Thomas Frank, Author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Discussed the Populist Right, and How They've Been Fooled by Conservatives

Thomas Frank ( Democracy Now )

Thomas Frank (Democracy Now)

Thomas Frank is one of the most insightful authors in understanding how the rural, working class and high school educated could vote Republican, even though they are “self-cannibalizing” themselves. He also provides an acerbic perspective on how the national Democratic Party has largely abandoned the working class. This 2004 interview and book — “What’s the Matter With Kansas — is another example of why Trump is not an exception from Republican politics over the last decades. Indeed, he is the logical degraded culmination of a party that has exploited hate and grievance politics. Toss in some gasoline on race and promotion of white supremacy, and you have Trump. All he did was distill the long-term trends of the GOP and remove the thin veneer of civility that used to cover the debased appeal of the party to voters.

This was originally posted in August, 2004.


One of the nicest things about BuzzFlash, as compared to book reviewers, is that we only have to write about and offer books that we like. After all, why would we want our readers to buy premiums that they wouldn't be interested in?

But even as we have the good fortune to read so many great books, we even have the more thrilling experience of occasionally coming across a relatively unpublicized book that dazzles us. (We are deluged with books, DVDs, CDs, and novelty items to consider as premiums.)

Such a book is "What's the Matter with Kansas? How the Conservatives Won the Heart of America."

First, you need to understand the basic premise of "What's the Matter." A young journalist, Thomas Frank, returns to his home state to ponder how Kansas -- once a hot bed of agrarian populism -- had evolved into a red state that epitomizes how middle class white America has been seduced by the lure of the right wing. It is a Republican Party/Swindler leadership that exploits the residents of fly-over country into self-cannibalizing themselves by supporting an ideology that dooms them to diminishing job opportunities and lower wages.

Think of Ronald Reagan (although an Illinois native) as Frank observes, "If Kansas is the concentrated essence of normality, then this is where we can see the deranged gradually become normal, where we can look in that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American face -- class president, quarterback, Rhodes scholar, bond trader, builder of industry -- and realize that we are staring into the eyes of a lunatic."

Kansas is a political land of Oz where looting executives of a company called Westar practiced the maxim, "socialize the risk, privatize the profits."

Frank sees Kansans exploited by Republican hucksters who then blame the woes of the underpaid and overworked on Eastern liberals. It's a demagoguery that can only continue spiraling downward until it implodes.

But Frank doesn't spare the Democrats: "The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school prayer; it's that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans, they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about class -- in a coded way, to be sure -- but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up."

This guy is music to BuzzFlash's ears.

But don't expect a happy ending. As Frank concludes, "Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse. It invites us all to join in, to lay down our lives so that others might cash out at the top; to renounce forever our middle-American prosperity in pursuit of a crimson fantasy of middle-American righteousness."

A brilliantly written analysis of how the snake oil salesmen of the Republican Party sold out their wares in Kansas -- and in far too many states in America. Because Frank is writing both about the State of Kansas in specific -- and about its symbolic political implications.

After describing how the 1998 Kansas State Republican Party Platform turned into a document pledging the party to fringe "cultural divide" goals and a series of pro-plutocracy laws, Frank lays it out as clearly as an Alpine stream.

"Let us pause for a moment to ponder this all-American dysfunction," surveying the fanatical flotsam and jetsam of the document. "A state is spectacularly ill served by the Reagan-Bush stampede of deregulation, privatization, and laissez-faire. It sees its countryside depopulated, its towns disintegrate, its cities stagnate -- and its wealthy enclaves sparkle, behind their remote-controlled gates. The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention. But what do its rebels demand? More of the very measures that brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place.

"This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible."

"What's the Matter with Kansas" is a small masterpiece of political-sociological analysis by a young, masterful essayist who clearly, in this book, has found his zone.

* * *

BuzzFlash: "If Kansas is the concentrated essence of normality, then this is where we can see the deranged gradually become normal, where we can look in that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American face – class president, quarterback, Rhodes scholar, bond trader, builder of industry – and realize that we’re staring into the eyes of a lunatic."

