Thomas Frank, Author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" At the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs Monday, May 16, 2005
Monday night I went to see Thomas Frank, author, at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago. Mr. Frank is a very engaging and interesting speaker and he was talking to the faithful; I was probably the only Republican in the room.
Mr. Frank’s book is attempting to describe how the Democrats lost counties in Kansas, where he grew up, that are (by per capita income) some of the poorest areas in the country. In the “old days”, these people would have been reliable Democratic voters, but the party is getting trounced out there. Mr. Frank attempts to answer why this is occurring.
He says that it is because the Republicans have picked up moral issues, and cunningly, picked up moral issues that “rile up” their flock but really can’t be resolved. He says that the Republican thesis is that “liberals” are planning to take over everything and ban the Bible and install gay marriage everywhere and other extremist fantasies. He talks about the huge Republican media, which is talk radio and Rush Limbaugh, and the fact that the Republicans can get their news through their own media sources, blogs and Fox News and this reinforces everything that they feel.
Meanwhile, he says, the “Gini Coefficient” which measures income inequality is showing that American wealth is being more and more concentrated in the hands of the few. CEO’s make a significantly higher multiple of the average persons’ wage compared with prior years. He even pointed out that the Wall Street Journal, which is (to them) code word for the Republicans on business issues, is running a series of articles agreeing that class mobility is declining.
The Democrats, however, have basically given up on the “populist” message that they used to deliver, which is pretty much defined as “standing up for the little people”. The Democrats take money from the same corporations as the Republicans and basically offer the same economic message. Their main donors are the extremely wealthy and these people are interested in environmentalism and other liberal causes and don’t have interest in these types of “bread and butter” issues.
Mr. Frank got the crowd going with his impression of the Republicans’ talking about Democrats as “latte swilling Volvo driving university educated elites out of touch with the real world”. Of course this audience laughed, looking down on the “rube” Republicans, which is really kind of what the Republicans think they do when the doors are closed. The Democrats really look upon the Republicans as you’d look upon someone who is mentally damaged, they can’t really figure out why Republicans can’t see the light that they see, and don’t know how to explain it to them.
He had a discussion about a farmer in Kansas who was basically going broke. I have a lot of farmers in my family and it is true, they are always going broke. There was a famous postcard in Montana with 2 old guys in a bar and one says to the other “If I won a million dollars I’d just keep on ranching until it was all gone”. When Mr. Frank asked the farmer why he didn’t vote Democratic to try to help his economic situation, the farmer answered “why would that make a difference?” Mr. Frank agreed that the democrats aren’t making their case for economics and why people should vote for them if they are downtrodden or facing economic hardship.
At the end of the meeting, all of the faithful started asking questions, which were really questions about what the Democrats could do better to win. At this point I was kind of stunned; it is a decent paraphrase to say that Mr. Frank didn’t have much hope in the near term, except maybe in the long term things always change and what seems obvious today will flip on its head. He says that the Republican revolution began in the early 1970’s and has picked up speed; campaign finance that allowed corporations to give big donations really helped the Republicans (and caused the Democrats to get rid of their economic message to get access to that same money), and then Reagan came in and took it to another level. Bill Clinton was President but basically a Republican on economic issues and won on his personal charm; but the rest of the Democrats are now in the wilderness without him because the party has given up on populism.
Bizarrely, I agreed with Mr. Frank on most of his items. Here are some random observations:
- He complained about Bush’s foreign policy, but then basically summarized why it doesn’t matter (to me, or most Americans) – “we have the tough guy in there, that is all we can do”.
- The comedian Lewis Black said in one of his monologues “The Republicans are a party of bad ideas; the Democrats are a party of no ideas”. This discussion pretty much said the same thing, at least the part about the Democrats having no ideas
- My grandmother (deceased) WAS a “populist” of the type Mr. Frank describes. She grew up a poor “Okie” like the Grapes of Wrath and had a hard life. She gave a lot of time and money to running kind of a mission and always provided meals to people who were hard up because that was the way she grew up. She was extremely intelligent and well spoken but also very hard working. She felt for the underdog and that the rich had too much
- It is easy to contrast the “populist”, working class democrats with the effete, enviro-democrats that run moveon and all of the other protest groups. No big wonder why they aren’t exactly mobilizing the working class throughout the country
- He said growing up people thought of government as bloodsuckers or parasites, and people that owned businesses that they built were the real rebels. I don’t know why he dropped that line of thought – it is true
I try to imagine what the ideal Democratic world would be, if they had their way. I have worked at a lot of government institutions when I used to be a consultant and an auditor and they were run in just an awful fashion, totally reactionary and dilapidated. Is this the way to a better country, to expand their role? Does anyone really think that is the case? Is “more government” what the Democrats want? Or is it something else – no one knows, and that is basically what Mr. Frank is saying.
The truth is they don’t even know anymore, and if they do they aren’t saying it (in a way that is manifestly different than the Republicans, at least). They just want Bush out.
And that is why the Democrats are being drummed out of power everywhere in America, from the House to the Senate to local elections to the presidency which controls the judiciary.
Unfortunately this isn’t happening in Illinois, because we have the most pathetic Republican party in the country, a party so bad that I don’t even care that the Democrats are in power. Our Republicans act just like Democrats, they raise taxes and are corrupt to the bone, and we can’t seem to field any candidates that aren’t a national joke. I don’t think that Illinois is a “blue” state, it is a half blue half red state where the Republicans are so insanely disorganized that they can’t even field a senate candidate from our own state.