An Interview with Thomas Frank
As a youth in the Kansas City suburbs, Thomas Frank toted around a copy of the Constitution; he considered it and the Bible the “shop manuals to the human condition.” Enthralled by Reagan-style idealism, he believed that business and enterprise should be allowed to roam free, unhampered and untended. What finally shook his rosy view was, he says with characteristically deadpan reasoning, “experience with the real world.”
Frank, who could write a memoir entitled, naturally, I Was a Teenage Conservative, is now one of the fiercest critics of the culture of business and the politics that enable and aid the reproachful whims of the free market. Dissatisfied with the postmodern and deconstructionist approaches favored in the late ’80s, Frank and friend Keith White started the Baffler, a Chicago-based magazine that has consistently featured the most inerrant and saucy critiques of commerce and culture, and has released two anthologies of its best efforts, Commodify Your Dissent (1997) and Boob Jubilee (2003). A proving ground for Frank and several other preeminent muckrakers, the Baffler is a kind of throwback to the vigor and brio of early-twentieth-century intellectual sparring.
His first book, The Conquest of Cool (1997) took on the lasting progenitors of the counterculture critique—the consumer advertising industry. Praised for its spirit and refreshingly plainspoken approach, it examined ’60s-era ads from companies such as Oldsmobile, El Al Airlines, and Booth’s Gin, and their manipulative tactics of conjuring counterculture terminology to hock wares. Widely reviewed and commended, Frank followed it up with One Market under God (2000). Challenging the belief that free markets are inherently democratic, Frank also tackled the giddy rhetoric of the New Economy and the pervasive cultural notion that capitalism is commutable with religion. This prolific work catapulted Frank to new heights and set the stage for his latest volume.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America manages to weave many of Frank’s previous theories regarding capitalism and rampant free markets into an analysis of the current political landscape. In his most directly vital critique yet, Frank uses Kansas as a case study of the nation’s thriving conservative movement. How did one of the most liberal states in the union, home to radical socialists like Eugene Debs, become one of the most rigidly conservative? Over the course of two phone conversations, Frank, with infectious enthusiasm, tried to answer this question. He spoke from his home in Washington, DC, where he recently moved from Chicago to cover the belly of the beast for Harper’s. “There are some things I really like about it,” Frank said of his adopted city, “a lot of beautiful buildings and that kind of thing. But I really miss the Midwest. I can’t wait to go back.”
— Margaret Wappler
I. “CONSERVATISM IS NOT A DOCTRINE OF CONTENTMENT. NOT A DOCTRINE FOR THE SATISFIED AND THE SMUG. IT’S A POLITICS THAT’S AT WAR WITH THE WORLD.”
THE BELIEVER: In your new book, you talk about David Brooks and how in his book Bobos in Paradise he boils down the class and cultural differences in the United States to preferences for cars or wine and other material definitions. He’s certainly not the first person to work with that stereotype.
THOMAS FRANK: It goes way back to talk about class in terms of tastes and preferences. Some of my very favorite books are these social critiques from the 1950s, like The Tastemakers. A number of books from the 1950s described the different social classes by what they consumed. My argument with Brooks is that he does it in a way that’s heavily politicized, and the politics tend to lean toward pop sociology—it’s not really serious. The politics tend to obscure a lot of the reality.
BLVR: Why do you think this particular way of breaking down the differences between liberals and conservatives has gained so much currency with the Right?
TF: It serves their purposes. This is one of the things that my book is about. I’m also noticing it constantly since I moved to Washington, DC. The conservatives talk the language of social class all the time and that might seem strange because we always hear them accusing Democrats of class warfare, whenever, say, the Democrats talk about the tax burden being unfairly tilted to one side. They say, “That’s class warfare and that has no place in American politics,” but they themselves talk about social class all the time. They talk about social class from the bottom up. It’s a very bitter, angry way of looking at people in what they believe to be an upper class. They call them the liberal elite and they talk about their tastes and their preferences all the time. They run these TV commercials that say liberals are supposed to sip Chardonnay and eat fancy cheese and drink lattés—lattés are especially identified with liberals. And Volvos. It’s very helpful for them to look at class this way because then you don’t talk about the money part, the taxes, the deregulation, the really broad, sweeping effects that Republican policies have had on the country in the last thirty years. You’re objecting to the tastes of this stereotyped clique of people.
