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On Kansas And Populism

Writing on the LA Times op-ed page, Tom Frank gives us a précis of his new book, What's The Matter With Kansas. The general theme is that the working class no longer stands with the Democratic Party in part because it's so enthralled by cultural conservatism, but also because the Democratic Party no longer really stands for working class economics.

This is the sort of thing one hears often enough from people who on the merits favor a more populist approach to economic policy, and also to some extent from conservatives who delight in the idea that the GOP is now the real party of the people. It's always worth pointing out that the conservatism of the working class is often exaggerated. If you look at the 2000 exit polls or any general election poll today you'll see that people with low incomes support the Democrats more than do people with middling incomes who, in turn, are more supportive than people with high incomes. What the "working class conservatives" analysis misses out is that outside of Kansas a really large proportion of poor people are black or Hispanic, and those people certainly feel that the Democrats stand for working class interests and they, in turn, support the Democrats. Another large class of poor people consists of single working white women who, again, support the Democrats.

The upshot is that Democrats don't have a "working class problem" it's a white working class problem and, to a large extent, a problem with white, working class men.

That ought to make us at least prima facie suspicious that the problem is really that the Democrats don't support an economic program that's in the interests of the working class. Non-white working class people think they do, and many working class white women think they do, and it would be odd if the Democrats had somehow come up with economic policies that work for working class blacks and working class Latinos and single working class white women, but not for working class white men or married working class white women. It's hard to imagine what policies like that would be.

So it's worth considering the possibility that cultural conservatism really is about culture rather than some deficiency in the economic agenda. The question, then, is what it would take to change the equasion around. Frank's op-ed is ambiguous between two possibilities -- one is that roughly the same economic agenda could appeal to Kansas if the Democrats were willing to drop cultural liberalism. Another is that Kandas would swallow cultural liberalism if it were yoked to a more robustly populist economic agenda. Now I met Tom Frank once, and I'm pretty sure he'd be a lot happier with the latter scenario than with the former one, but maybe he would prefer the former scenario to the status quo. I can't really say a great deal about that, nor do I have a huge amount of personal concern about this because I think that most of the proposals to make the Dems more populist on economics are wrong on the merits, but it's still worth thinking about a bit.

I can say that a few weeks ago I was talking to a Democratic pollster who said she'd just be trying to assess the viability of the "win-win" scenario where the Democrats go far enough left on economics to stay left on culture and still to better among rural whites. She said she really wanted it to be the case that this strategy would work, but near as she can tell from her research, it won't. What boosted Democratic fortunes among rural whites was simply moving right on culture. I haven't seen the underlying research, but that's what she said, and I don't think it should be dismissed out of hand.

It also should be said that those white Democrats who perform successfully in, say, the South, don't seem to do it by moving left on economics. Instead, they do it by moving right a bit on both the cultural and the economic issues. Frank spends some time in the op-ed dissing the DLC as being responsible for the party's poor fate in Kansas, but it's worth pointing out that almost all of the DLC's founders (including Bill Clinton, the implicit bête noir of the piece) and most of its current leaders are, in fact, from the South. Now maybe these guys all just have it terribly wrong, or maybe the politics of the South are radically different from the politics of the plains (certainly they have been quite different at certain points in time, though it seems to me that they've been similar in the postwar era) so this analysis doesn't hold. But I wouldn't be so sure.

If you think leftwing economics are right on the merits, then good for you, and good luck trying to convince me (over the past couple of years I've been convinced that I should move left on some of these topics, and might be pursuaded to move furhter left) and others that you're right. But I think it's dangerous and, frankly, wrong to believe that there's electoral gold hidden in that agenda that Democrats have unaccountably failed to mine.

