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What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

Thomas Frank, with a new afterword

Holt Paperbacks

080507774X

9780805077742

Trade Paperback

336 Pages

$16.00

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Winner of the Midwest Booksellers' Choice Award

A veteran author and journalist, and a native Kansan and former conservative, Thomas Frank here explores such fundamental American riddles as: Why do so many Americans vote against their economic and social interests? Where's the outrage over all the recent corporate thievery? Why do illusionary slights to the Ten Commandments trouble some people more than do the prospects of falling wages, or monopoly power, or the destruction of their very way of life?

This timely, well-written, and widely acclaimed book—equal parts brilliant political analysis and wry, readable memoir, and already deemed by some a contemporary classic—fully investigates these questions by examining the conservative revolution in the author's home state over the last several decades. Kansas, which has lately drawn the astonished attention of the world for its unlikely skirmishes over abortion and homosexuality, is in step with much of mid-America, Frank explains, in that its economic losers are even more committed to the Republican agenda than are its winners. Indeed, the Sunflower State's low-wage slaughterhouse workers and struggling farm-town citizens today far outdo its real-estate millionaires and prosperous telecom executives in their dedication to a political program that can only wind up harming them. How, and why, did this happen—in Kansas and elsewhere throughout the United States?

What's the Matter with Kansas? is a vivid, refreshingly witty portrait of an upside-down country where blue-collar patriots recite the Pledge while they strangle their life chances; where farmers cast votes for an economic order that will eventually push them off the land; and where a group of right-wing frat boys, lawyers, and CEOs has managed to convince the world that it speaks on behalf of America's common people.

REVIEWS

Praise for What's the Matter with Kansas?

"The year's most prescient political book."—Frank Rich, The New York Times

"[A] scathing and high-spirited polemic."—The New Yorker

"This fresh and engaging book stands out in the torrent of political screeds now pouring off the presses. Written by a man of the left, What's the Matter with Kansas? examines the rise of ultraconservative politics in the state that was once known for agrarian populism. The new activists, Frank says, are lower-middle-and working-class people-in past decades, the backbone of social democratic politics in Kansas. Why, Frank asks, do working-class Kansans labor to support a right-wing agenda that will strip them of social benefits, lower their wages, and provide enormous tax windfalls to the rich? Frank's eye is keen, and his pen is nimble; his answers are sadly conventional. He sees the contemporary Democratic Party as an odious mix of economic conservatism (the Democratic Leadership Council) and decadent social liberalism (Hollywood), and with the two parties united on antiworker economics, Kansas voters act rationally when they choose the party that at least pretends to respect their social values. A sharp turn to the economic left, Frank believes, will ultimately revive Democratic fortunes and stop the New Right in its tracks. Many thoughtful and spirited people have reached this conclusion in the past; none ever managed to build the powerful socialist party of their dreams. Perhaps Frank will succeed where others have failed."—Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

"[Frank] is one of the wittiest, most insightful observers of culture and politics writing today."—Jim Miller, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Engaging and often funny . . . Frank is on to something important here, something that Kansans need to face . . . [He] performs a valuable service in holding up this unflattering mirror to his home state . . . He has started a welcome and timely debate."—Randy Scholfield, Wichita Eagle

"[A] brilliant polemic."—Jonathan Shainin, Newsday

"A brilliant book, one of the best so far this decade on American politics . . . What's the Matter with Kansas? should at last make Frank a national figure."—George Scialabba, The Nation

"Revealing and startling . . . A searing piece of work . . . One of the most important political writings in years . . . The must-read of this election season. Republican voters need to read it to better understand their party and their leaders. Democrats need to read it to better understand their opponents and their conundrum."—Steve Greenlee, The Boston Globe

"Drunk on tax cuts, favors for corporations, and, above all else, their undying lust for the culture wars most of us lost interest in years ago, conservatives have driven Middle America into a ditch, Mr. Frank argues in this brilliant book. His examination of how the right has prolonged the battles over pop culture, abortion, and religion (and meanwhile accrued great power and financial gain) will not single-handedly eject President Bush from the White House—but it does contain the kind of nuanced ideas that should be talking points for the Kerry campaign . . . Mr. Frank's willingness to scold his own side; his irreverence and his facility with language; his ability to make the connections that other writers fail to make—all of this puts What's the Matter with Kansas? in a different league from most of the political books that have come out in recent years. Even better, its understanding of the methodology that has given Republicans the Presidency and control of both houses of Congress makes it a road map for upending the G.O.P. Here's hoping somebody slips a copy to John Kerry."—Kevin Canfield, The New York Observer