Your book explains that statement. It’s a kind of shocking statement in many ways -- it could be Ronald Reagan you’re talking about, that head of the Rotary Club.

Thomas Frank: That’s very good. The image that I was thinking of when I wrote that was John Brown. It was a famous painting in Topeka, a mural of John Brown. Every kid in Kansas gets brought to Topeka to see it. John Brown is three times life size, holding a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, with this wild look in his eyes. Behind him, soldiers of the two Civil War armies slaughter each other. That’s what I was going for -- that image of Kansas.

BuzzFlash: But you’re going for that image now with the right wing.

Thomas Frank: Yes, exactly. And the people that I’m talking about are the kind of people that I went to high school with that are pillars of the community, all these leaders of civic life. Then you start thinking about the ideas that prop their world up, and the ideas that make it all possible, and that these ideas are quite mad. Another image here, Heart of Darkness, is what I’m thinking of.

My last book, "One Market Under God," was about the new economy and the cultural climate of the late 90s -- the celebration and the feeling that we had finally achieved some transcendent economic state, and that we had solved all the problems facing mankind. There was this free-market consensus among everybody in society that nobody disagreed any more on economic issues, and all the dissent was a thing of the past. When you think about the way that world is presented, it’s very orderly. It’s like the advertisements on CNN where everything is in its place, and everything hums along beautifully, and the office is working just fine. My suggestion here is that it’s not that way. But the ideas that are actually making all this possible are foolish and harmful, and even crazy.

BuzzFlash: You draw quite a complicated picture here. I’ll summarize it as a reader, and you as the author can correct me. You have here basically a lower middle-class revolt against cultural values, a revolt in Kansas that you identified beginning with the anti-abortion movement there in the beginning of the 90s; that’s when they began that road to assume control of the Republican Party.

Thomas Frank: Yes, that’s when they picked up momentum and really got going.

BuzzFlash: And this is a group beyond anti-abortion. This is kind of the core crossover vote for the Republican Party -– many of these people would vote Democratic on economic issues, but the Republican Party has captured them in the cultural wars. In Kansas, they took over the Republican Party from the Republican elite. You grew up in Mission Hills --

Thomas Frank: Right.

BuzzFlash: -- with the kind of corporate Republicans who probably share more of the "cultural values" of the Democrats, if we define those as being pro-choice, pro-gun control. So there was this sort of "pitchfork rebellion" against the Republican elite. Then you had the Democrats who’d basically been wiped off the map in Kansas.

Thomas Frank: They’re marginal players. They’re still around, and I’m friends with those people, so it seems to me they’re completely gone.

BuzzFlash: Politically you wouldn’t call them very much of a viable force in Kansas.

Thomas Frank: No, not much.

BuzzFlash: And you have senators who are extremist – you know, Brownback and Roberts, total Bush administration kind of army, following the marching orders.

Thomas Frank: Brownback is a real piece of work. Actually, Roberts is not as bad; Roberts is an old-school Kansas Republican who has had to take on the coloring of conservatism in order to survive but –

BuzzFlash: But he’s completely loyal, and he has supported Bush.

Thomas Frank: Brownback, though, is outflanking Bush on the right. Brownback is like one of the great thinkers of the –- he’s a very interesting man.

BuzzFlash: It’s a complicated picture. Your point is, in Kansas you’ve had a rebellion based on the so-called cultural wedge issues -- though you say at this point that the pitchfork rebellion among the middle class and the working class, it’s as though they went to Mission Hills and said, we’re mad as hell so we’re going to cut your taxes -- meaning the taxes of the wealthy.

Thomas Frank: Yes, that is precisely what has happened.

BuzzFlash: You use Westar as an example of a Kansas company that became involved in an ethics issue that, of course, got buried -- a public utility that basically fleeced the investors -- and that Kansas is emblematic of how the wealthy elite of the Republican Party, the people who support Bush and Cheney, use cultural wedge issues to basically fleece the working class, and they happily march along.

