A thought provoking read about political party allegiances in early twenty-first century America, the primacy of social issues, and the non-issue of economics and social class.

I have just finished reading Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” I would commend the book to anyone, regardless of political affiliation, as a thought-provoking text that brings to the forefront some issues that have puzzled me of late in our recent elections, and are worth more careful inquiry and study.

First, a bit about why I wanted to read this book. First of all, like Thomas Frank (as I found out later in his text), I grew up in Kansas from 6th grade through high school graduation. While Frank grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, specifically Mission Hills, I grew up in Manhattan. I did not know this going into reading the book, nor did I find out until I was 3/4 of the way through the book that Frank and I also have a similarity in our backgrounds in having participated in competitive debate– but what I did wonder about was why someone would choose my home state of Kansas as a focus for discussing political shifts and identified “problems” with partisan allegiances? From reading about the book, I understood that Frank was generalizing the situation in Kansas to the nation as a whole– and that did not seem typical. I grew up tending to think that the trends of the coasts slowly migrated their way inland to the heartland– and states like Kansas were the slow ones to adopt new trends, not the trend-setters themselves.

This was the primary reason I wanted to read Frank’s book: in the last election, I was really taken aback by the virtually universal support for all things Republican in our conservative, West Texas community. Talking with some older adults at our church, I was amazed to learn that not too long ago, our entire region had been a staunchly Democratic voting base. Today in Lubbock, however, to even suggest you doubt the veracity of a Republican political position (including the war in Iraq) is analogous to someone in the heat of McCarthyism in the 1960s announcing s/he was a card carrying communist. Such a claim (to have a contrary view to the prevailing Republican policy) is perceived by most to be not only unpatriotic, but also mystifying. How could someone (particularly a person who is relatively well-informed and a reasonably able thinker) not embrace whole-hog the entire Republican agenda?

I clearly remember a conversation several months ago, the week after the November 2004 elections, in our morning men’s group at church. The discussion was about the “red states versus the blue states,” and the attendees around the table (all of varying ages, mostly in their 50s and 60s) seemed to a man unable to comprehend how anyone in their right mind could possibly have voted democratic. I will admit to not speaking up at that moment to offer some reasons– it did not seem appropriate at the time to interrupt their enthusiastic, shared bewilderment over the fact that some voters did not vote red. Who would do vote like that? Quacks in California. Liberals from the northeast. Yahoos from Arkansas. But who else? Certainly not anyone from West Texas.

So this is an issue that interests me deeply: Why do we in West Texas seem to have shifted (fairly recently it seems) to an almost one-party system?

Frank’s book suggests that one of the primary reasons is that “economics” is no longer an issue for our two major parties. He states that early in the Clinton presidency (I did not, btw, vote for Clinton and never would, the thought that he could potentially return to the White House as “first man” makes me shudder) the Democratic party leadership decided to “triangulate,” which meant come closer to the middle on many issues with the Republicans: primarily on economics.

We are living in a political age where the inherent value, wisdom, and sanctimony of the “free market” seems to be an article of faith with almost everyone. And apparently, we can trace some of the credit (or blame) for this widely held conviction on that decision of the Dems. As Frank points out in his book accurately, I think, discussions about politics in the United States today are virtually devoid of any mention of economic class. We have the liberals branded by radio talk show hosts, Fox news, and numerous conservative authors as the latte drinking, volvo driving, intellectual snobs who have somehow authored our present cultural morass and are responsible for the moral free-fall we see in popular culture generally.

The interesting split, which Frank documents well and I know of anecdotally from my own family members who continue to live in Kansas, is that the right-wing Christian Republicans have driven a wedge into the Republican party and gained (in the perception of some) surprising strength in local, state, and national elections since the early 1990s. Frank refers to these groups as the “Mods” (the traditional, moderate Kansas Republicans) and the “Cons” (the come-recently, ultra-conservative Christian Conservatives.) One of the most interesting and valid points I think Frank raises is how in current political rhetoric, most of what we hear about concerns culture war issues: the decline of morality in general in America, and the flash-point issues of abortion, homosexuality, and gun ownership.

Frank argues that the Cons effectively stoke the passionate fires of middle-American conservative voters by focusing predominantly on these cultural issues, similar to the populists in earlier decades, but their agenda has nothing to do with the economics of class. In fact, there is very little discussion about economics, other than rabid faith in the wisdom of the free market, the need to further deregulate businesses of all types, and cut taxes for everyone.

