Josh Benson finishes substituting for Noam Scheiber on the latter's blog etc. with this farewell post on Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? It's only a blog post, but I have to say that it's the best thing I've seen so far on Frank's book. It puts the professional reviewers to shame.
Benson is surely right in arguing that Frank's discussion of how white, working-class voters vote against their economic interests by supporting the GOP is too simplistic. (Franks discusses the so-called "backlash" at great length. The basic idea is that the GOP has used the culture war to convince white, working-class voters to vote for Republicans, and thus to vote against their own economic interests.) Here's how Benson puts his main objection:
. . . the biggest flaw of Frank's book is a question he barely addresses: How do these white, working-class Kansans process the economic implications of their vote? Do they think they'd be more likely to have affordable health care and a good job under Democratic policies? And if so, do they care? In my humble opinion, answering these questions is a prerequisite to rebuilding the Democrats' appeal to such voters. Frank doesn't have much of an opinion, though. He simply takes it for granted that these voters are stupidly working against their own material interests.
Benson understates Frank's error, I think. Contrary to what Benson thinks, Frank doesn't simply take it for granted that white, working-class Kansans are stupidly or unknowingly working against their own economic interests. Here's a bit of evidence to show that Frank is in a position to know that matters aren't so simple.
At one point Frank interviews Kay O'Connor, a state senator from Olathe. She says quite sincerely, I'm sure that some people "have higher ambitions for monetary gains as opposed to, shall we say, spiritual gains" (p. 169). Frank talks with other Kansans with similar views and tells of his conversations with them throughout the book, but especially in chapter 8 (pp. 157-178). The title of that chapter "Happy Captives" gives away Frank's take on all of these Kansas conservatives who support the GOP.
Frank's problem isn't that he takes for granted that all white, working-class Republicans have been duped by the GOP. He provides evidence, again and again, that the religious conservatives among these voters are sincerely acting on their religious convictions. And if you wanted to transform your religious convictions about abortion or school prayer into law, which party would you join? The GOP, of course. Where else would you go?
Now Frank is right about this: the GOP has hardly delivered on its promises to the religious right. As he says, "The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate" (p. 6). I can't say to what extent this bait-and-switch bothers devout Christians. But Frank is typical of leftists in his inability to comprehend religious conviction. It doesn't factor into his analyses. Yet Kay O'Connor couldn't have made its genuine significance any plainer.
It seems to me that Frank, without realizing it, dismisses or ignores the possibility that religious conviction can truly trump economic interests, that the devout can recognize that their economic interests can be hurt in the political bargains that they make, and that they can comfortably reconcile themselves to this tradeoff. That is, he doesn't simply take his position for granted; instead, he willfully sets aside evidence that should force him to complicate his analysis. Therefore, Frank's intellectual sin is more grievous than Benson believes.
Frank notes correctly that the religious right doesn't get much at all from its bargain with the GOP, and that Kansas itself is suffering in various ways from policies and economic practices favored by the GOP. And it's probably often the case that many working-class voters don't realize that the above-mentioned tradeoff is taking place at their expense. (I believe that it is. I agree with Frank on this point.) It could be, though, that all of this is genuinely of lesser importance to devout Christians than that their religious convictions drive their political lives. Would it really surprise you to learn that some contemporary Christians place their faith above their material well-being? Isn't that what Jesus demanded of his followers?
I'm thoroughly secular, and thus I don't share the religious convictions that Frank documents throughout his book. It's one thing, however, not to share these convictions; it's another thing altogether to deny them their appropriate role in a comprehensive analysis of the contemporary political scene. (I might add parenthetically: Is it any wonder, then, that the left, in its search for the root causes of Islamic terrorism, has had next to nothing to say about the role of Islam itself? See my earlier post on Shmuel Bar's essay on the religious sources of Islamic terrorism.) Frank's inability to find a significant place in his analysis for religious conviction is surely a flaw in his book, which, nonetheless, I still recommend.
More: All of my earlier posts on Frank can be found among the posts in the politics category. Just click and scroll down to the entries from July 2004.