plain clothing that he saw residents wearing in a county in Pennsylvania that voted for Bush, and in particular to the unremarkable brand names he spotted on the locals' caps. The caps clearly indicate that the people of Red America enjoy trusting and untroubled relationships with Wal-Mart and McDonald's; ipso facto they are humble.
John Podhoretz, a former speechwriter for Bush the Elder, finds the same noble simplicity beneath every adjusto-cap. "Bush Red is a simpler place," he concludes, after watching people at play in Las Vegas; it's a land "where people mourn the death of NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, root lustily for their teams, go to church, and find comfort in old-fashioned verities."
When the red-starers themselves get into the act, composing lists of their own virtues, things get bad fast. How "humble" can you be when you're writing a three-thousand-word essay claiming that all the known virtues of democracy are sitting right there with you at the word processor? This problem comes into blinding focus in a much-reprinted red-state blast by the Missouri farmer Blake Hurst that was originally published in The American Enterprise magazine. He and his fellow Bush voters, Hurst stepped forward to tell the world, were humble, humble, humble, humble!
Most Red Americans can't deconstruct post-modern literature, give proper orders to a nanny, pick out a cabernet with aftertones of licorice, or quote prices from the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog.