How did conservatives win the heart of America?
That is the question Tom Frank explores in his bestselling book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, an incisive analysis of the Republican transformation of traditional economic populism into the Great Backlash. Frank’s book, which has become a post-election touchstone for progressive pundits, looks beyond the red state/blue state paradigm to explain how the mirage of “moral values” issues (“God, guns and gays”) has subverted public dialogue about economic issues and convinced working class Americans to vote against their economic self-interest.
Frank — who is also the author of The Conquest of Cool and One Market Under God, founder and editor of the Chicago-based magazine The Baffler, and a contributing editor for Harper’s—recently spoke with In These Times and its affiliated radio show “Fire on the Prairie,” from his home in Washington, D.C.
Can you give some historical background for what you call the “Great Backlash”?
What I mean by that term is populist conservatism. It’s this angry right-wing sensibility that speaks in — or pretends to speak in — the voice of the working class. It got its start, more or less, in 1968, with the candidacy of George Wallace. The issues that the Backlash has embraced have changed a lot over the years. In the early days it was pretty much racist. Today, you have the same angry, hard-done-by sensibility, but it’s attached to different issues – the most famous being abortion, and, in this latest election, gay marriage.
The Great Backlash has a way of thinking about the people vs. the elite, which is one of the classic hallmarks of populists. According to your standard populism — your left-wing variety — it’s working people against owners, or blue collar against white collar. It’s about social class. According to the Backlash, it’s basically everybody against what they call the “liberal elite,” who they generally identify by their tastes and fancy college educations. But it’s an amorphous term, they’ll apply it to anybody they feel like. It’s not a solid sociological category. Nonetheless, it’s extremely powerful. And conservatives throw this idea around all the time, basically unchallenged by liberals or by the left.
Do you think the traditional values of the left have as much appeal as the cultural values of the right? And is there a motivation besides just winning for Democrats to adopt a real values stance? As you wrote in your book, where is the soft money in that?
I think they definitely have as much appeal as the right-wing values. One of the most interesting things about the right-wing movement that’s so powerful today is that is borrows — or steals, if you will —so much of its language and its blueprint from the old left. The stereotype of liberals as these high-hat blue bloods, these effete, devitalized weaklings is straight out of your proletarian literature of the ’30s. Only back then it was a description of rich people.
I think the values of the left still have power. But something has become apparent to me since I moved to Washington, D.C. [from Chicago]. There is this aversion, bordering on hatred, for the left, especially among Democrats. People who dominate discussions in Democratic circles despise the left, and there is no way in hell they are going to embrace the values of the left. You can try to explain to them how they need to do it for strategic purposes or in order to win elections, [but] it doesn’t matter. The Democratic centrists got their way [in the 2004 presidential election], they got their candidate, they got their way on everything, and they still lost. And who gets the blame? It’s going to be the left.
Is there a danger that Democrats could manipulate the language of economic populism (like the conservatives manipulate the language of culture) but still pander to big business?
You mean could they do this in a disingenuous fashion? Of course they could. But I don’t think it would play very well. When you’re talking about economic populism, you’re talking about bread and butter issues. The Republicans have the advantage in that their populism is a matter of fantasy. And so their voters don’t really care that they never gain any ground on their populist issues. Because they don’t really expect to.
If the labor movement had more traction in this country, then would the Democrats be more inclined to embrace traditional populist values?
There’s no question about that. The problem is that unions have been beaten pretty badly. There’s always hope. Back in the ’30s, the labor movement just came out of nowhere, and had its great organizing drives. And it did it more or less by itself, not with a lot of help from the Democratic Party. The funny thing was that when that happened, it was in the middle of a depression. … ordinarily that’s a very difficult time to be organizing people and they really captured this cultural position where it was very attractive to join a union.
In your book you examine the debate over “authenticity” — do you propose to abolish this pursuit to identify the needs and values of the “real” American or to redefine what a “real” American is?
I think we have to play the game of authenticity. The first step is recognizing that the conservatives have been doing it for a long time, and they’ve been doing it without any effective answer from our side. Authenticity is an incredibly powerful commodity in our day and age. There is this sort of culture of soft suburban liberals who are very into authenticity. But in their minds, authenticity is the stuff you read about in travel magazines, whereas Middle America is this horrible, plastic monstrosity that you’re supposed to flee from. The Republicans have just reversed that. The Middle American in his Chevy going to McDonald’s – that’s authentic. They’ve captured this idea of all-American authenticity, and it has to be challenged. But you can’t challenge it by saying American culture is hollow and conformist and stupid. That’s not going to work.
So you’d rather say something like the real American has two jobs and no healthcare?
The Republicans are incredibly vulnerable in many ways. Both in terms of culture and their brand positioning, and in terms of the contradictions between what they say and what they do. Between this world of all-American, regular people that they imagine and the world that they give us, like you just said, where people have to work two jobs to stay afloat, [is a wide gap]. Hammer that contradiction.
Unrestrained free-market capitalism is not the friend of average Americans. It’s not the friend of tradition and of small town values. It’s quite the opposite. It’s the great destroyer. But where are you going to find somebody in American politics to make an argument like that?
One of the things that you document in your book is how anti-abortion activists identify themselves with figures in the anti-slavery movement. And I read in another interview that you attended a party during Republican convention where people were putting Purple Heart band-aids on their clothes. You talk about how it would be really easy to poke holes in these various assertions that are made by conservatives. But if we can’t even address these obvious contradictions….
The Purple Heart band-aids — those were given out at a party sponsored by Grover Norquist’s group Americans for Tax Reform. The idea being that if a liberal gets one, than a Purple Heart is a joke. Everybody at the party had these on, and they thought it was so funny. And the party was being held at the New York Yacht Club. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect set piece for what Republicans are about — they were toasting tax cuts, making fun of Purple Heart winners, at the New York Yacht Club!
In your epilogue you wrote, “Encouraging demographic self-recognition and self-expression through products is, similarly, the bread and butter not of leftist ideology but of consumerism.” What kind of arguments specifically do Democrats and leftists have to make to distinguish their ideology from a consumer ideology so as not to be blamed for the crap that’s out there in the media?
That’s a very hard question to answer. The problem comes when [populist conservatives] pin people’s disgust with the culture around them on free-floating liberalism. And it just ain’t so. Just before I got on the phone with you, I was reading that Clear Channel is in trouble with the FCC for some indecency infringement. Now Clear Channel is not a bunch of liberals! Fox is another [example] — run by conservative Rupert Murdoch, the same man that brings you Fox News. Fox is consistently the most offensive TV network, the one that’s willing to stoop the lowest in search of the most outrageous program. Market values go hand in hand with that sort of thing.
This argument is something that instinctively makes sense, and if you just made it you’d find it would resonate with people. But Democrats are very afraid to make arguments like that about the free market. They don’t want people thinking that they’re some kind of radicals. And also they don’t want to lose the funding from the business community. And this year that was so critical to them, they almost raised as much as W.
So how do Democrats make the argument?
They just have to bite the bullet and try it. We’ve got to do something new. But they’re not going to do anything unless they’re pushed, unless there are forces on the ground making them do something. And it’s our job to stir up those forces.
Have you heard any stories from people who’ve said that they’ve given your book to conservative relatives or friends?
I have gotten some amazing letters — especially from people in Kansas. I got one the other day from someone that I met when I was out there, and she said that her dad and her brother totally fit the description of backlash personality type. She said that they will, when they’re sitting around the dinner table, say things like, “Someday liberal blood is going to have to be shed. That’s the only way this is going to end.”
What’s your next project?
I think I’m going to write about what the Democrats have to do. Don’t you think that’s the thing?