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More Kansas

In re: Tom Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas, Lindsay Beyerstein considers the possibility that "That's just what Kansans have always done."

Wrong. Kansas history belies that explanation. Kansas was, and still is, a hotbed of radicalism. The current Conservative Movement is a backlash against the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.
Maybe so. But consider the following. Jimmy Carter was not a culture leftwinger and in 1976 he swept the South. He got 45 percent of the vote in Kansas. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won in a nationwide landslide while Barry Goldwater got just 38 percent of the vote. Goldwater got 45 percent in Kansas. In 1936 long before "the cultural upheavals of the 1960s" Alf Landon got 46 percent of the Kansas vote and just 37 percent nationally (in 1932, too, Hoover did better in Kansas than he did nationally). In 1908 and 1900, both years when the Democrats put William Jennings Bryan, exponent of precisely the sort of culturally conservative economic populism that Frank seems to think the Democrats should espouse, Bryan ran slightly worse in Kansas than he did nationwide. So I'm not sure we can just blame the '60s here. It's true that Kansas once had a robust tradition of left-wing populism, but the era in which left-wing populism was successful in Kansas (as opposed to merely extant) was a long time ago. We're talking about the late 19th century, not the mid 20th century. 20th century Democrats have carried Kansas, but only as a result of major landslides or the freakish three party election of 1912. But I'll open this up to discussion since Tom knows Kansas better than I do and this is a pretty superficial look at the data so there may be a sound counterargument.

September 18, 2004 | Permalink


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Lindsay is right about a lot of the cultural issues, but its almost impossible to look at Kansas without looking at the role of the religious right in shaping that cultural backlash. Randall Terry's OR is an important event, but it took a lot of organizing and structure so that it could happen and become so successful. Kansas' reactionary nature perhaps made it more welcoming for that sort of message. But that battle between Mods and Cons happened in many states in the mid 1990s - although many of them didn't result in Democratic Governors.

Posted by: dstein | Sep 18, 2004 3:27:01 PM

Err..in 1976 Fod's running mate was a man by the name of Bob Dole. Alf Landon was the very popular governor of Kansas... at any rate, Kansas has always been the most conservative of the prairie states. It's pretty much never elected a Democratic senator, as far as I'm aware. I wonder why Frank chose Kansas - other states in the same region provide much better example of a tradition of prairie populism than Kansas does.

Posted by: John | Sep 18, 2004 3:39:45 PM

Well, I see that Frank is from Kansas. So that explains that.

Posted by: John | Sep 18, 2004 3:42:27 PM

I actually live in Mission Hills, the suburb in which Thomas Frank grew up, and his book is right on the money. My area is made up mostly of Mods. There's a nice mix of Kerry and Bush signs and we even have a moderate Democrat as our congressman. Once you get out past Lawrence, however, everything really changes.

Posted by: Nina | Sep 18, 2004 3:58:11 PM

My sister, raised in Minnesota, lived in Kansas for about 30 years. It came close to ruining her life, though of course the husband who took her there had a lot to do with that. As far as I can tell, Kansas has the worst traits of the Midwest, plus additional negative traits which are more characteristically Southern or Western. I have never heard anything about Kansas from her which I would classify as "good". I like rural life in many respects, but Kansas is a shithole. I do think that Frank was fantasizing about Kansas' populist tradition.

A lot of populism was led by recent immigrants from Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Posted by: Zizka | Sep 18, 2004 4:00:02 PM

If you go by party affiliation, you might say that Kansas has always been more or less like that in our lifetime.

Keep in mind that when Frank talks about the Conservative Movement, he is speaking literally. He's not talking about general a trend towards conservative ideologies or a shared propensity to vote Republican.

Frank's thesis is that the an organized self-conscious populist movement changed Kansas' electoral politics from within the ruling Republican Party. Yes, Kansas has been Republican for a long time, but Frank argues that Kansas is now electing a new breed of hard right culturally conservative Republican. He argues that the ideological climate has shifted hard to the right.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Sep 18, 2004 4:03:02 PM

Frank's greater thesis is that what is happening in Kansas is happening all over the country - which is true. The hard right wing (sometimes, but not always) christian conservatives have purified the party, and made it a much different entity from what it was a generation ago. I'm not so sure if Kansas is the best example of how that takeover happened, but since Frank is so familiar with the workings of the state, he's best able to draw out the examples.

Posted by: dstein | Sep 18, 2004 4:25:40 PM

>Jimmy Carter was not a culture leftwinger and in 1976 he swept the South.

But he was PERCEIVED as a tool of the culture leftwingers. With somebody like John Kerry, all you have to do in a place like Kansas is say he's from Massachusetts and show a picture of him and Ted Kennedy.

Bang, game over. And that is a long thread extending to back when Kansas was hard on Democrats when the Democrats were the party of slavery.