Thomas Frank: That’s the only part of your summary that I would probably take a little bit of issue with, in the sense that that there’s no overt scheming by these people.

BuzzFlash: Now when you say "these people," who are you referring to?

Thomas Frank: I mean the conservatives have in some ways persuaded themselves that they’re very much responsible for their own situation. I don’t like to -– you know, I think they should be held accountable.

BuzzFlash: You’re talking about the pitchfork rebellion in Kansas.

Thomas Frank: I like that image, by the way -– the pitchfork rebellion. That’s totally what it is. There is a class revolt there on the right, and this is just very hard for people to get their heads around.

BuzzFlash: And you point out here that the Republicans at Mission Hills, for lack of a better phrase, are country-club Republicans who look down on these upstarts: Where did this trash come from? Why are they taking over our party?

Thomas Frank: And there’s incredible hostility the other way. When I would tell people that I was from Mission Hills, conservatives -- the pitchfork folks -- you should see the reaction. They’re extremely suspicious and hostile to those people.

BuzzFlash: One of the marvels of your book is I think you, unlike many writers who talk about people who are from a different class, you seem to empathize with the pitchfork rebellion. Not that you share their values, but you respect them as people. There’s a heavy-set woman who became one of the leaders, and you really create a sympathetic portrait of her and of most of the people. You don’t patronize them. You respect them as people. You let them have their say even though you disagree with where they’re coming from.

Thomas Frank: Absolutely. That was entirely my strategy in this book to let them have their say and try to understand them rather than just be contemptuous of them –- which, by the way, is how the local media has dealt with these people.

BuzzFlash: With contempt?

Thomas Frank: Oh, absolutely.

BuzzFlash: Because the people that run the papers are the Mission Hills people and the elite Republicans versus the working-class.

Thomas Frank: They also don’t understand the social issues – abortion and that sort of thing. In fact, in some ways, they deliberately misunderstood these things and thought that these people were demanding a return to segregation and stuff. They had very strange reactions to this. Look, I’m as pro-choice as they come, and I disagree with these people just right down the line on political issues. But I also understand that you can’t just blow them off like that. You can’t just misunderstand them that way. That’s not only unfair; it’s stupid.

BuzzFlash: The Republican Party, certainly under Karl Rove’s tutelage but back to Lee Atwater, has brought these people into the tent, though it doesn’t really respect them. Then you paint a portrait of a Kansas in which the number of family farms is dwindling, the working-class jobs are being outsourced, and the people most impacted by this are among the most loyal social conservatives and Republican voters. As the Republicans implement economic policies that hurt these people – this is at the heart of your book – they continue to vote for them.

Thomas Frank: Yes. That’s sort of the mystery. I’ve been thinking about this and talking about this with a lot with people lately. One of the biggest reasons is that the Democrats aren’t there complicating the picture -- and we’ll come to that in a minute -- but the other thing is that it’s very hard to understand these policies, because these aren’t things that just Bush has done. These are things that have been going on since Nixon, or at least in earnest since Ronald Reagan. And these policies have made a huge difference in the lives of these people. But it’s hard to say that this is because of the Republican standing right in front of you, like a guy like Sam Brownback, because you can listen to what he’s saying, and he’s saying things that you agree with.

Maybe in theory you think that the idea of a free market is okay, but nobody’s out there making the case for the other side –-- that we made a wrong turn back in the 70s and 80s, and that we shouldn’t have gone down the road that Ronald Reagan took us down. Nobody is making that case. Even the Democrats don’t argue that anymore. So it’s very hard for these issues to become something that you talk about. They’re off the table. They’re not up for discussion in Kansas or in many other places in America.

BuzzFlash: One of the ironies here is Kansas has a rich progressive history, particularly in agrarian populism vs. the robber baron railroads. You spend a lot of time discussing this -– you went back and retrieved editorials from those times. And, in a way, you’ve got a populism on the right now.

