There isn’t much point in trying to have a nonpartisan conversation with Thomas Frank. The author of What’s The Matter With Kansas?, the inspiration for a documentary now out on DVD, is an unabashed muckraker, a crusading journalist and cultural critic who believes that one of the things crippling the country’s political discourse is the false idea that both sides of every argument are entitled to equal consideration. As a founder and editor of the journal The Baffler and the author of The Conquest Of Cool, Frank put forth a critique of the sophisticated way corporations hijacked the rhetoric of rebellion to sell products, neutering its ability to foment political change. In What’s The Matter With Kansas?, published in 2004, Frank used the history of his home state as an object lesson in the way conservative Republicans have used cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage to lure voters away from the Democratic party, in the process convincing them to vote for policies that do them financial harm. As Frank, who started out as a conservative himself, points out, Kansas was once a hotbed of the radical working-class Populist party, which fought for the interests of working farmers and against banks, railroads, and other moneyed elites. The Populists’ late-19th-century heyday is long past and little remembered, but Frank sees in its existence proof that working-class radicalism can flourish in American soil. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Frank about the nation’s toxic political discourse.
The A.V. Club: How much involvement did you have with the documentary?
Thomas Frank: Not a whole lot. There’s two ways of looking at it. The filmmakers went their own way. They talked to me about it as they did it, but my idea was to not get involved in their day-to-day decision-making. I knew what they were doing. We agreed on the general plan at the beginning, which was that they were going to find characters and follow characters, but other than that, I didn’t try to push them to do anything.
AVC: The movie does illustrate a lot of the points in the book, though, especially how often trumped-up cultural debates have displaced substantive issues in terms of how people identify themselves politically, and the incredible polarization in our political culture. At one point in the film, an activist backing a pro-life candidate says, “There’s Jesus and Satan in this election,” which is obviously not the prelude to a meaningful debate.
TF: Of course you would never make a comparison like that, except to announce that you are on the side of Jesus.
AVC: The shootings in Tucson brought a lot of these issues to the fore. People were on Facebook within hours, posting things like, “Fuck you Palin, you’re a pig,” before there was any evidence that the shooter had been influenced by her infamous target map, or even seen it. And then Palin’s camp started acting like they were guilty, deleting the evidence and issuing disingenuous statements about surveyors’ symbols.
TF: That was a telling point. I never have been all that convinced by people that wanted to pin all this on Palin because of that stupid map. The map was stupid, but it wasn’t calling for murder. Back in the ’80s, there was somebody who put out pictures of candidates with crosshairs on their faces. That’s kind of scary. This wasn’t that. That was also, by the way, a mainstream conservative, or at least that’s the legend. I’ve never seen the ads from the ’80s myself. But this wasn’t even close to that. It’s just some clumsy, bad advertisement. Who shoots a gun at a state? That doesn’t make any sense. But the reactions by the conservatives to all of this… and look, I haven’t said anything about this, because we won’t know anything until the evidence is out.
When [George] Tiller was murdered, that was different. We knew right away that the guy [who shot him] was on the fringes of the anti-abortion movement. But we don’t know anything about this guy [in Arizona]. He sounds crazy. But what’s really fascinating to me is immediately talking about the surveyor symbols, and then Sarah Palin coming out with her comment about blood libels. Their immediate effort is to make themselves victims in all of this. People are rightfully pissed off about this kind of thing. There’s all this rhetoric, and the rhetoric is pretty hateful. There’s a lot of hate mail that you get every time, say, a guy like Glenn Beck mentions you.
AVC: You’re speaking from personal experience, I take it.
TF: Yeah. It doesn’t scare me. I got tons of it when What’s The Matter With Kansas? came out. It’s not frightening. People are rightfully pissed off about it. Okay. But the response from Sarah Palin is so weasel-y. Her whole career has been about herself as the victim. This is always what her narrative comes back to. “I am the victim.” “This arrogant ruling class.” And “They think they’re smarter than me, and they’re always looking down on me.” Every time she opens her mouth, this is what it comes back to. But you can’t talk about the guns reloading and all this sort of thing, and then call yourself the victim. Those two things don’t go together. And she does not understand that. Instead, she reaches to make herself the victim of a pogrom. Which is just bizarre!
