Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas is a very prescient piece of political writing. Frank grew up in Kansas and looks back in bedwilderment at how the state has lurched to the right in defiance of the economic interests of its citizens. In particular Frank is mystified by the conservative voting habits of Kansas working class whites, who keep voting for rich Republicans making lots of promises they never keep as they just keep lowering taxes for the rich. The poor workers just keep getting poorer with less government support, and they keep voting for the most conservative candidates they can find. Some of this can be attributed to carefully executed anti-abortion and other socially conservative strategies, but it is still hard to suss out why people would keep voting against their own self-interest. It is kind of a reverse Roosevelt.
What’s the Matter with Kansas is entertaining and even funny, but it is also confounding. Frank underscores how radical Kansas was years ago, which makes its current passion for to-the-right-of-Attila-the-Hun conservatism seem so bizarre. I checked: Kansas hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
So in his 2004 book, Frank sagely diagnoses the average white Kansan’s complete disaffection with the Democratic Party. Since this book was written,the Republican Party has continued to follow disastrous economic policies that have led to recession and increased unemployment. Obama’s national success in 2008 and 2012 may have masked the phenomenon to some extent, but the 2016 election has shown that Kansas’ self-destructive voting habits have been adopted enthusiastically by the Rust Belt.
This begs the question, what should the Democrats have done or what should they do to convince working class Kansans that their best shot at improving their lot in life lies with the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, while Frank is very good at diagnosing the problem and its permutations, he is less successful at suggesting how Democrats or even centrists might pry these voters away from the far right. Embracing anti-abortion and social conservatism might sway a few voters, but it would also eviscerate the Democratic party. This is a massive problem that the Democratic Party needs to try to solve. Logic suggests that it should be easy to solve, but Frank’s excellent book suggests that there is nothing simple about Kansas politics.