What’s the Matter with Kansas Now?

I know I’m weird for all sorts of reasons, and the most recent is that, after retreating into my paper-grading and preparing for my guest lecture at Emmanuel College the full week before the presidential election, I picked up a piece of polemical federal electoral non-fiction (a political book, if you’re not an Aristotelian) the day after my guest talk.

Thomas Frank is one of those political writers that actually makes his subject matter fun without making it a joke.  He’s obviously no friend of the GOP, but he’s openly critical of the “New Democrats” as well, largely because they’ve implicitly given up on economics as a point of policy, ceding the territory entirely to the Republicans and their global capitalist ideology.  In other words, part of the force of GOP caricatures of “liberals” as New-Left rich kids who don’t care about any actual laborers so long as nobody threatens their abortions and their sense of moral superiority comes from the fact that much of the party’s leadership has been targeting the folks who used to be called moderate Republicans, content to be “not the Conservatives” and giving a cold shoulder if not the middle finger to the people whose economic interests they used to represent because those poor folks are going to go God, guns, and gays anyway.

I do have to wonder, though, at the fact that such a careful writer would take half of the steps to an interesting historical insight and not take the other half.  Frank rightly notes that in the early days of Fundamentalism its most vocal proponents were left-wingers, decrying the Capitalist ideology that whoever lands on top of the industrial heap must be there because of some inherent and natural fitness to rule.  William Jennings Bryan especially opposed the onrush of such biological determinism because to allow such conclusions would be to cede to industrial Capitalism the legitimacy that scientific endorsement lends.  He also notes that for a series of bizarre reasons (definitely worth reading), those people who oppose evolution in the early twenty-first are the selfsame people most vocally behind the interests of the Capitalist establishment.  He notes well that an elaborate game of bait-and-switch becomes necessary, and moreover he points to the creation of the “liberal elite,” an imaginary enemy if ever there was one, is necessary and in most cases sufficient for convincing people to vote against their own economic interests.

The missing half is, of course, why genuine economic liberals, who traditionally favor policies that benefit the working poor, have embraced materialistic evolution, an ideology rooted in strife and supremacy, while retaining the largely Capitalist-limiting economics that were rooted in medieval Christian, desire-transforming models rather than the strange (perhaps even heretical) providence of natural selection and the invisible hand.  Personally, I find both combinations bizarre, but for reasons beyond my perception, Frank chooses to focus on one misfit rather than the other.  I know that the easy and cynical reading would be that he’s simply pandering to the Democrats who might buy subsequent books, but my gut tells me he’s a bit more thoughtful than that.

But then again, I do tend towards Pollyannaishness on occasion.

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2 Comments

Filed under Books, Political Entertainment

2 responses to “What’s the Matter with Kansas Now?

  1. Interesting essay. I don’t know whether Deneen would be the sort of person to say such things, but his overarching point seems to be that Bryan would likely be interested neither in Obama-Capitalism nor McCain-Capitalism but that the heirs of his project seem to have chosen people who will pretend to be populists over people who won’t even pretend.

    I don’t want to say too quickly that he surrenders to Frank’s hypothesis, but that seems to be where the review lands–in a place in which a true dearth of anti-Capital alternatives leads people to back the party who pretends to hate “elites” rather than the one that backs them openly.

    Incidentally, I started Frank’s book Wrecking Crew yesterday, and he spends some time precisely on New Deal Washington, so there might be some interesting intersections there.

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