Just Above Sunset
July 25, 2004 - Kansas

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Last week in Kansas and the FMA: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a ... The Importance of Martyrdom to the Conservative Movement you will find a discussion of Thomas Frank, the fellow who wrote the recent book "What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America" – and that was mentioned in Just Above Sunset the previous week in The Book Wrangler, Bob Patterson’s column. There are lots of reviews available, should you find the topic of interest - how the “heart of America” is now solidly conservative evangelical Christian Republican and pro-big-business, anti-gay, anti-abortion and of course totally anti-French and anti-UN and anti-Canadian, and certainly against any kind of special treatment for “colored folks” and against any public services for those dusky immigrants who talk in funny languages, and against the public school system and all the rest.  You know, the folks who long for a Christian theocracy to counter the evil folks out in Hollywood – like me.

How did that happen? Oh, read the book.

Eric Alterman has and reviews it in American Progress this week – July 22nd – under the title Think Again: 'As Goes Kansas...’- and he opens referring to a famous line that opens Anna Karenina, if memory serves.


All nations are unique, as either George Orwell or Leo Tolstoy might have said had either one thought about it, but some are unique-er than others. Because it is unique in so many ways simultaneously, the United States of America is perhaps unique-est. How you feel about this depends on your personal priorities. If for instance, you hate counting in meters or measuring things by kilograms, or if you think it's everybody's God-given right to own an automatic submachine gun, then this is pretty much the only country for you. The same is true, alas, if you think it perfectly natural that people living from paycheck to paycheck should support a political party whose aim is to redistribute what little wealth they enjoy to millionaires and billionaires.

The conundrum remains barely acknowledged by the political media, but the question of just why much of the American working class, alone among those of capitalist democracies, should support the party of plutocracy is the topic of Thomas Frank's new book, "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Have Won the Heart of America." As Frank noted in a recent op-ed, "You can see the paradox firsthand on nearly any Main Street in Middle America, where "going out of business" signs stand side by side with placards supporting George W. Bush," and yet no one seems to find anything odd or interesting in this paradox.


That sums it up in a nutshell. People working against their own self-interests, or for higher interests.

What is that about? This -


… the American right has found a way to exploit "social issues" such as school prayer, immigration and gay marriage to obscure their positions on the typical "bread-and-butter" issues that dominate virtually every other industrialized nation's elections and used to determine ours. Frank finds the So-Called Liberal Media (SCLM) complicit in this operation. He writes that "Conservatives are only able to compartmentalize business as a realm totally separate from politics because the same news media whose "liberal bias" [they] love to deride has long accepted such compartmentalism as a basic element of professional journalistic practice."


Thus it is a shell game. Business and politics are NOT connected. We are fed a stream of disinformation –


…that so-called Blue-state Midwestern America is a land where traditional American values survive the relentless assault of effete latte-consuming liberals who laugh at the rural rubes and teach their children French. "For more than three decades," Frank opines, that conservatives in America have relied on the "culture war" to rescue their chances every four years, from Richard Nixon's campaign against the liberal news media to George H. W. Bush's campaign against the liberal flag-burners. In this culture war, the real divide is between "regular people" and an endlessly scheming "liberal elite." This strategy allows them to depict themselves as friends of the common people even as they gut workplace safety rules and lay plans to turn Social Security over to Wall Street. Most important, it has allowed these same class-warriors to speak the language of populism."


Yep, a neat trick.  You may be screwed over by big business, but at least they won’t force you to learn French and make nice with those odd gay people.  You’re life may be an economic shambles, but you’re not a sissy.

The trick?


By casting the right as the guardians of traditional American values, conservatives effectively crowd out any discussion of the effect on everyday Americans' lives of their beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies.


And folks buy it.

Alterman cites reviews of Frank’s thesis - Josh Chafetz in the New York Times Book Review saying, "A large number of the Democratic faithful view the Midwest and evangelical Christians as socially backward, politically amusing and religiously nutty -- and the objects of this disdain are sick of it.  The more than 65 million Midwesterners are sick of being considered ‘flyover country’ ... The estimated 70 million evangelical Americans are sick of being called wing nuts or Jesus freaks. And the socially conservative are sick of being derided as Neanderthals."

The idea is Frank has it wrong – these people are truly aggrieved.

And Alterman cites George Will saying Frank's arguments show the kind of "fevered thinking [that] is a staple of what historian Richard Hofstadter called 'the paranoid style in American politics,' a style practiced, even pioneered, a century ago by prairie populists. You will hear its echo in John Edwards's lament about the "two Americas" - the few rich victimizing the powerless many."

Yep.  They aren’t victims of an economic conspiracy - these people are truly aggrieved.

Well, maybe they are, and they’d rather be screwed over economically than made fun of.

But Alterman says this is a particularly cynical strategy – “because it is predicated not only obscuring the political interests of those whose emotions are manipulated, but also because the forces behind it have little if any interest in actually delivering on the cultural issues with which they manage to muddy up debate.”

Yep, the FMA went down in flames and we are no closer to the longer-for evangelical Christian theocracy that would make things all better in Kansas – or not that much closer.

But as the original Just Above Sunset comments, martyrdom is key to the appeal of the conservative movement.  And Alterman is right - Democrats and liberals have had little success preaching a populist economic agenda in areas of the nation where so-called "family values" reign supreme.

When you are feeling, deeply, put upon - and intensely aggrieved - logic is a scare commodity.

Oh well. Bush will carry Kansas.  His folks know what buttons to push.

The Democrats have no clue.  FDR is long gone.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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