Monday, September 20, 2004
Postcard from Binghamton
Nestled in the Southern Tier of upstate New York is this fine institution. If you look closely you can see me in there somewhere.
And best of all, I have hi-speed Internet access in the hotel, so Thomas Frank Week can officially begin on this humble blog. We’ll start with a minor point, one that every poli sci major and her brother has made over the past summer, namely, that Frank occasionally makes it sound as if Kansas was fertile ground for progressive populism until quite recently. “Not too long ago,” he writes at the outset of “God, Meet Mammon,” “Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay” (67). But “not too long ago” appears here in a curious, almost geological sense, since Kansas hasn’t cared much for Democrats since the time when that Babe Ruth fellow reached the unthinkable 700-home run milestone. (See the Slate-like exchange between Siva Vaidhyanathan and Eric Rauchway over at Altercation for the most recent restatement of this point.)
The real question about what happened to Kansas (as Siva points out) has to do with the past 10-15 years, as the Kansas GOP of Nancy Kassebaum and Bob Dole became the fire-breathing Kansas GOP of Sam Brownback and Todd Tiahrt. That’s a chilling tale, full of post-Wichita anti-abortion extremism and some rather passionate intensity over the conviction that the universe is six thousand years old. For his rendering of that narrative, Frank’s book is more than worth the price of admission. Clueless Democrats and quasi-liberal journalists (you know, the kind who think they’re still dealing with reasonable, old-school prairie Republicans like Everett Dirksen out there) need to read this part of the book-- and it’s the major part of the book-- right now. At least by dinnertime today.
But Frank is probably stretching things further than things can be stretched when he winds up suggesting that Kansas is in the “vanguard”—“maybe what has happened there points the way in which all our public policy debates are heading” (248). Sure, as long as people like Bush and DeLay run the country, we’ll be seeing plenty of deep-in-the-heart-of-far-right madness being passed off as the common sense of the U. S. of A. And Kansas politics are a lot like Oklahoma politics-- or the politics of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, wherever you’ve got an ultrareligious right, an extreme anti-government right, and (as opposed to the Solid South) so miniscule an African-American population that the far-right backlash can’t be understood as an epiphenomenon of racism. But then, as one of my smart wonky friends in D.C. put it, what isn’t the matter with Iowa? Or look what happened in Illinois when the loons nominated Al Salvi to run against Dick Durbin-- or Alan Keyes to run against Barack Obama: when Illinois Republicans get too loony, they don’t just lose-- they threaten to collapse the party statewide. The point is that Kansas has such a weak Democratic party that there are no brakes on how far the GOP can run to the right. And whatever the national party’s failings-- and they are legion-- it’s hard to imagine that the Kansas Dems can revitalize themselves simply by running on an economic-populist platform. Ah, but this point takes us into those dreaded cultural issues, about which more tomorrow.