Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Review: What's the Matter with Kansas

This book was all over the political press last year, and frequently cited as a good explanation of why the Democrats keep losing election despite having a much better platform, much better track record of governing, and much more palatable policies.

Written in a style that's sarcastic (that's "witty" for some people), and not without more than a little bitterness, Thomas Frank first provides a short synopsis of Kansas history. Kansas in the 1890s was a bastion of left-winged politicians and reliably Democratic. The shift to conservatism, Frank writes, mostly occured in the 80s and 90s, and is driven largely by culture warriors, not economics.

Franks provides a history of the religious radical right and its seeds in the anti-abortion movement, which was quickly seized upon as a platform to build a far right largely oriented around cultural issues while mostly centered around (in policy) tax cuts for the rich. He interviews interesting folks such as Kay O'Connor, who is not your typical fat-cat Republican, but a relatively low-income person who wishes to "turn back the clock" on cultural issues:

"I'm a happy captive of forty-three years," she tells me, "and I am obedient to my husband in all things moral."

On economic issues, O'Connor says:

"Why should we be penalizing people for being financially successful?" she asks. "When you take from the rich and give to the poor, that really is Robin Hood, and that's just theft. Robin Hood was a thief."

Franks explains that the culture wars can never really be won by the right, since political victories can't do much to change culture (which is largely provided by the entertainment industry), and so these repeated failures to win the culture wars keep the right extremely riled up, despite winning all three branches of the government. It's difficult, for instance, to push creationism in public school, but each loss in the courts only serves to spur the religious right into another frenzy of political activity.

It is only in the epilogue that Franks comes down on the Democrats:

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues... As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go... Besides, what politician in this sucvess-worshiping country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where's the soft money in that?

To a large extent he is over-simplifying the issue. Bill Clinton's economic policies were by and large, well-informed, and served the poor well, despite also being good for the wealthy. Free trade does do a lot of good for the poor, despite a lot of hand-wringing from the left. Having said that, I understand where Franks is coming from. In a political environment where the losers from free trade feel enormous hardship without wage insurance or other mitigating factors, I cannot imagine a blue collar worker who cares about his self-interest voting for a free-trading Democrat. To my mind, the charge that "there's no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans" stem largely from the free trade agreements that have been signed by both parties when they were in power without any mitigating policies to help protect the losers whatsoever.

I'm a believer in free trade and its ability to not just help the poor in the US, but the poor in all parts of the world as well. But if you asked me to choose between fiscal responsibility, protecting the environment, providing a reasonable social safety net and a national healthcare system that works and free trade, I'm happy to flush free trade down the toilet any time. The big mistake that the Democrats have made is not realizing that political tradeoff, and with the large decline in labor union, it may never recover. While Clinton's policies were very sane, I think that a largely uneducated population that gets all its news from TV (and Fox News) will never be able to understand why his policies worked as well as they did (yes, he was lucky, but he also had policies that capitalized on his luck), and will only remember him for his relationship with a certain intern.

But the alternative, that the right-wing Republicans capture power for all time is even more scary. A USA where the schools teach creationism isn't going to be fun, even if you're rich. Laws that revoke women's right to votes, ban women from the workplace will make America a poorer place, in spirit and in reality. Research will grind to a halt, and the innovation spurts we are used to seeing will be gone. Fortunately, there will be a backlash before it goes that far (I hope).

In the mean time, I think (as Franks wrote) that I can find it in myself to enjoy the deep tax cuts for the well-to-do that the religious right has forced down my throat to the detriment of themselves and their children.
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