"A very funny and very painful book."—Paul Buhle, San Francisco Chronicle

"[A] wild romp of a book [written in a] smart, well-read, and slightly bombastic style . . . Dazzlingly insightful and wonderfully sardonic . . . Frank has made much sense of the world in this book; it will prove to be a revelation to many."—Jefferson Cowie, Chicago Tribune

"Frank combines top-flight journalism with first-person reflections to dig deep into the Kansas psyche. Both exhilarating and a little scary, What's the Matter with Kansas? should help flat-landers and coastal types alike understand how traditional Republicanism gave way to the politics of the Christian Right in the heart of the heart of the country."—Burdett Loomis, professor and chair, Department of Political Science, University of Kansas

"When I read Thomas Frank, I hear a faint bugle in the background. It's the cavalry-to-the-rescue call: There you are, surrounded by Republicans—outmanned, outgunned, and damn near out of both ammunition and humor—when up shows Thomas Frank. A heartland populist, Frank is hilariously funny on what makes us red-staters different from blue-staters (not), and he actually knows evangelical lChristians, antiabortion activists, gun-nuts, and Bubbas. I promise y'all, this is the only way to understand why so many Americans have decided to vote against their own economic and political interests. And Frank explores the subject with scholarship, understanding, passion, and—thank you, Mark Twain—such tart humor."—Molly Ivins

"This is the true story of how conservatives punk'd a nation. Tom Frank has stripped the right-wing hustle to its core: It is bread and circuses—only without bread. Written like a poem, every line in its perfect place, What's the Matter with Kansas? is the best new book I've read in years, on any subject."—Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus

"Lively, heartfelt . . . Frank is an unreconstructed Kansas progressive, the defender of a bygone America who has written this passionate book as a memorial to what we have lost and an apt warning in this electoral season of what we're becoming."—Jason Epstein, The New York Review of Books

"A wise reporter and a splendid wit, Frank understands the grassroots Right as well as anyone in America. He is the second coming of H. L. Mencken—but with much better politics."—Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History

"What's the Matter with Kansas? is the most insightful analysis of American right-wing pseudopopulism to come along in the last decade. As for Kansas: However far it's drifted into delusion, you've got to love a state that could produce someone as wickedly funny, compassionate, and non-stop brilliant as Tom Frank."—Barbara Enhrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed

"A fire-and-brimstone essay on false consciousness on the Great Plains. 'The poorest county in America . . . is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns,' writes native Kansan and Baffler founding editor Frank, 'and in the election of 2000 the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, carried it by a majority greater than 80 percent.' How, Frank wonders, can it be that such a polity—honest toilers descended from free-soil, abolitionist progressives and prairie socialists—could back such a man who showed little concern then and has showed little concern since for the plight of the working class? And how can it be that such a place would forget its origins as a hotbed of what the historian Walter Prescott Webb called 'persistent radicalism,' as the seedbed of Social Security and of agrarian reform, to side with the bosses, to back an ideology that promises the destruction of the liberal state's social-welfare safety net? Whatever the root causes, many of which seem to have something to do with fear and loathing of big-city types and ethnic minorities, Kansas voters—and even the Vietnam vets among them—seem to have picked up on the mantra that the 'snobs on the coasts' are the enemy, and that Bush ('a man so ham-handed in his invocations of the Lord that he occasionally slips into blasphemy') and company are friends and deliverers . . . Even so, he sees the tiniest ray of hope for modern progressives: after all, he notes, the one Kansas county that sports a NASCAR track went for Al Gore in 2000. A bracing, unabashedly partisan, and very smart work of red-state trendspotting."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads

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BOOK EXCERPTS

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Introduction

What's the Matter with America?

The poorest county in America isn't in Appalachia or the Deep South. It is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns, and in the election of 2000 the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, carried it by a majority of greater than 80 percent.1

This puzzled me when I first read about it, as it puzzles many of the people I know. For us it is the Democrats that are the party of workers, of the poor, of the weak and the victimized. Understanding this, we think, is basic; it is part of the ABCs

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MEDIA

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  • What's the Matter with Kansas? - Trailer

    Based on the Thomas Frank's best-seller, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" shows how Kansas transformed from an outpost of radicalism to a bastion of hard-core conservatism. Unforgettable characters and their stories shed new light on our nation's political divide.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Thomas Frank, with a new afterword

  • Thomas Frank, the founding editor of The Baffler, is the author of One Market Under God and The Conquest of Cool. He writes frequently for Harper's Magazine, The Nation, and Le Monde diplomatique.
  • Thomas Frank Jane Magellanic
    Thomas Frank
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