July 18, 2004 | Permalink

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» What's the matter with a little liberal humility? from Jack O'Toole
True story: About six months ago, several things broke down at about the same time on my in-laws' small farm in rural South Carolina. First, the septic system went. Then it was the electricity. And finally, to top it all off, a colony of termites suddenly [Read More]

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» What's the Matter With Kansas? from Political Animal
WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?....Jack O'Toole writes about some problems his rural in-laws had on their farm a few months ago:The septic tank was a total loss; got to put in a new one, sir -- the gummint, you know?... [Read More]

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» What's the Matter With Kansas South Carolina? from Political Animal
WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS SOUTH CAROLINA?....Jack O'Toole writes about some problems his rural in-laws had on their farm a few months ago:The septic tank was a total loss; got to put in a new one, sir -- the gummint,... [Read More]

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» What's the Matter With Kansas South Carolina? from Political Animal
WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS SOUTH CAROLINA?....Jack O'Toole writes about some problems his rural in-laws had on their farm a few months ago:The septic tank was a total loss; got to put in a new one, sir -- the gummint,... [Read More]

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» What's the Matter With Kansas South Carolina? from Political Animal
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» BACK TO KANSAS from MaxSpeak, You Listen!
Some further thoughts on this issue. In re: the question of why workers side with cultural conservatives and renounce their economic, class interests. Jack O'Toole via Kevin makes an important point: Democrats tend to gloss over regressive distribution... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 20, 2004 12:30:39 PM

» BACK TO KANSAS from MaxSpeak, You Listen!
Some further thoughts on this issue. In re: the question of why workers side with cultural conservatives and renounce their economic, class interests. Jack O'Toole via Kevin makes an important point: Democrats tend to gloss over regressive distribution... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 20, 2004 12:32:49 PM

» BACK TO KANSAS from MaxSpeak, You Listen!
Some further thoughts on this issue. In re: on workers siding with cultural conservatives and renouncing their economic, class interests. Jack O'Toole via Kevin makes an important point: Democrats tend to gloss over regressive distributional effects of... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 20, 2004 12:35:24 PM

» BACK TO KANSAS from MaxSpeak, You Listen!
Some further thoughts on this issue. In re: on workers siding with cultural conservatives and renouncing their economic, class interests. Jack O'Toole via Kevin makes an important point: Democrats tend to gloss over regressive distributional effects of... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 20, 2004 12:41:12 PM

» Kansas, class, sex and race from coffee grounds
I haven't read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, but that won't stop me commenting on the comments ... Matthew Yglesias writes: It's always worth pointing out that the conservatism of the working class is often exaggerated. If you... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 21, 2004 3:00:17 PM

Comments

Well, ok, appears you may know more about this than I do, so I will take this quite seriously.

But I think it is a fact that the bottom two quintiles have lost real economic ground relative to those above them in the last thirty years, and the Democratic party has lost ground to Republicans, at least in Congress, and I need to be convinced this is coincidence. Or due perhaps to the fact that the Democratic party has moved culturally to the left in the last thirty years, but this could be due to losing those "Reagan Republicans" who would pull the party rightwards.

And white rural males, IIRC, are the demographic that has lost the most ground economically in the last few decades.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 18, 2004 11:51:07 PM

Mr. Yglesias--

This is the first time I've responded to any blog that I've been reading. Hope I'm doing this respectfully.

"It also should be said that those white Democrats who perform successfully in, say, the South, don't seem to do it by moving left on economics. Instead, they do it by moving right a bit on both the cultural and the economic issues. Frank spends some time in the op-ed dissing the DLC as being responsible for the party's poor fate in Kansas, but it's worth pointing out that almost all of the DLC's founders (including Bill Clinton, the implicit bête noir of the piece) and most of its current leaders are, in fact, from the South. Now maybe these guys all just have it terribly wrong, or maybe the politics of the South are radically different from the politics of the plains (certainly they have been quite different at certain points in time, though it seems to me that they've been similar in the postwar era) so this analysis doesn't hold. But I wouldn't be so sure."

