Thursday, November 18, 2004

So if nothing's the matter with Kansas, what's the matter with Thomas Frank and all the rest of these Democrats buying his book?

In recent days, and especially since the election, a whole lot of Democrats have been clutching to their hearts the explanation of Republican red-state success given by Thomas Frank in his much talked about book, What's The Matter With Kansas? -- at this writing #1 on the non-fiction best seller list, #7 on the NY Times list, and hailed as "by common consent the year's most prescient political book" by no less prescient a liberal political commentator than Frank Rich.

That explanation being: Republicans have manipulated cultural issues to dupe the red-state rubes into voting against their own material and economic welfare.

As the NY Times book review put it...
Conservative leaders, according to Frank, care only about promoting the concerns of big business, which are inimical to those of the average Midwesterner. But those leaders have cynically seized upon and promoted a sense of cultural grievance and victimhood in order to win over the bumpkins and fool them into voting against their true interests.
And the proof? Why just look at how awful things are in Kansas, materially and economically, now that it's gone red-state, compared to during its former good ol' thriving populist-Democratic days.
Franks paints a grim picture of the state and its towns. Kansas is "pretty much in a free fall," he informs us, and as a result of its economic devastation, it's "a civilization in the early stages of irreversible decay."

The cause of all this decline, he says, is modern capitalism, especially as practiced by all those businessmen-GOPers. Kansas is "burning on a free-market pyre," he writes apocalyptically.

Things are especially bad in his old hometown of Shawnee, where, during his visits, he no longer sees anyone in the streets. Instead, "heaps of rusting junk and snarling rottweilers" blight the landscape...
So notes Steven Malanga in the City Journal -- but wait ... what if all this is not so?

Mr. Malanga continues...
Franks's characterization of the Jayhawk State is completely -- bizarrely -- at odds with the facts. Kansas's economy has actually outpaced the nation's for years now.

Throughout the 1990s and the first part of this new decade, Kansas had a lower unemployment rate than the U.S. economy as a whole. In fact, when the country's unemployment rate dipped below 5 percent from 1997 to 2001, Kansas's fell under 4 percent -- a level so low that economists basically consider it full employment.

Overall, the state's economy added 256,000 new jobs during the 1990s, a 24 percent growth rate, compared with a 20 percent national gain in the same period. Even when the economic slowdown set in and the recession finally hit in 2002 and 2003, Kansas lost jobs at a slower rate than the national economy did.
(Hey, I just peeked, and the September unemployment rate for Kansas was was 4.4%, compared to 5.4% nationally.)
The objects of Frank's particular concern, his hometown of Shawnee and the rest of Johnson County, have done especially well ... though Frank describes the place as practically desolate, Shawnee's population grew by a robust 27 percent during the 1990s. Even more astonishing, today, only 3.3 percent of its citizens live below the poverty level, compared with about 12.5 percent nationally.

"It's possible his view of us is outdated," says Jim Martin, executive director of the Shawnee Economic Development Council, in classic midwestern understatement.
Meanwhile, I'm sitting here in the bluest heart of blueland where the unemployment rate is 6.9%, wondering ... who's been duped?

OK, so if nothing's really the matter with Kansas, then what is it with Thomas Frank, and with all these Democrats who are taking him as their master analyst?

Have they permanently separated from reality to protect their image of themselves as superior beings who are needed by the masses? Or are they just taking some time working through the normal stages of dealing with an unhappy turn of fate ... Anger (2000) ... Denial (2004) ... so we can hope they'll pull out of it by 2020 or so?

I don't know. But the reviewer of New York Times, of all papers, recommends keeping Frank's book as a momento of our era...

Frank's book is remarkable as an anthropological artifact. Although not terribly successful at explaining the cultural divide, it manages to exemplify it perfectly in its condescension toward people who don't vote as Frank thinks they should.

Hmmm... I guess Frank Rich doesn't read his own paper's book reviews.

(And I can imagine Karl Rove saying, "Don't read it, Mr. Rich, don't read it any of you Democrats ... buy that book and believe it!")