Monday, October 31, 2005

The Claremont Institute: Resenting the Heartland's Success

What's the Matter with Kansas? What's the matter with author Thomas Frank asks Kimberly Shankman in her review:

However, it is not entirely accurate to say that Frank sees only economic motives as real. There is one more "real" motive he acknowledges—resentment. He believes that almost all socially conservative positions—what he calls the "backlash"—regardless of the religious or theoretical rhetoric they are garbed in, arise from the fact that lower middle-class Midwesterners resent the cultural elite, and therefore oppose their cultural policies to demonstrate that they don't have to accept their moral leadership.

This envious opposition to cultural elitism reveals itself foremost in a fundamental anti-intellectualism. Thus, Frank argues, the fervor of the anti-abortion movement arises not from a legitimate conviction that innocent life is being sacrificed; rather, it is "its power as an anti-intellectual rallying point" that accounts for the centrality of the pro-life cause among social conservatives. So convinced is he that only class resentment can explain the strength of the movement that he finds it difficult even to comprehend how pro-lifers can equate their movement to the anti-slavery movement of the 1850's.

Now, for most people, this is not too hard to understand: in both movements, those who sought to protect innocent human life from a culture that devalued it were considered beyond the pale of political discourse because they disturbed the court-mandated compromise with evil that allowed politics as usual to continue. Although this parallel has been drawn by a number of people—most famously, perhaps, by George McKenna in a cover article in the Atlantic in 1995—Frank just doesn't get it. At first, he decides that it's just a way for pro-lifers to call pro-choicers names. But then he applies his construct that resentment is the key to everything. Doing this, he finds a way to reclaim the historical high ground from the pro-life movement and to link them, not with the abolitionists, but with the backwoods pro-slavery "Bushwackers" of Missouri who violently opposed the settlement of Kansas as a free state. According to Frank, both contemporary pro-lifers and the Bushwackers felt themselves to be despised by the cultural elite of the day; therefore, they're both the same.

It actually is this focus on resentment that is the key to unlocking Thomas Frank's entire understanding of politics. After all, his focus on economics doesn't really make too much sense. It's based on the premise that conservative policies actually are bad for ordinary people, and the evidence just isn't there to support that argument. In fact, Kansas, that reddest of red states, is doing better than the rest of the country on most major economic indicators. So, Frank has constructed a paradigm so powerful that he can't see beyond it even when it is directly contrary to fact, all to explain the solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Why?

The answer comes in the book's autobiographical section. As a true-believing conservative in high-school and young adulthood, Frank's conversion to liberalism came about, not through seeing for himself the effects of poverty, nor through economic arguments that convinced him of the error of his ways, but rather as the result of being snubbed by former high-school classmates, who came from wealthier families than his, who wouldn't talk to him after they pledged the elite fraternities at the University of Kansas. When he realized that he was not going to be selected to a leadership position among the college Republicans at KU: "I did a very un-Kansan thing: I started voting Democratic." In other words, and by his own admission, because young Frank's political identity sprang from his resentment of the popular kids, he has decided that everybody else must also make their political choices on the same basis.
Some people really carry grudges.