There’s another very powerful reason why conservative commentators are drawn to this, and in particular the current version of this critique, the red-state/blue-state model. Brooks writes about this a lot and it’s not just him. Everywhere you turn in Washington you hear this: red-state people are one kind of person and blue-state people are another kind of person and it’s these two very different cultures that never the twain shall meet. Well, the reason this is so attractive is that it implies that the real Americans, the Heartland Americans, Nixon’s “silent majority,” are automatically supporters of George W. Bush. And this gives Bush a majoritarian legitimacy that he didn’t have. He didn’t win the popular vote. So talking about it that way obscures that fact.
BLVR: Do any of them ever acknowledge the irony of embracing that kind of thinking about material objects? The stereotype is informed by the advertising industry that has propagated certain ideas, like, you buy an Apple computer, you’re different.
TF: Oh, absolutely. There are many, many contradictions that are never acknowledged. This is one of the contradictions drawn from a part of capitalism that they would probably object to really strongly. Another thing, and this is one of the most fundamental contradictions in the conservative worldview, is that they object so bitterly to American culture as a whole. They hate it. You pick up any of their bestsellers and the authors feel out of place in America. They complain about the culture but it never seems to come up that this culture is the product of capitalism and that capitalism is something they profess to love.
The basic contradiction is that on the one hand, they are so pro–free market, and on the other hand the free market hurts them in many ways that they never talk about. So the idea of the Republicans speaking for the working class, it’s ridiculous because they’ve done so much to harm the working class and yet that’s how they represent themselves and that’s how they’ve won elections. And it’s not a joke, either. That’s how they won. That’s how they’ve become the majority party since 1968. Back then they looked to be a permanent minority; now they are the instigators and leaders in Washington. That’s the great historical question of our time: how the Republicans became the majority party. How conservatives have been so successful over the last thirty years.
BLVR: It seems that their power comes, in part, from co-opting this language that has deep connotations. With certain words and phrases, Bush can say, “I’m aligned with the working class. I know what you’re going through.”
TF: They’re very good at it. And it’s not like they’re doing it in order to manipulate people. It’s honest. When I saw Bush speak just days ago at the fortieth anniversary celebration of the American Conservative Union, he seemed sincere.
BLVR: They seem to have borrowed some of the concepts that the politically correct movement popularized, like the idea of the victim.
TF: Oh, absolutely. A guy like Bill O’Reilly will rail against the liberals for their worship of the victim, yet the conservatives have, in many ways, a much more developed, elaborate theory of their own victimization than any other group out there. They are the “Middle Americans,” they believe, the salt of the Earth. They’ve stood up for their country and their flag and here they are marginalized. The schools won’t teach what they believe, the world just insults them constantly. All their arguments proceed from this theory of victimization. There’s even a book out there that they love by Rush Limbaugh’s brother called Persecution. The idea of it is that Christians are persecuted right here in the U.S. of A. This is so critical for people to understand: conservatism is not a doctrine of contentment. Not a doctrine for the satisfied and the smug. It’s a politics that’s at war with the world. It sees itself as the ideology of the oppressed. This is central to its appeal.
II: “SOMETIMES IT SEEMS THE REPUBLICANS CHOOSE THE CULTURAL ISSUES DELIBERATELY BECAUSE THEY CAN’T BE RESOLVED, CAN’T BE WON.”
BLVR: You talk a lot about the differences between the conservative and moderate Republicans. That’s something I don’t think people pay much attention to.