Thomas Frank: That’s exactly what’s going on. I should be right up front here -- my sympathies are very much with the old-time populist movement. When I was in graduate school, that was one of the first things that I studied, and it was like a discovery for me that my home state ever had this kind of radicalism. I didn’t even know that when I was growing up there. They never talk about that. So I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for the original populism. There’s no question that the right wing speaks the populist language and mobilizes the same demographics, the same people, that the old populism motivated. But it does so for precisely the opposite issues.

BuzzFlash: Not economic, but social issues.

Thomas Frank: Well, world view issues, belief issues, value issues. But the economic issues always get attached on there.

If we could go back to the last question for just a second -- when I would ask people about the economics question, about what’s happening to the state and what’s happening to the small farms and stuff like that, it’s as though they hadn’t thought about them. They weren’t things that they had considered. They certainly weren’t things that they had argued about in the political realm.

After the book came out, I was on a radio show in Kansas City, and the host had somehow coaxed a conservative state senator into phoning in the show to argue with me. We started talking about this stuff, and the host said, could it be that free-market policies have been a mistake for Kansas? And the senator was just dumbstruck by that. She’s like: What do you mean?

It’s like everybody thinks the free market is good -– everybody. There’s no question about it. So I launched into one of my things about anti-trust or something about Wal-Mart and how free-market policies have been really destructive. And she didn’t have an answer. It just had not occurred to her. These things are not up for debate. That was the response that I consistently got from these people.

BuzzFlash: You framed this in your book. The populist right -- not the wealthy right, but the populists, the people that are being hurt economically by the Bush administration policies and so forth – have a world view that’s, as you describe it, kind of monolithic. It all fits together, and if you take any of the bricks out, it might collapse. Therefore, they accept everything.

Thomas Frank: Including the free market.

BuzzFlash: Without analyzing its impact on them. It’s an extension of their faith, and the Republican Party represents that world view. So even if they’re being hurt by the economic policies, it doesn’t affect their faith because faith is something that’s unquestionable.

Thomas Frank: That’s a very good way of putting it. It is all part of a world view that fits together very precisely. Now there are certain places where this world view – where I think, with a strategic attack, the Democrats could break that coalition apart. In fact, I have no doubt that they could.

BuzzFlash: Although this is a very, very small part of your book, you do, in effect, chastise the Democrats and say they have been so hesitant to use class as an issue, while the Republicans have usurped it as an issue, and successfully so. The Democrats keep saying, we’ll lose if we run on that, while the Republicans are winning running on that.

Thomas Frank: Yes, exactly. And it’s precisely because the Democrats won’t take up that battle and won’t talk that old language of economic populism that Republicans are able to get away with this kind of hallucinatory class world that they live in. The Republicans talk about social class all the time, and it’s delusional. It’s the stuff that Limbaugh and O’Reilly talk about all the time. The Democrats need to challenge that.

BuzzFlash: Although this is a very, very small part of your book, you do, in effect, chastise the Democrats and say they have been so hesitant to use class as an issue, while the Republicans have usurped it as an issue, and successfully so. The Democrats keep saying, we’ll lose if we run on that, while the Republicans are winning running on that.

Thomas Frank: Yes, exactly. And it’s precisely because the Democrats won’t take up that battle and won’t talk that old language of economic populism that Republicans are able to get away with this kind of hallucinatory class world that they live in. The Republicans talk about social class all the time, and it’s delusional. It’s the stuff that Limbaugh and O’Reilly talk about all the time. The Democrats need to challenge that.

The way you challenge it is by talking about the real economic world that we live in. However, doing that would mean turning away or making Wall Street very unhappy and the corporate world very unhappy. That is political death in this day and age because that’s where the money comes from.

Since I moved to Washington, I’ve learned a lot about the ways of the Democratic Party, and one of the things that they are constantly trying to prove is that they are safe to corporate America and that corporate America doesn’t have to worry about them –- you know, Harry Truman threatening to nationalize some industry, or Franklin Roosevelt jacking up the tax on various corporate transactions, or something like that. They want to persuade the corporate world that they’re never going to do that sort of thing again, and so they have sworn off this language.