I would like to state at this point that one of the main gripes I have about left-leaning political types, or even folks that consider themselves Marxists, is their apparent inability to articulate an alternative vision of viable and sustainable economic growth contrary to the free-market model. What else is there today? Socialism seems to have been thoroughly discredited in the mind of the American public: with the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union also came the perceptual bankruptcy of anything sounding like communism, socialism, or Marxism / Leninism. Sure we have heard some folks decry free trade agreements and the loss of industrial jobs in places like the Ohio Valley, but the consensus in America today seems to be that the free market is not only the way to go, it is the only way.

To this I say, what are the alternatives?

It strikes me as important that in the United States today, we do not seem to be having any dialog about what the viable role of the government should be and is when it comes to regulation, public services and social programs. There seems to be wide consensus that government by its nature is bad, and the less we have of government, the better. This is conservatism by definition, I think.

Yet all around us I think we see the problems we get when we are subject to unrestrained market forces. There ARE some viable gripes that people have when it comes to the free market, I think. Let’s consider a few:

1- Without government intervention, free-market capitalism can tend to exploit the work force. Examples that come to mind include well-publicized sweatshops in South Asia, or the not so well publicized slaughterhouses of southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle: places like Guymon and Liberal. Low wage earners (primarily hispanics from Mexico in the case of midwest slaughterhouses, apparently) work in dangerous and pretty nasty conditions to help satisfy our North American lustful thirst for beef. (I am not, btw, a vegetarian.) Is this perception of free-market capitalism folk-legend or reality? I have scanned enough pages of “Fast Food Nation” as well as other texts to think it is probably accurate.

2- The underlying ethic of consumerism is morally bankrupt. What does unbridled consumerism want from its consumers: buying more and more, of many things you don’t need and probably didn’t want before you or your family members were subjected to the advertisements for them, remaining eternally in a state of discontent and material lust. Is this an extreme, radical view? I don’t think so. I am convinced one of the things we absolutely must do here in the early twenty-first century is live our lives more intentionally, rather than just “letting life happen” to us. Consumerism and its effects are one major area where this comes home. And were do we get consumerism? From free-market economics, of course.

3- The moral free-fall of popular culture seems most apparent in the trash we see on prime-time television as well as many of the movies coming out of Hollywood. .But who is to blame for this trash? Liberals who want to subvert middle America and usher in the overt reign of the evil one? That is a mainstream “Con” view, apparently. I do perceive there is a liberal bias attempting to promote the “normalcy” of the homosexual lifestyle on television and in movies. But why do we see shows like “Sex in the City,” “Desperate Housewives” and reality TV shows (all programs I have never actually watched) gain such popularity? I don’t think it is because the liberal media is holding a gun to the head of red America. It is because the media-types are chasing profits, the bottom line, and find that pandering to the base desires of human beings– to watch sex and violence– sells big time. Are we as human beings and a society that different from the Roman mob who filled the colosseum? I don’t think so. But who is to blame? The unfettered market, I would suggest.

4- Public education and the educators who serve within it are not public enemies. In fact, they are everyday heroes as deserving of our public praise and thanksgiving just as the 9-11 first responders were. Yet what does our prevalent Republican, market-driven rhetoric say about public education? That the problem is, it is government controlled. Free up that money for vouchers, for private schools, for religious schools, and that will be the solution. My response is, where are the advocates for the socio-economically disadvantaged students (yes, we have lots of those students right here in Lubbock) who are either blessed or condemned (depending on your view on their respective situations) to have public schools as their only viable choice. Where is the twenty-first century Horace Mann, proclaiming the virtue and necessity of the public school in America today? How have we reached a place in public policy when all a politician has to do is say, “the market, the market,” and s/he will receive a standing ovation of adulation and praise?

I am reminded from the scene in the movie “Gladiator,” when Commodus talks to Maximus and describes the effect of Senator Gracchus on others: they emerge from the dialog muttering over and over, “Republic, Republic.” Why are so many pols in America today blindly preaching “Market, Market?”

Last thought here and then I will close, I have probably ruminated too long for many people to stay with me anyway. Whatever political party holds power in the United States or elsewhere, there are forces at work that will continue to shape our economy, society, and culture irrespective of governmental policy. We are continuing to transition from a primarily industrial era to an information age, characterized by some as digital/interactive. This change is real and its impact is tremendous. The free market has innate incentives for business owners to seek proficient but cheaper labor, even when that labor involves apparently high tech or service-oriented, white collar work. Witness the success of people in places like Bangalore, India.

The “new economy” is not a charade or a fiction, it is real. And its impact in real terms, like industrial job loss, will continue to be felt acutely across America in the years to come, I think. So how are we preparing our students for citizenship and success in this brave new world? That is one of my professional passions.

And along with that, a personal hobby is trying to better understand the political scene that surrounds us, in which we each can be important actors. To that end, reading “What’s the Matter with Kansas” is a worthy use of heartbeats.

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