TF: There’re two factions in the Republican Party; this is almost everywhere in the country. In Kansas there is a stark class divide between these two factions. The moderates are the state’s ruling class: they are the newspaper owners, the doctors, the lawyers, the MBAs, and the real-estate developers. And they really do have a sort of baronial attitude about the place. The conservatives tend to be the state’s working class. People stop voting Democrat at some point in their lives and instead of becoming moderate Republicans they become conservative Republicans. That’s the only other choice out there.
BLVR: Do you think that the moderates haven’t been vehement enough about criticizing the conservatives?
TF: These two groups despise each other.
BLVR: But yet the moderates don’t call for the conservatives to make their own party?
TF: Well, they did in the beginning but now they realize they’re stuck with them. You interview these people and they are constantly giving you dirt on the other faction. They don’t even care about the Democrats—they just hate each other. One conservative Republican told me that the moderate drove a Volvo. This was supposed to be really damning. The conservatives took over the state party in the mid-’90s and when they turned it over to the moderates, who took over again in 1999, the conservatives had spent the bank account and erased all the computers, or at least this is what I was told by a moderate. You don’t know if it’s really true. The conservatives have their own stories.
BLVR: But for all the infighting, do they mutually benefit each other?
TF: They don’t like to admit it because, of course, they are always fighting the war, but yes, they do. The Republicans dominate Kansas even more now than they did before the conservatives started rising up. There are a few exceptions to that, like the current governor of Kansas is a Democrat and she got in because the conservative guy got the nomination and the moderates hated him so much that a lot of the Republican leaders went for the Democrat. The Democrats are able to score every now and then.
BLVR: Is there potential then for the Republican Party to just self-destruct?
TF: Yeah, sure. They’ve lost several big elections. But the thing is these people always get together in the end.
BLVR: You posit that the conservatives use the values issues—abortion, for instance—as a way to get their financial interests in the back door.
TF: The Republican Party on the national level has been very successful with their economic agenda to roll back taxes, to deregulate and privatize, to do away with the welfare state in many different ways. Their accomplishments have been very impressive. The things that get the votes for them, though, are the social issues, the cultural issues. Now, on those issues they have almost nothing to show for it. All these years of campaigning against Hollywood, for example, and nothing has changed.
That’s interesting because sometimes it seems the Republicans choose cultural issues deliberately because they can’t be resolved, can’t be won, the classic examples being abortion and school prayer. Those require constitutional amendments or a seriously altered Supreme Court in order to win. Some of the people I talked to in Kansas really believe they’re going to live to see the day that Roe v. Wade is overturned. I strongly doubt it. Or you take the episode that happened last spring where the judge had the Ten Commandments monument built in the courthouse. That was deliberately done to pick a fight with the ACLU, to mobilize voters. Or the classic example in Kansas, the evolution controversy—this was just silly. That was done strictly to cause a little cultural shitstorm, to polarize their followers.
BLVR: But did it work?
TF: At first it looked like it worked but in the end it backfired. The problem is that the conservatives tend to win in the Republican primaries when there aren’t big issues to bring people out, because they are extremely dedicated and they get out the vote. You have to admire them for that. So they tend to win in the primaries in Kansas and most other places if there are no high-profile votes going on. The moderates in Kansas have figured out that their voters don’t tend to be as good about that. For one thing, they tend to be on vacation when the primaries happen [laughs], and they often tend to be much more complacent people. They have discovered that the only way they can beat the conservatives is to get some really momentous thing on the ballot. In that sense, the war against Darwin backfired. It got people all over the state very upset. The thing you have to remember that’s particular to Kansas is that they dread being labeled as hicks. The war on evolution, which got them headlines all over the world, was their worst nightmare come true. So it got out the moderate vote, and the result was most of the conservative people on the state board of education who came up for reelection were beaten and a number of other conservatives were beaten.
III: “IF THE DEMOCRATS BRING BACK THE CLASS CRITIQUE OR AT LEAST CONFRONT THE REPUBLICAN VISION OF SOCIAL CLASS WITH THEIR OWN VISION OF SOCIAL CLASS, THEY COULD WIN OVERWHELMINGLY.”
