One-Minute Book Reviews

April 16, 2009

In the Land of the Jane Fonda Urinal Target — ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America’

[You can find some of my comments on the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books, which will be announced Monday, at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.]

How ignoring the economy and lifting up wedge issues got us into a mess

What’s the Matter With Kansas? By Thomas Frank. How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Holt, 336 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Why did the Republican Party for years attract so many Americans who recently have lost their homes, jobs or life savings to its policies? How did the GOP recast itself as the party of working-class voters, who for generations had lined up behind the Democrats?

Thomas Frank gives bracing and witty answers in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a former New York Times bestseller that is still one of the best books on the political roots of the current fiscal mess. Frank argues that for decades, Republicans have been eroding the traditional Democratic base by focusing on wedge issues such as abortion, gun control, and “filth” in the media, not on the economic policies that separate the parties. And since the Clinton administration, the Democratic Leadership Council has played into their hands by promoting “triangulation,” a business-friendly stance that downplays its differences with the GOP.

The result: The line between the parties blurred, and year after year Americans elected Republicans whose laissez-faire economic policies eventually would wipe out their 401(k)s.

Frank refracts the changes through his native Kansas, once a hotbed of progressive ideals, a state that has paid a scalper’s price for its march to the right. A portent of the American economic meltdown occurred when the attacks of Sept. 11 halted the orders to the Boeing, a mainstay of the Wichita economy. The aircraft manufacturer laid off many union workers and said that, this time, their jobs wouldn’t be coming back.

“In the summer of 2003, unemployment in Wichita passed 7 percent and foreclosures on homes spiked as these disasters reverberated through the local economy,” Frank writes.

But Kansans didn’t seem blame the Republican union-busting policies exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers. The state went for George Bush in 2004. And Frank’s pessimism about its political climate seems well-founded, if not prophetic, given the economic free fall that has occurred since the publication of his book. Even as the recession was spreading around the world, Kansas voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election.

Best line: At Kansas Vietnam Veterans reunion in 2002, trinket vendors sold “such items as the Jane Fonda urinal target.

Worst line: Frank describes how the national swerve to the right affected his hometown, the affluent Mission Hills, Kansas, and says you “can observe the same changes” in Shaker Heights, Ohio. No, you can’t. Parts of Shaker Heights — where I lived for 11 of the years when those changes supposed to be occurring — may look like Mission Hills with its castellated stone fortresses. But the Cleveland suburb is 10 times the size of Mission Hills, has a far more diverse population, and for other reasons does not fit the pattern he describes. Shaker Heights has lost enough of its cachet in the past several decades that the elite suburbs now lie farther to the east. Those suburbs include Hunting Valley, which more closely resembles his hometown.

Editor: Sara Bershtel

Published: June 2004 (hardcover), April 2005 (paperback).

Furthermore: Frank’s latest book is The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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