There is a cultural ideal in place here and it isn't entirely about religion. The ideal Kansas man is a hard-bitten, self-reliant sod-buster. NOT a sophisticated man about town.

'Big Gummit' has no appeal. And people in places like Kansas are willing to forego supposed economic benefits to avoid 'Big Gummit'. The only carve-out here involves farmers (the hard-bitten sod-buster above) getting screwed by banks and big money. That's where your hotbed of left-wing populism begins and ends. (Or began and ended as it were.) (To restate that, it is ok to be rich, but not ok to be a crook. It is ok to accept help during say, a natural disaster, but not ok to accept help simply because of who you are.)

Heh. I'm not sure who I'm arguing against here. The point I was trying to get at, is that Kansas has not been 'fooled' into voting against its 'class interests', it intentionally votes against its 'class interests' (and has since ever) in favor of what is perceived as a higher ideal. Kansas doesn't look at itself as separated into classes, it looks as itself as a group of clans (with chiefs and indians) opposed to the sort of people who think of Kansas as being divided into classes.

['It is a non-rational position and therefore not amenable to argument.']

Posted by: ash | Sep 18, 2004 4:50:41 PM

(1) Kansas has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932 (although Dole almost lost in 1974). It is flat-out nonsense to say that the place would be liberal-Democratic were it not for the modern GOP culture warriors.

(2) BUT: when the voters were given the opportunity to express their opinion during the recent dispute over whether Darwinism should be taught in the state's schools, they (with the support of the state's GOP governor) voted all the anti-Darwin, fundamentalist members of the state's board of education out by landslide margins and installed moderate pro-Darwin members instead.

All of which indicates that -- to the extent that the right-wing culture warriors have had any success in Kansas -- it's simply because they are to some degree appealing to the economic and cultural conservatism that ALREADY existed in the state; they have NOT suceeded in further amplifying it. There's every reason to think that this is also what's happened nationwide; according to Newsweek, in 1982 -- at the supposed height of Jerry Falwell's power -- a poll of his home state of Virginia showed him less popular there than the Ayatollah Khomeini!

The Democrats are currently panicking about their loss of popularity in the rural parts of America, without mentioning the fact that they hve completely made up for that loss by greatly increasing their strength in America's suburbs in the 1990s -- as a comparison of their strength in the close elections of 1976 and 2000 shows. What we are seeing is a realignment, not a shift -- the culture warriors who have taken over the GOP are gaining support in the South and other rural areas at the same time that their efforts are turning large numbers of suburban voters away from the GOP nationwide. To the extent that the Right has gained power in the US in recent decades, it's simply and entirely because the South no longer has its long-time psychotic determination to vote Democratic -- despite the fact that the Dems are the more liberal party -- just because Lincoln was a Republican.

One final note on Frank's supposed "farm-state radicalism": it revolved entirely around the desire of farmers to get price supports and subsidies. Once they got those in the early 20th century, the "radicalism" of the farm states vanished utterly.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Sep 18, 2004 4:57:45 PM

Tom Frank did overstate the populist trend in Kansas history but he is dead on when discussing the religious conservative takeover of the GOP.

We used to elect senators like Kassebaum and Dole (an old line conservative) now we have folks like Sam Brownback.

The district that once sent Dan Glickman (a Jew and now president of the MPAA) to Congress now has Todd Tiahrt.

Posted by: Mike from Kansas | Sep 18, 2004 5:05:29 PM

But if what's happened is that Kansas has gone from the domination of culturally moderate pro-business Main Street Republicans to the domination of culturally conservative rightwing populists who happen to serve the interests of big business, then the 60s and "cultural issues" don't seem to have any explanatory role in answering the question "why doesn't Kansas support leftwing economic policies that [according to Frank] are in its interest." Instead, it seems to be the case that both before and after the Conservative Movement's takeover Kansas always supported reactionary economic policies.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Sep 18, 2004 5:10:53 PM

Kentucky or West Virginia would be better examples for Frank's general theory than Kansas.

Posted by: Petey | Sep 18, 2004 5:11:53 PM

"The hard right wing (sometimes, but not always) christian conservatives have purified the party, and made it a much different entity from what it was a generation ago."


I'm wondering if this is going to slowly lead to the destruction of the Republicans. The Democrats are becoming the majority party, of course, but the Republicans seem to be positioning themselves for a massive fall. Look no further than stem-cell research. The majority of the country doesn't want an approach like Bush's, yet that is the line he will push. There was an interesting piece in The Wall Street Journal a month or so ago that described how people who would be Republicans but are socially liberal are supporting Kerry, or at least not supporting Bush. If they keep alienating these moderate people, the Democrats could easily soak them up and put the Republicans in a real bind.

Bruce Moomaw,

"The Democrats are currently panicking about their loss of popularity in the rural parts of America, without mentioning the fact that they hve completely made up for that loss by greatly increasing their strength in America's suburbs in the 1990s."