BuzzFlash: The Republicans have succeeded on the cultural wedge issues –- the let-them-eat-cake approach because, as you point out in your book, they toss out all this raw meat, but nothing ever really changes. Look at the effort to pass the Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which died on the vine.

Thomas Frank: It’s a perfect example of what I describe in the book. They have chosen a cultural battle where failure is a given, where it’s absolutely certain before they even start. And why do that? There’s a hundred ways they could challenge that Massachusetts court ruling if they wanted to, but they chose to go with a Constitutional amendment, the one thing that is absolutely certain to fail.

I argue that failure is but part of the DNA of the cultural wars. The Republicans who have been very, very successful in remaking the economic landscape that we live in don’t deliver on the cultural front. They always lose. Hollywood movies just get coarser and coarser every year. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the conservative world –- that these cultural issues that motivate people by the millions are never won.

BuzzFlash: You point out that this is one of the key characteristics of the pitchfork rebellion in Kansas. The Republicans -– Rush Limbaugh, for instance, is the best example -– fans the flames of making these people feel they are victims of a liberal elite that really doesn’t exist. The people who run Hollywood and who own all the major networks, Viacoms, GE, Disney --

Thomas Frank: Liberals.

BuzzFlash: Disney wouldn’t distribute "Farenheit 9/11." All the people that Rush Limbaugh is denouncing are the networks, and they are run by Republican contributors. It’s like the people who are benefiting from the tax breaks and economic policies of the current Bush administration, and Bush I and Reagan, are really the people responsible for disseminating the cultural dross, if you want to call it that, that the pitchfork rebellion crowd rebels against. And yet there’s a bait-and-switch here because Rush Limbaugh says blame it on the liberal elite.

Thomas Frank: That is exactly right. You’ve raised a number of very interesting points there. The basic idea of victimhood on the right – it’s even worse than Rush Limbaugh. His brother wrote a book and the title is one of these one-word titles that conservatives love: "Persecution." The idea is that Christians are persecuted right here in the U.S. of A. -– you know, right here, right now, Christians are being persecuted by the liberal elite, of course.

The idea is that there is this elite that controls society, and that there’s almost nothing you can do about it. You are powerless and helpless before these people, and they fiddle with your culture. They change what’s on TV, and they change the language however they want. They’re not accountable and there’s almost nothing you can do about it except get mad. This is the conservative fantasy of victimhood -– that they are society’s greatest victims.

This is particularly interesting, given that a guy like Limbaugh and a guy like O’Reilly love to talk about the culture of victimization. Conservative pop culture has the biggest victim fantasy of them all. You raise another very important issue, which is one of the things that I want people to take away from the book, and that is the gigantic contradiction in conservatism that the free market capitalism that they profess to love delivers this culture that they find so offensive and so abhorrent.

The only way they can get out of this contradiction is to imagine a liberal conspiracy that controls things, so they can get free-market capitalism off the hook. All you have to do is talk about this. If the Democrats just talked about this, I think that contradiction could be made unavoidable. And that contradiction is fatal for conservatism, in my opinion.

BuzzFlash: That’s what we specialize in -- opposing the hypocrisy of the Republican Party. The Democrats, as you point out, have generally been silent on this.

Thomas Frank: They’re not too interested in this.

BuzzFlash: Are you familiar with the linguist George Lakoff from Berkeley who talks about framing, and how the Republicans are tremendous at framing issues?

Thomas Frank: Yes.

BuzzFlash: What they’ve in essence done is create this massive distraction and shifted the world view of people into victimhood, and this distracts them from the economic issues.

Your book is marvelous, because as a reader I feel that even though I disagree with the pitchfork rebellion and everything about it, that these are basically decent people. They aren’t evil. They’re being manipulated, perhaps, by evil people. You describe one guy who works as a bottler on an assembly line, and he led the anti-abortion movement in his spare time.

Thomas Frank: The first I’d heard about this guy was I read a denunciation of him on page one of the local newspaper, an editorial calling him names. And I thought: Wow, that’s amazing. Who is this guy? He turns out to be a mine worker at a bottling plant.

