Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” had a fascinating appearance today on Diane Rehm program. I’ve had my objections to his theories in the past, namely that there is a fundamental flaw, from a political and rhetorical standpoint, with the premise that there is something wrong with Kansas. As one teacher of mine put it, the smartest thing conservatives might have done after Frank’s book premiered would have been to offer (via National Review, perhaps) a free copy of the book. The accompanying advert would blare: “See, here come those liberals again, telling you you’re not as smart as them, that–literally–there’s something wrong with you.“
My addendum to this argument would be that there’s nothing really wrong with Kansas; there’s something wrong with the progressive/Democratic response to the conservative/Republican arguments being made to the people of Kansas. The problem, if you are a Democrat, is that conservatives are persuading people in Kansas. The solution lies not in “fixing” what’s “wrong” with people, but in persuading them that your ideas are better than the ones they have come to subscribe to.
Frank has a new book out, “Pity the Millionaire,” which he discussed in the Rehm interview, and he seems to be coming around to the position that there’s not as much wrong with Kansas as there is something wrong with the arguments being made by Democrats. I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve read the new book–but based on the interview, Frank and I may be more on the same page this time. His project traces the evolution of populism since its real inception during the Depression years. How did FDR’s political victories, built on the successes of the progressive labor movement, get co-opted a generation later by Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority and the current tea partiers? Frank’s analysis focuses on several factors, among them a failure to embrace the importance of rhetoric in maintaining movements. Frank rightly points to FDR a great political wordsmith who persuaded the nation on the rightness of his policies. Those fireside chats meant something. Liberalism in the postwar years drifted away from FDR’s vigorous rhetorical engagement and towards a more institutionalized, polite, managerial style. Adlai Stevenson vs. William F. Buckley. No contest.
As Rehm pointed out in her interview with Frank, by the time to cultural turmoil of the 1960s came around, the Right had moved in for full populist capture (Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” is vital reading here.) The white working class (and even a good percentage of the black working class) supported Richard Nixon in 1972. Reagan Democrats were emerging as a political cohort, successors to Nixon’s Silent Majority. I look forward to Frank’s analysis of how this trajectory led us to the tea party and today’s populist anger on the right.
Frank notes that one of his criticisms of the current political left is what he calls “the silence of the technocrats.” He is dead on. In a conversation with a similarly minded friend just yesterday we found ourselves echoing this very theme. Why didn’t the President and his allies make better arguments about their policies, such as health care reform? Why didn’t they articulate them in ways that would persuade, and respond to the phony criticisms from the Right? “They always fall back on expertise,” was Thomas Frank’s reply today. “That’s not how Roosevelt did it,” he said. “You don’t say you’re doing it because the economists told you so.”