AVC: Do you think the reference to “blood libel” was ignorance on her part?
TF: I don’t know. Reaching for symbols of victimization is a really well-established instinct on the right. Somebody gave her that line. She heard that somewhere.
AVC: There were so many instances where, for example, Dick Cheney would be confronted about saying something that contradicted something he said earlier, and he’d flat-out deny making the earlier statement, even though it was on tape. And because they’re worried about seeming objective, the journalists talking to him would just give up the point rather than saying the vice president of the United States was lying. The Daily Show is practically the only place where they get called on their bullshit.
TF: Have you seen that documentary about the financial crisis?
AVC: Inside Job?
TF: Where you’ve got people doing exactly what you’re describing. You’re telling these flagrant falsehoods, and whoever is the interlocutor, the guy interviewing them—
AVC: Charles Ferguson.
TF: —actually has the facts at his fingertips, and he’s like “No that’s not right. You did not say that, you said the exact opposite of that.”
AVC: And that’s when they get mad and say, “You’ve got three minutes left.”
TF: Well, he made that guy so mad!
AVC: Some of the characters in the documentary are case studies in what’s become a kind of ideological vertical integration, where it’s possible to live your entire life in a world where no one will question your beliefs. For right-wing evangelicals, that means home-schooling and Fox News, learning your science at the Creation Museum, and going to Patrick Henry College.
TF: You never go outside the ideological cocoon.
AVC: And because no one ever questions you, you can construct these elaborate house-of-cards belief systems that would topple when subjected to the slightest confrontation.
TF: Look, I’m in the journalist world, and it goes further than that. Nobody’s ever going to check. When you take somebody’s quote out of context, which happens all the time, nobody’s ever going to go and do the research on their own and figure out that you got it wrong. In 20 years, a historian might. What this goes back to is that people, from the top politicians down to the guy at the diner on Main Street in your town, have figured out that it’s easy to play the mass media. It’s easy to play on their objectivity. It’s really easy to fool these guys, because they’re not allowed to go deeper than a single iteration, a single question. They do it all the time because it works.
What’s really funny, though, is people fooling themselves. You talk about the people who go through their entire lives and never look any deeper. Why would someone do that? My answer ordinarily is that these debates are a lot of fun, to take the side you hear Rush Limbaugh giving, to adopt the talking points and that sort of thing. But what about when it actually interferes with your everyday life, when you’re talking about things that are very close to home? Then that explanation doesn’t work anymore. This sort of hyper-partisanship is like a hobby. This was true of the 19th century as well. When America was at its most partisan, most divided, in the late 19th century, was also a time when there was nothing on the table. The politicians weren’t arguing about anything, just high tariff vs. low tariff, otherwise it was just what scoundrels the other side was, and people really got into that. There was huge, massive public mobilization for politics. People participated much more then than they do today.
AVC: What about groupthink on the left? Is there a danger of insulation there as well?
TF: To withdraw into that? Of course there is. I used to live in Hyde Park [in Chicago], Obama’s neighborhood. I used to live in an academic neighborhood, and it’s very easy to withdraw into that world and imagine that that’s all that matters. It wasn’t really a political thing. It was an academic thing, which is sort of like politics; there’s a lot of disputation and argument, and there’s a lot of dishonesty, and a lot of this sort of squirming around and efforts to smear other people. And yes, it’s easy to withdraw into that world. There’s lots of things like that, these self-sorting neighborhoods. Now I live in the suburbs of D.C., and understanding people out in the Midwest is just beyond them. They do not get that. In my view, it’s a class divide, or that’s one aspect of it.
But yes, there are similar things on the left. One of the things I keep coming back to in my writing is that society doesn’t work on this mirror principle, you don’t have an exact replica on the left of what you have on the right. It just doesn’t work that way. This is one of the reasons why newspapers and traditional media are forever getting everything wrong, because they believe in the mirror thesis as a matter of a priori conviction, right? That it has to be that way, and of course it’s not. Society is a big, sprawling, messy thing. It’s a huge mess, and the traditional left in this country doesn’t exist anymore, the labor movement and the civil-rights movement, the main force that gave you the reforms in the 1930s. Those forces out in society either don’t exist anymore, or are so beaten down that they have no power, no broader reach, to their own members. Even that is difficult for them. There is no equivalent.