I just finished Frank's book, and I read his other book "One Market Under God." Frank's larger point is that the conservatives (with DLC cooperation) have been successful in detaching economics from culture, as if culture happened in a vacuum. By directing working-class anger toward abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, all the while getting them to also support removing estate taxes, outsourcing, destroying public education and making college tuition unreachable for working-class folks, the Right has basically gotten these people to vote against their best interests while gloriously "singing us into the apocalypse."

Frank's point about Bill Clinton was that his triangulation strategy was brilliant short-term but disastrous long-term, at least in terms of keeping working-class voters tied to the Dems. They took economic issues off the table, which is what the conservatives wanted all along. Without that to keep the focus on economic equality, it was only a matter of time before the conservatives would respond by focusing on the wedge issues which prey upon our political system today.

I don't know if it's worth a lot to go after Kansas. The state is basically disappearing as are the other plains states, with maybe the exception of Nebraska and the towns that line the Mississippi. (I guess Fargo, NoDak is becoming quite the Hip Place.) Kansas is not the South, so the point about the DLC being mostly Southern is rather irrelevant. Frank makes that fairly clear in a chapter that lays out Kansas' rather odd history.

While I do suspect there are some racial politics going on in the Plains states--my folks live in a town in North Dakota which is being destroyed by Wal-Mart and K-Mart, and they used to live in Denver which they felt was "being ruined by the minorities"--their concerns are very different from the South. It would be interesting to see the poll results from the last Senatorial elections and see how Brownback did amongst Kansas' African-American community. He has had some successes there, evidently--according to Frank.

All that being said, you do raise an interesting point at the end of your response to Frank's piece which I myself wondered about. I think Frank does leave a little too open on the side of the Dems going right culturally speaking. To go the way of Holy Joe or Zell Miller would be a disaster, and I don't think Frank is advocating that, but he doesn't foreclose it either.

Posted by: Richard Morell | Jul 18, 2004 11:53:44 PM

Oh, and that your groups perceive that the Democratic party supports their interests might merely mean that the Republicans are perceived as incredibly worse. It does not necessarily follow that the perception is the policy reality.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 18, 2004 11:54:38 PM

It also should be said that those white Democrats who perform successfully in, say, the South, don't seem to do it by moving left on economics. Instead, they do it by moving right a bit on both the cultural and the economic issues.

It can be argued that this is because the whole political narrative has been skewed by Dems championing cultural liberalism, and the resulting backlash amongst rural and exurban whites.

What is the subtext of all right wing railing against "big gummint". Is it that an excessive public sector crowds out more productive capital expenditures while skeweing incentives through an overly generous welfare state? Of course not!
It's that the gummint is run by snooty liberals who think they know better than you , want to take away your guns and want to make your kids gay marry.
Hence the talk aout independence, and the people know how best to spend their money.

If you're southern Democrat who's moved to the right on cultural issues, you still must decry big gummint so long as it's run by Harvard pencil kneck from New York and Taxachussettes.

However, if you were to start a culturally reactionary party which went on to great political success, then it could be argued that folks with middle American "values" were back in charge and it's okay to spend huge gobs of cash out of Washington again.

Posted by: WillieStyle | Jul 18, 2004 11:55:05 PM

I do think MY could stand a move to left on some economic issues, but I agree that this isn't exactly what's at issue.

I agree that the D's problem is with white working-class men, but non-white working-class men's continuing support of the D's has less to do with allegiance to New Dem economics than with these groups distrust or dislike of the GOP alternative. Frank argues in his book that conservativism is really about culture, but only because when D's abandoned working-class interests (eg NAFTA), cultural issues became the wedge issues the GOP could use against liberals.

I wouldn't expect the win-win scenario to show up in the polls primary because of the durability of cultural conservativism as a movement. I think Frank's arguing that in the long-term, the D's abandon the working class at their own peril. On the other hand, Edwards might been seen as the embodiment of this win-win.

I would suggest that plains politics and southern politics are quite different. Politics in KS more resembles IA, MN, & WI in this election cycle than it does most southern states. These are also states where Edwards-style politics are most popular. (Remember the WI primary?)

