What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank

That’s a good question. What is the matter with Kansas? Why would the populace of a state continually vote against their own interests? Thomas Frank, who grew up in Kansas, aims to answer this and does a good job of it too.

For someone my age — born in the mid-80s — Kansas has always been just Kansas: a fly-over state, deeply conservative, and irritatingly self-righteous… and that’s just to start. This contrasts (at least the conservative part) with where Kansas was 100 years ago or more. I think many of us who took US history and paid at least a little attention know of the charismatic, radical abolitionist John Brown and his uprising in the years leading up to the Civil War. In the early 20th century Kansas was a hotbed of the socialist activity many of its current citizens would recoil at. Hell, Superman was raised in Smallville, Kansas and a champion of socialism as envisioned by two Jewish men in the early 20 century. In fact, up until about 1991 Kansas was a left-leaning state.

This is actually incredibly hard to reconcile with the current political climate. Even when the majority of the electorate was voting Republican, the overall legislation of Kansas was to the left. Taxes were slightly higher than the national average, but state services were some of the best in the country; particularly education. With the coming of the Summer of Mercy in 1991 — a push by anti-abortion groups — Kansas fell prey to a wedge-issue of the Culture Wars. Indeed, Kansas would be a text book case of this.

I’m going to hold off on breaking down the book and save it for readers to enjoy. And although it seems to not be, the book is quite well-balanced, which is best seen at the end. The main issue is the electorate switching from voting for economic issues to more nebulous morality issues. Economics still play its role, but it’s been inversed in this odd, Bizarro-like twist and hitched on to the Culture Wars debate. The result has been the emergence of depressing ghost towns and increasing poverty due to the deteriorating financial health of individuals. But what is most shocking is that while this book was published in 2004, it’s just as relevant as ever.

With the current emergence of the “Tea Party” in this 2010 election cycle and many of the extremely odd candidates, What’s the Matter with Kansas? serves as just a much a primer in current political thought now as it did six years ago. One could even extend it then to sixteen years ago with the Republican up swell in 1994. I must also add how striking it is to read about someone such as Dr. George Tiller knowing that about a year-and-a-half ago he was murdered by a radical anti-abortionist. And as personal anecdote, to show that this book’s relevance does extend beyond Kansas itself, having been born and raised in Illinois, I have seen a neighboring family with Tea Party signs up in their lawn — a family wherein the father is now a retired fireman collecting his pension, the mother a retired teacher collecting her pension, with grandparents on social security and medicare, and with one son having gone to a public university. Mind-blowing.

I’m tempted to continue on into discussion of Frank’s accurate treatment of the Culture Wars, but I think that is best left to another post. I think I’ll just close with stating that What’s the Matter with Kansas? is a highly enjoyable, quick read that is a important today as it was six years ago. If only it hadn’t taken me so long to read it.

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