I don't know how much they are panicking, but even if they are, their fears might be misplaced. Rural populations are falling, for one thing.

Actually, just go read "The Emerging Democratic Majority," or go to Teixiera and Judis' site, www.emergingdemocraticmajority.com and look at their articles. They can summarize demographic trends better than I can, and believe me, what you see will please you.

"To the extent that the Right has gained power in the US in recent decades, it's simply and entirely because the South no longer has its long-time psychotic determination to vote Democratic"

You know why the 1994 Gingrich revolution happened. Well, the Democrats lost the House and the Senate in 1994, but they still won the election in 1996. We are basically tied in the Senate and won the popular vote last time and will probably win it again this time, save for a massive landslide by Bush. And while you can point to the fact that we haven't won back the House and probably won't, that's probably because of the incumbency effect, not the inability of Democrats to win on the issues.

Posted by: Brian | Sep 18, 2004 5:14:09 PM

I agree that Kansas' longtime Republicanism (William Jennings Bryan lost there once) makes it hard to imagine the return of the progressive prairie. And while it _is_ noteworthy that the right has captured the KS Republican Party, I'd note the following facts:

1) The Brown decision began in Topeka, and Race has played the same role in Kansas that it has in many places. The resulting realignment has made the Republican Party the home for many "culturally conservative" working-class whites and the Democratic Party the place for many affluent Johnson County types.

2) One consequence of this realignment is that _both_ parties move to the right.

3) One way to break the cycle is to convince working class whites that the social safety net is more important than a range of cultural issues.

4) Alternatively, we can wait until the KS wingnuts push the pendulum too far. There's some evidence this is happening already, as Kansas just elected a Democratic governor, Kathleen Sabelius.

Posted by: AWC | Sep 18, 2004 5:29:09 PM

Brian, you're right - most of America doesn't support these measures - not just in the areas you're talking about - but across the whole spectrum of issues. It's a real question as to where Moderate Republicans are going to go - some may sell their soul in order to gain power, while others may just get fed up and write books about things. Matt has posted before about how it would make an interesting party to have moderate republicans, but that won't happen because it'd mean losing their only source of grassroots politics.

Matt, the conservative right-wing populists don't just "happen to serve" the right wing business interests. From the beginning, it was a cleverly designed and heavily marketed/manipulated force to use issues like abortion and gays in order to draw people to more conservative politics. It was always about keeping the rigid power structure, but in a way that people would accept subservience and the way that their money would be consistently stolen.

"The left" can't keep hoping that "the right" is going to push too far and alienate people, we've got to really dig in for the long term and fight these guys if we ever want to take this country back for real.

Posted by: dstein | Sep 18, 2004 6:21:41 PM

There's a good article in the Sunday NYT about these issues:

For Many in Missouri, Values Outweigh Policy

Posted by: Petey | Sep 18, 2004 6:36:24 PM

"One way to break the cycle is to convince working class whites that the social safety net is more important than a range of cultural issues."

Good luck. Or more precisely, it ain't gonna happen.

The answer to is nominate Democrats who don't offend middle America's sensibilities on values issues. Or more precisely, Johnny Edwards is our future.

Posted by: Petey | Sep 18, 2004 6:38:44 PM

No, you're right, at least to the extent that Kansas was never really part of the new deal Democratic coalition. Frank's argument would be much more compelling if the book had been called "What's the matter with [name of generic southern state that actually did vote Democratic consistently from 1932 to 1968]?" Frank is right to suggest that previously Democratic strongholds (particularly in the rural south and midwest) started trending Republican in 1968 both over the cultural revolution and also because they just happened to notice that the Democrats really had no good (read: non inflationary) alternative to deregulation, tax cats, and American-led globalization. If the Dems hadn't been complete losers in the 70s and 80s, they would have played the anti-Japan card, and promised to end Japanese currency manipulation against the dollar. In fact they would've promised (and then delivered on that promise) to create a new disciplinary schema for international currency valuation (to replace Bretton Woods.) That way we could've had genuine free trade, *and* kept good manufacturing and textile jobs in this country. And it might have occured to Democrats to actively support an arms buildup against the Soviet Empire, even while opposing that little dirty war in Latin America, but alas.

Getting back to the present tense though, if Frank really believes that Democrats could or should come out in support of the FMA, or outlawing abortion, or for censorship of pop culture, who does he suppose the 50% of Americans who are liberals and libertarians supposed should vote for?