Anyway, read the book. It's much better than the editorials or the article.

Posted by: mark from kansas | Jul 18, 2004 11:59:10 PM

I think that it's a white problem but not so much a male problem. My guess is that in the areas in question the women are reasonably close to the men in politics. Probably excepting single mothers, divorcees, and single women generally, but a lot of those areas have less singleness. I think.

I think that "moving left" on economic issues is more difficult than moving either left or right on cultural issues, because it doesn't really count unless something concrete is accomplished. If 10 million white men actually got medical insurance for their families, I think that that would change their minds some, whereas proposals and promises wouldn't. A bird in the hand.

Whereas cultural politics can run on fumes.

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 19, 2004 12:24:10 AM

I think race is the pig in the python. The U.S. was following a moderately progressive agenda from 1930 on - and Western Europe was also on the same path - until the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's. That stopped the liberal agenda. To be sure, there is a limit in left economics, as the retreat by European countries demonstrates, but they moved rightward only a little bit and still have a substantial welfare program. Bottom line: The United States, unlike Europe, had a substantial minority that was held in low regard and which was perceived as getting most of the taxpayers dough.

Racism doesn't disappear with the passage of civil rights legislation. If one looks at other marginal groups (Irish, Italian), it takes about 100 years to fully integrate into society (remember Mario Cuomo's resentment of his treatment?). My guess is that it will take about the same amount of time for African Americans. About four generations. Ending slavery is not the starting point, it is the end of Jim Crow and related social patterns which began in the 1960s.

Posted by: Quiddity | Jul 19, 2004 2:28:49 AM

Something of interest: I occasionally read Free Republic, and one thing that I've noticed is that whenever a thread concerning free trade comes up, virtually every poster is angrily and vehemently *against* free trade. Indeed, I remember one that basically said words to the effect of "Bush is a good man, but the people around him are tricking him into free trade policies."

That seems to me to indicate that either American party could get away with a platform that was much more left wing were it not for the cultural baggage. People like Mark Morford do more to prevent left-wing economic policies from being implemented than the GOP could ever hope to.

Posted by: Andrew Reeves | Jul 19, 2004 2:46:13 AM

Frank argues in his book that conservativism is really about culture, but only because when D's abandoned working-class interests (eg NAFTA), cultural issues became the wedge issues the GOP could use against liberals.

In point of fact, the Republicans began using cultural wedge issues long before the Democrats allegedly abandoned the working class by supporting NAFTA --- from the "law and order" campaigns of Nixon to the "card carrying member of the ACLU" of Bush senior. Dems were losing the white working class males long before Bill Clinton and the DLC came along. Actually, the whole idea was to take white male resentment off the table by reframing the debate as the working man being part of the great middle class who were playing by the rules and getting shfted from all directions. You can criticize Clinton for abandoning the poor, but the burden of the two parent working family was his bread and butter.

Quiddity has it right. The exploitation of "cultural issues" is all tied up with racism and the scapegoating of those who benefitted from the expansion of civil rights. Frank himself wrote a very persuasive piece the other day about how the Right uses the language of victimization to rally its base.

Liberals can try straight up populism, but it's going to be a hard sell if you can't couple it with bigotry and nativism. That's always been the emotional selling point. It may be possible but we've never seen it before.

Posted by: digby | Jul 19, 2004 3:31:24 AM

Damn, Matthew, I get into the group spirit at Drum's and read Mark Schmitt on Frank and I come here and read this for the like 4th or 5th time and this just rocks. Not to be a suck-up, I am trying to answer this and say moving left on economics will actually be effective and you make it tough.

The pragmatism really shines, cuts the bullshit and wishful thinking. It makes a real contrast with Barbara E.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 19, 2004 3:40:05 AM

The problem is that the Democratic Party, unlike the Republicans, really isn't willing to ride bigotry into office. The white working class males who vote against their class do vote for their values. The Dems aren't going to win them back by tacking to the left economically. They will win them back either by delivering goods (such as health care and job security) or convincing the Archie Bunkers of the world that it really doesn't matter whether or not the gay folks can marry as long as everyone has jobs and decent schools. The former is more doable, at least in the short term, but the latter is more robust.