BLVR: What about the Democrats’ appeal or lack thereof to the working class?
TF: In some ways, they are as the Republicans describe them. They now try to court the professional class. And they sometimes seem very clumsy when they try to talk to average people. I mean, there are still a lot of Democrats from that tradition, but Kerry isn’t. Clinton was better at it. Al Gore certainly couldn’t do it. And there are several other examples like him. They seem to have really lost it.
BLVR: How did that happen?
TF: Well, maybe that’s the next book. [Laughs] It’s a tragic, awful story. It goes back to their having lost so many times. McGovern, Carter, and then Mondale being beaten. And Mondale was your old-school Democrat, your Roosevelt type, and the party seems to have regarded his defeat as a signal that they should abandon that kind of politics and so they’ve emphasized different things since then.
BLVR: What else is holding the Democrats back?
TF: The Democrats that I’ve talked to about this, and Kansas Democrats tend to be your old-school kind, say the problem is on the national level. The national party has different ideas about how a situation like this should be played. The national party says, “Let’s get the moderates over here.” The moderates tend to be pro-choice, and while they’re not going to be pro-gay marriage, they’re not homophobic, whereas the conservatives use a lot of homophobic rhetoric. The national Democrats say, “Well, these moderates are our kind of voters.”
The problem with that is the Democrats are playing precisely into that latté libel, that they are the party of the upper-middle-class professionals. And the Democrats are content with that, or some of them seem to be. If the Democrats bring back the class critique or at least confront the Republican vision of social class with their own vision of social class, they could win overwhelmingly. But as far as I can tell, they’re really not interested in doing that. Some are. John Edwards was. I think Howard Dean was. Kerry certainly is not.
BLVR: Why do you think he’s steering clear?
TF: That’s not where the money is. Remember that corporate America can throw down ten times the amount that organized labor can. This is the thing that makes all the difference in our political lives: the role that money plays.
BLVR: You mention a few times how some conservatives see themselves as being “perfectly happy to be a little overweight and a little underpaid” or “happy to accept their lot in life.”
TF: This is the famous denial of class conflict. It’s obviously incorrect, but what they mean by that is that they don’t have any economic class antagonism. In fact, they have tons of class antagonism; they just don’t have any economic-based class antagonism. They hate the rich because they’re liberals, not because they’re capitalists.
BLVR: Why do you think the economic-based class argument has lost its power?
TF: There is no one who has an interest in making it anymore. This is also the story of the decline of the Democrats and the decline of liberalism. There are very few people making the kind of argument I make. I refer repeatedly to the Populist movement in the 1890s. They were part of a centuries-long working-class movement about social class and social justice and that movement is over now in the United States. There are only remnants of it, like the labor movement. And the labor movement is not very powerful anymore and they become less powerful each year. Neither political party has an interest anymore in making that critique. As I said, Democrats have decided to appeal to the professional class and to others. They’ll talk about things like jobs but in a very generic sense. They’re not anything like the Democrats of old. If you go back and read speeches by Harry Truman—and he was regarded as a moderate liberal, not a left liberal at all—they’re filled with denunciations of corporate America, this hatred of Wall Street and suspicion of the business class. You would never hear those same critiques today.
IV: “CONSERVATISM HAS A MILLION OTHER THINGS THAT PROPEL IT, A MILLION OTHER COMPLAINTS THAT DRIVE IT ALONG. AND TO JUST BRUSH IT OFF AS RACISM IS TO MISS THE VITALITY OF IT.”
BLVR: You examine Kansas as this microcosm of the conservative movement, but of course not every state has that political or cultural makeup. Besides your own connection, what made Kansas’s conservatism particularly interesting? Why not do Alabama?
TF: On the one hand because Kansas is so conservative. And then on the other hand it doesn’t come out of that Southern past. I wanted to study backlash conservatism—the backlash is my term for the populist conservatism of the last thirty years—in an environment where you couldn’t just write it off as racism.