BuzzFlash: He basically created the anti-abortion movement in Kansas, which led to the takeover of the Republican Party by the pitchfork rebellion. He’s just this working-class guy who was on a mission.

Thomas Frank: In some ways it’s a very inspiring story, and it’s the kind of thing that you just don’t hear on the left any more. It’s the sort of story I’ve been looking for all my life.

BuzzFlash: You don’t agree with what this guy goes for, but you admire his gumption and his tenacity.

Thomas Frank: Absolutely. It’s the very thing that I’ve been looking for all my life and I finally find it. And by God, it’s the people that I disagree with the most.

BuzzFlash: Shouldn’t that tell the Democrats something in terms of motivation and populism? I mean, this guy is a working-class populist for the right. He had an idea. He believed in it. He went around the state organizing in his free time, all the time supporting himself as an assembly-line bottler.

Thomas Frank: That’s what the Democrats used to be about 50-60 years ago. That’s who they were. That’s who the labor movement was in this country. If we don’t recover that, I think the Democrats are done for as a party. They have to be able to tell stories like that of their own.

As for the portrait of Kansas, there’s a sort of Hieronymus Bosch thing going on -- that’s another image. As you say, I admire their tenacity and how hard they worked and the effects that they’ve achieved. But those effects have been to make life worse for themselves and people like them. There’s one state legislator that I interviewed, a woman who is from a very working-class walk of life. She sort of made headlines around the country for saying that whatever amendment it was that gave women the right to vote, that this was a bad idea, that this shouldn’t have had to happen.

BuzzFlash: She’s a happy grandmother and very happy to be subservient to her husband.

Thomas Frank: She’s a state legislator who thinks that women voting is probably not a good idea; she denied ever saying this when I talked to her. It’s controversial there that she says she didn’t say it. The newspapers quoted her saying it. But, yes, she’s a state legislator, votes all the time, and she thinks that it’s a bad idea that women have the right to vote. That’s what I’m talking about -– Hieronymus Bosch. A crazy world, that nightmare world.

BuzzFlash: You end on a sort of despairing note -– that this is not going to get better. It’s sort of self-immolating since the victimhood will continue because of the cultural values that the Republican leaders, Bush and Cheney type, use to manipulate these people. It’s like the war on terror. There’s no end, so you just keep stoking the coals. And you keep spiraling down economically as you see in terms of family farms and industry.

Thomas Frank: And as long as that anger –- you know, these people should be angry. They have a right to be angry about their situation in life, and they have a right to be angry about the culture. What’s funny is that the Republicans supply them a way of being angry about these things that doesn’t fix the problem –- it just makes the problem worse. But it’s very satisfying. They get to listen to their favorite radio show, tune into Fox News. Get very, very angry. Get out and mobilize, go marching down the street, and then propose solutions that only make the problem worse.

BuzzFlash: Or there no solutions to the perceived problem?

Thomas Frank: It’s a cycle that feeds on itself. And the only way it’s going to be interrupted is for the Democrats and the labor movement or somebody like that to bring back the old-school populism, which, as we discussed, that’s going to be very difficult. I wish that would happen, but it’s going to be very difficult. And so it feeds on itself and gets worse.

BuzzFlash: I don’t recall you using the word demagoguery. But that’s how we look at it in terms of what people like Karl Rove do, what Lee Atwater did, what Frank Lutz the pollster does, what Newt Gingrich does -- they keep emotionally distracting people.

In reading this, the thing I don’t understand is if you take an individual like this Kansas state senator who thinks women shouldn’t have the right to vote, or has been quoted saying as much, and who thinks women should be subservient. She’s a nice person and so forth. OK, that’s your life. You be subservient to your husband. But don’t impose it upon me. The thing that’s so scary about this populist rebellion is that the Republican Party uses for its economic goals, or it’s a distraction to achieve its economic goals. But the pitchfork rebellion really wants to assert a world view on other Americans. That’s what I find scary. They claim victimhood, but their goals are really to assert their values on the nation as a whole – i.e., Christian values.