At this point, the Democratic strategy, such as it is, seems to be to let the Republicans do whatever they want, which will inevitably lead to them running the country into the ground. One thing that Bush's control of both Houses of Congress and the SCOTUS has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt is that when these people get the reins of power into their hands, they are corrupt, stupid, and incredibly contemptuous of the voting public. Kerry's choice of Edwards makes it much more possible that the Dems will be able to sell that message for at least the next four years, which might be enough time for us to repair some of the damage.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Jul 19, 2004 3:43:48 AM

Couple points here. One is that fusionism was an explicit GOP strategy crafted by Buckley and Goldwater as they saw a chance to forge a political realignment.

At the same time, you had the decline of US heavy manufacturing after WWII.

Now, one thing about your current Dem pro-worker policies is that much more pro-service (urban) than pro-manufacturing (no longer an urban phenomenon). Throw in environmentalism, and you've got a real problem.

Posted by: praktike | Jul 19, 2004 4:58:38 AM

"If you think leftwing economics are right on the merits, then good for you, and good luck trying to convince me..."

Should we nationalize industry and stop international trade? No.

But are you really not for:

- Universal Health Care
- Universal Higher Education
- Government Funded Childcare
- Better Funding for Infrastructure
- A More Progressive Taxcode
- More Help for the Working Poor

Posted by: Petey | Jul 19, 2004 5:39:44 AM

that looks good petey but I think you'll find that in areas with constricted housing, all these cost savings for the middle class will be just captured in higher real estate prices and higher rents, since housing is our #1 expense and demand is inelastic.

The price of land, driven by people looking to make an easy buck instead of doing productive work, in this country is IMV a pretty fundamental issue too.

Posted by: Troy | Jul 19, 2004 6:42:26 AM

"that looks good petey but I think you'll find that in areas with constricted housing, all these cost savings for the middle class will be just captured in higher real estate prices and higher rents..."

Civilized countries deal with this by subsidizing mass transit like crazy.

And don't forget that a large component of real estate prices are tied into school district hunting. To relax the real estate stranglehold, fix the worst school districts, continue keeping a lid on crime, and subsidize mass transit. Then folks will feel a bit more relaxed about where they live...

Posted by: Petey | Jul 19, 2004 7:18:31 AM

If the Democrats actually did what Frank accuses them of doing, I'd be a die-hard Democrat. Populist economic rhetoric like Edwards' is the only reason I don't vote Democrat. Democrats are economically way too far to the left for my taste.

Posted by: Xavier | Jul 19, 2004 8:56:53 AM


I might just mention that George Will (as well as one of the egregious Oxblog types, who has recently been picked up by the New York Times) really, really, ever-so-tremendously admires the wonderful Kansas people for thinking of Higher Things and not having a petty, crass interest in their own economic welfare. Frank is, you know, a snob, unlike them. Because American politics really isn't about money or the economy; how could anyone possibly think that it is?

One factor not mentioned so far is campaign contributions. It's not so much that economically left policies don't work with voters (specifically with white working class rural men, but also with various related groups such as their wives and daughters, urban white working class, etc.), but that they don't work with donors.

The Democratic Party has completely bought into media-heavy campaigning. This means that enormous amounts of funds must be solicited, and issues important to people with money become dominant. Your stereotypical Hollywood liberal will be strong on anti-Falwell social liberalism and maybe the environment, but he probably isn't so strong (understatement) on the labor laws protecting his help, or anything raising his taxes much. (Remember the 1992 nanny scandals?) And the liberals from the business world are even worse.

Furhtermore, the large media organizations we deliver these piles of money to have their own corporate interests, so we end up paying money to people who are unlikely to give us value for the dollar in the end, but who will probably shank us -- the way they did Gore.