This is one of the things that has really held back the way liberals think about conservatism. They tend to say, “It’s just racism.” And that’s certainly true in many cases. All this stuff got its start with the Wallace campaign in ’68; Wallace was an old-school segregationist, he was bad news. And you had openly racist episodes like the Boston busing riots and stuff like that through the course of the backlash. But that’s not the issue in Kansas. There seems to be very little of that kind of feeling so this is a situation where you can’t just brush it off that way.
BLVR: So they’re the most powerful form of conservatism because they’re not racist.
TF: Exactly. And that’s why it’s so important to pay attention. People think that this type of conservatism is just going to die out as racism disappears. And there’s no question that racism is waning; they do studies of people’s attitudes and it is a dying force, there’s no question about that, but conservatism is not. Conservatism has a million other things that propel it, a million other complaints that drive it along. And to just brush it off as racism is to miss the vitality of it, to not understand what makes it tick. That’s why Kansas is important.
BLVR: You say that Kansans are basically voting for these conservative policies that hurt them. Did anybody ever justify it as a solution that may be harmful in the short run but, given a chance to iron itself out, will work in the long run?
TF: Well, it’s hard to get people to even talk about the economic issues. Almost nobody will talk about these things with you. When you talk about deregulation or privatization, it’s as though you’re coming from another planet. Their issues are abortion, guns, public schools, evolution, and so on. That’s what they care about. Taxation they care about insofar as they can pull out the props from under the state. If you talk about these things, it’s a conversation-stopper. Or sometimes you get a libertarian-type response that if you just let markets be free… For certain kinds of people, there’s an almost religious reverence for the free market.
V: “I DON’T BELIEVE THERE IS ANY OTHER COUNTRY ON EARTH WHERE THIS IDEOLOGY WOULD WORK. WHERE AMERICAN CONSERVATISM, AS IN POP CONSERVATISM, BACKLASH CONSERVATISM, WOULD HAVE THIS APPEAL.”
BLVR: So there’s a parallel between this idea of the free market, “It’s natural, don’t interfere with it,” and this cultural idea of “It’s natural for a man and woman to be together and anything else is interference with the natural laws.”
TF: Well, there are two different kinds of conservatives. There are the free-market ones, and then the values-oriented cultural conservatives, and they don’t really think about globalization. The family-values group, if they think about capitalism at all, they think it’s natural. That’s what most Americans think: it’s natural and intervening in it is artificial, is intellectuals run amok. Both critiques have this boogeyman of liberal intellectuals. For the free-market types the liberal intellectuals are the government regulators and the blue-ribbon panels that are always meddling in their affairs. For the values people, it’s the intellectuals like the Yale French Department or the people who make the movies in Hollywood. Both sides are united in anti-intellectualism. That’s the Rosetta stone of American conservatism.
BLVR: In many places, the Republican Party is regarded as the American party.
TF: Oh, no! What an awful thing to say. [Laughs] I suppose it is.
BLVR: I’m thinking of how Bush summons the cowboy, this quintessential American image. Do you think that being a Republican on a global scale is also a way of being a rebel and saying, “Screw you, French people. I’m going to be a Republican”?
TF: Well, there are two answers to that. First of all, the Republicans use that language and imagery all the time. “We are defying the world.” So it does have that appeal and the French, in particular, are this very useful stereotype to them.
In my last book, One Market under God, I had a whole section on how the French were used as this racial stereotype of the people who didn’t understand the New Economy. And now they’re being used again as a stereotype but for a totally different purpose. Now they are the country of the liberal elite. One Market Under God just came out in French and I did a book tour there; the French are both very amused by this stereotype and horrified by it.
Another thing I should say about Republicans being rebels on a global scale, I don’t believe there is any other country on Earth where this ideology would work. Where American conservatism, as in pop conservatism, backlash conservatism, would have this appeal. The French, for example, could not understand Bush’s appeal to Americans. I think even French conservatives don’t understand it. There’s only one place where this could happen and that’s red America.