Posted by: The Realist | Sep 18, 2004 7:09:00 PM

In 1948, there was a "farm revolt" against the Republican 80th Congress. Normally Republican states (in those days) like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Colorado--all of which had gone for Dewey against FDR in 1944--switched to Truman. But not Kansas--it stuck with Dewey. http://psephos.adam-carr.net/countries/u/usa/pres/1948.txt That shows how Kansas has been a very Republican state for many decades now. The last year Kansas went for the Democrats in a close presidential election was 1916 (1916 was perhaps the only time when the "Bryan coalition" of southern and western farmers actually won a national election for the Democrats--with the help of union labor in states like Ohio and of German-Americans worried about the pro-war Theodore Roosevelt's suppport of Hughes. The closest thing to it was 1948 when Truman, like Wilson in 1916, lost most of the East, but made up for it in the West.)

The problem with the Democrats isn't that they lose Kansas. They lost it in 1940, 1944, 1948, 1960, 1976, 1992, and 1996, and won the national election each time. If the Democrats lose, it will be because of Florida, Ohio, Missouri, West Virginia--states which they once were able to carry (and which I hope they still can).

Posted by: David T | Sep 18, 2004 7:14:41 PM

Also, I would add that Frank seems to not understand the political and economic rhythms of American history. There are in fact only two types of eras in the history of this country - populist and libertarian (that populist eras tend to overlap with periods of a strong federal government, and libertarian eras tend to overlap with periods of federalism is also worth noting, but not entirely vital to the point I'm making.) And each era can be measured not by what politicians say, but by what they do. FDR talked like a liberal, but the new deal era (1932-1968) was deeply populist (yuck), and substantively both economically liberal and culturally *very* conservative. The current political era (that began in 68 and will likely end officially with this election) may have been spilling out over the sides with the rhetoric of cultural populism, but Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr (and yes Carter and Clinton too) governed more as libertarians, allowing the cultural revolution to continue, while deregulating the economy. Had the Democrats come out in favor of new deal era "traditional values," the Nixon and Reagan wins would've been even larger, because cultural libertarians in the Democratic Party would have voted for a third party candidate, or stayed home, or maybe even voted Republican (if they had the sense to recognize that Nixon, Ford, Reagan et al were full of shit about "returning to traditional values.") All that of course has changed with George W Bush. Libertarians are the boat people of the Bush revolution.

Posted by: The Realist | Sep 18, 2004 7:31:51 PM

I'm not saying that Kansas would be liberal democratic today if not for the religious right. Thomas Frank isn't saying that either.

I think Frank makes an astute observation about the cultural conditions that gave rise to the current Conservative Movement. There's a passage in "What's the Matter" in which Frank quotes a social historian "movement cultures." Kansas is one such place. For whatever reason, popular protest and citizen-led social movements are a mainstay of the culture.

Frank's point is that Kansan populism and anti-elitism haven't always been directed towards the "liberal cultural elite." The difference between the 1920s and today, he maintains is that the populists care more about culture than about economics. In the old days, they were self-conscious advocates for workers and farmers against bankers and speculators. Now, Kansans are more likely to see their predicament as a struggle between regular people and snobs.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Sep 18, 2004 7:50:41 PM

I live in Kansas, granted my hometown of Lawrence is a bastion of liberalism and the rest of the state is much more conservative.

I do think the hard-right nature of GOP policies are starting to backfire a bit. Across the state there is a growing anger with the legislature over their failure to fund schools properly. We've got a Democratic governor now, and there are calls in normally GOP editorial pages for the GOP to stop their radical anti-tax stance and raise taxes to help the schools out. Unless the GOP heeds this and the moderates take over again the Dems will make some gains here this year, at least at the statehouse level.

Posted by: FDRLincoln | Sep 18, 2004 8:12:26 PM

I think one of the main points of "Whats the matter with Kanasas" is that the Democrats aren't even making the economic populist argument. The other important observation I get from reading it is that there is a whole culture of extremism that lives slightly below the radar for a lot of America that has completly suckered in large numbers of people in this country, and it isn't going away.

Posted by: Spiny | Sep 18, 2004 8:36:25 PM

A lot of the backlash is due to the fact that the Dems pushed social change through the courts and not through the changing of minds. Specifically, abortion. If each state had been allowed to decide by popular vote about abortion, the backlash would have been much less severe.

I read Frank's book, and I think that he was spot on. The right has definetly exploited liberal elitism.

I always point out to people that if you are pro-life (as I am) you should also be pro universal health insurance so that mothers can take care of their children. I also point out that the right can get every stupid corporate trade agreement signed into law, but can't seem to do anything about abortion,etc. and that maybe this could be due to the fact that they aren't really concerned with our concerns.(Not that either party really is concerned with the people any longer, but the Reps are so bad, that I decided that I better support the Dems this time.)

Posted by: Lynne | Sep 18, 2004 10:38:38 PM

Good choice Lynne, and good point. If the Repubs are serious about their pro-life stance then they should be willing to do whatever is necesary to encourage young people to have their unplanned children.

Posted by: fnook | Sep 18, 2004 11:11:11 PM

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