So one reason the economic-liberal message doesn't work in Kansas is that IF the Democrats were to put out such a message, it might not even reach Kansas at all, because the party would be broke.

I think that a successful economic-democracy campaign would be labor-intensive feet-on-the-ground local stuff, like the old civil rights movement or labor movement. And no offense to the master of the present site, but the people hired wouldn't be up-and-coming Ivy League dweebs chilling for a year before grad school, but neighborhood kids going part-time to Pittsburg State who will be happy to get the job and who will take it seriously.

As I said, that kind of appeal has to have something concrete in view (e.g. national medical insurance) and people really have to believe that it's going to happen. You can't run on abstractions and distant possibilities.

P.S. Yes, the Democratic Party will always have to buy some media. I'm talking about changing the mix.

P.P.S One of the risks we're dealing with is the development of a large class of people which isn't politically represented at all. DLC Democrats seem oblivious to this prospect. Falwell, Robertson, and even Buchanan are far from the worst demagogues imaginable. That's no a joke. And even during the present slump, we're still more or less in good times -- what would happen during a long, serious slump?

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 19, 2004 9:10:55 AM


Xavier the libertarian shows his true colors (you have to edit his mistype to understand what he said). Libertarians will vote for Falwell and Ashcroft if that will bring their taxes down.

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 19, 2004 9:15:17 AM

I want to second Petey's list:
- Universal Health Care
- Universal Higher Education
- Government Funded Childcare
- Better Funding for Infrastructure
- A More Progressive Taxcode
- More Help for the Working Poor

The top 4 would go a long way toward 6.


What exactly is leftwing economics? Is Brad De long left wing economics?
Which side is more protectionist> I thought you had been arguing that (D)s had become more free trade and were continuing to widen the gap, I think that is right.
Is populist economics really a code word for protectionism?

Posted by: theCoach | Jul 19, 2004 9:43:06 AM

Petey: By "universal higher education", you don't actually mean that every 18-year-old person should get a post-secondary degree, do you? Not everyone is cut out for the academic grind. And we need plumbers...

Posted by: next big thing | Jul 19, 2004 10:42:44 AM


Populist politics includes pro-union policies and enforcement of labor laws, closer regulation of corporations, more progressive taxes, and discretionary government spending on programs (health insurance, access to education) that benefit the lower-middle and working classes.

Protectionism is the evil boogieman under your bed that's gonna getcha if you fall asleep.

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 19, 2004 10:57:26 AM

"Is populist economics really a code word for protectionism?"

Partially. There has been some discussion here and elsewhere about how allowing the Chinese & other cheap labor countries to float their currencies favors the capital class (outsourcing, trade deficit,etc) but I never really even understood Bryan's "Cross of Gold" stuff.

I might also throw out there that changes in the tax structure (elimination of much corporate taxation; breaks for individual investments) have not particularly increased America's saving rates, but have changed the ways American business measures success, to the detriment of the working class.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 19, 2004 11:02:01 AM


While agreeing that race is at the root of the problem, quiddity and digby's points above seem to lead to the conclusion that the demographic we're talking about is hopeless and that all we can do is find some kind of temporary work-around, or maybe hope that they quit voting entirely. Since "white working class men" are not a niche group, but something like 20% of the population (.8 x .5 x .5, and you really have to add in most of the women too), that casts a very dark shadow on US politics. Either we go racist and get them, or we don't and we lose them.

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 19, 2004 11:08:00 AM

"Either we go racist and get them, or we don't and we lose them."

Well, let's not go racist. We have been facing this since the 1960's, but I think the wave of working class white resentment of African-Americans has started to ebb. I suppose this might be wishful thinking though.

Posted by: Levi | Jul 19, 2004 11:22:57 AM

"Either we go racist and get them, or we don't and we lose them."

That wasn't my proposal, but what seems to be the consequence of the Digby-quiddity thesis.

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 19, 2004 11:35:35 AM

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