Thomas Frank: Yes, that’s true.

BuzzFlash: And there’s a fundamental paradox there.

Thomas Frank: Right, sometimes they say they want to be left alone. But what they mean by being left alone is you do it my way.

BuzzFlash: If you want to send your kid to a Christian school, go ahead. If you don’t want to watch television because it’s corrupt, don’t watch television. I don’t see how America is stopping them from living a godly life as they see it. In some ways, and this is an extreme comparison, they’re not that different from the Taliban. They want a state that reflects their personal values. And yet America was founded on being a secular state that respects the rights of individuals to pursue their own values.

Thomas Frank: Look, I totally agree with that interpretation. The only reason I don’t go into that side of things in the book is because these people have had so little success in getting anything done -– in actually changing the culture -– that I’m not really afraid that they’re ever going to be able to inflict their values on me. But yes, of course, if they were ever able to do it, it’s monstrous. They want to remake this country as a Christian nation -– it’s absolutely contrary to what American democracy is about.

BuzzFlash: Let’s take that issue of message framing, particularly how it relates to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the DLC. Do the Democrats take a deep gulp and finally say yes, this is class warfare. You started it. And we’re going to come to the defense of the people in the middle and working classes.

Thomas Frank: They have to do that. I think they have to do it for their own self-preservation. They have to do it if they want to win elections. I think that’s one of the reasons why they brought a guy like John Edwards on board. Kerry does not talk that language. Kerry does not have the populist touch. But Edwards does, and I think they realized that. But I’ve been arguing for years that the Democrats will have to come around to this for self-preservation. I was just talking to a friend of mine here in New York last night, and she disagrees. She thinks they would rather lose than move to the left. They would rather die as a party than move to the left. Maybe she’s right. Certainly the DLC would -– they would sooner become Republicans than move to the left.

I have a friend, Rick Perlstein, who wrote a book about the Goldwater campaign in ’64. It’s a very interesting book with a lot of lessons for liberals and for Democrats, in the sense that Goldwater didn’t have a prayer, but his politics are now normal. Goldwater, at the time, was regarded as being beyond what was acceptable, saying things that were outrageous and maybe even crazy, and he lost in a huge landslide. Today, Goldwater would be a moderate Republican. In fact, by the end of his life, he was a moderate Republican, because his ideas had become so mainstream and were so widely accepted.

Democrats need to be able to challenge the existing system in that way. Progressives have to be able to do this. Democrats -- who knows? Progressives have to take up this kind of challenge. They have to find their Goldwater -- somebody who can get things moving in the right direction.

BuzzFlash: If the Democrats find that sort of passionate leadership that can reframe the issues, they may bring over these people who have been part of the pitchfork rebellion because it’s speaking to their interests. But right now, the Democrats aren’t speaking to their interests.

Thomas Frank: I think that’s absolutely true. I think that you could very easily win a lot of these people over if you were to talk about class issues in an economic sense. In fact, this guy told me in Wichita, which is a city that used to be Democratic -- when Clinton signed off on NAFTA and basically signaled that he accepted the whole Reagan economic agenda, that was the moment when he could no longer vote Democratic. Because of the values questions, he was already sympathetic with the Republicans. But on his material self-interest, he voted Democratic. But once the Democrats gave up on that, they had nothing more to offer him.

BuzzFlash: So if you have the Democrats basically forming a consensus position on economic policy, which has been the case with so many having supported the tax cuts and NAFTA, you’re really left with incremental differences. If I’m a Christian American and I have a value structure, that’s pretty much what I have to vote on.

Thomas Frank: Exactly.

BuzzFlash: Thank you very much, Thomas Frank. Great book.

Thomas Frank: It’s been a wonderful interview. It sounds like you’ve really understood the book. You’re one of the first interviewers who has.

BuzzFlash: Well, it’s a great book. Obviously a lot of people are reading it, and I think you’re contribution to this reframing process hopefully will meet with some success on the Democratic side. If not, welcome to Hieronymus Bosch.


Mark KarlinComment