AVC: When people on the left talk about undue corporate influence in politics, the right counters with contributions from organized labor. But the amount labor spends isn’t close to equal.
TF: What’s funny about all that is that when I was a kid in the ’70s, there were huge battles between management and labor going on. The playing field was much closer to being equal back then, but it was still lopsided. But to think today, after those guys have lost every battle for 30 years, that they’re still carrying that same kind of power is absurd.
AVC: You were talking about your neighbors. Where do you live, exactly?
AVC: There’s that attitude among urban liberals sometimes about so-called “values voters,” like, “Who are these people?” But that’s not really an acceptable response. You need to answer that question, and not just throw up your hands in exasperation. Is there a reason people don’t understand that?
TF: I think there’s not that much urgency to get it. One of the reasons there’s not a whole lot of urgency… people I know here in D.C., they really hated Bush, they didn’t like the Republicans, but he wasn’t going to destroy their way of life. He was going to give them a tax cut. It was an intellectual thing, their dislike of Bush; they thought he was running things wrong, and really obviously wrong, and he was so cocksure about it. You remember those speeches he used to give, he was so absolutely certain of himself doing these terribly wrong things. He was so certain he was right that it was offensive. The people I’m describing don’t have a lot on the line. They’re not going to lose out if the Republicans get in and cut their taxes. They’re going to be fine. Now if you talk about government workers, that’s a different thing. They have legitimate reasons to fear for their livelihood if Republicans are hostile to them.
AVC: In a way, that’s the flip side of the people you’re talking about in the book. These upper-class liberals are putting their values ahead of their self-interest as well.
TF: In some ways, it is that. They would say, “Yes, but it’s a longer-term self-interest, a sort of enlightened self-interest. I want my country to do well, I want it to succeed, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a massive divide between rich and poor,” and of course they’re right about that. What I’m getting at is, they’re not going to personally be harmed if the conservatives get back in. If you’re in a labor union, if you’re a blue-collar worker, something like that, then it’s going to be bad for you. Part of the problem, and this is something I always come back to, is that Democrats don’t make the case that these people are doing themselves terrible harm, that conservatism is going to do them terrible economic harm. To make that case would involve talking about things that Democrats would rather not talk about.
AVC: Like social class.
TF: Yeah, social class. That’s the big taboo subject. If there was this kind of saturation in the culture with this knowledge of how the country has changed in the last 30 or 40 years, and that it would keep going in these directions if we kept going down that road, then you can see people saying “Abortion is more important than my self-interest.” But we aren’t having that debate. That debate is off the table. Nobody is making that argument. You can find it in The Nation magazine, but it doesn’t have the kind of presence in every village in town that somebody like Rush Limbaugh does.
AVC: Or the media visibility that an issue like gay marriage does.
TF: That’s something they’ll go to the wall for. The Democrats will fight tooth and nail for that, and they’re right to do so, I think, but that’s something where they will put everything out there, they’ll put all the chips on the table.
AVC: You talk about this in the book as well, that Democrats are afraid to be too explicit about social class lest they be accused of class warfare, but the right speaks in that language freely, whether they’re railing against liberal elites or attacking people on welfare.
TF: Republicans, or I should say conservatives, talk about class war all the time. The book, [Angelo M. Codevilla’s] The Ruling Class, his was the big book at the end of 2010 for conservatives. The big book among the Tea Party movement. They talk about it all the time.
AVC: You talk a lot about the history of the Populist movement in American politics, and a time when the socialist journal Appeal To Reason was the highest-circulation newspaper in the country. Now socialism is a dirty word, but the people who rail against it don’t seem to have a clue what it means.
TF: I think they mean the dictatorship of the intelligentsia, or something like that.
AVC: To go back to the roots of the capitalist movement, when socialism was really sort of a viable political ideology—
TF: Did you catch the part where the leader of the farmers’ union goes to the [Kansas] sculpture garden that’s called The Garden Of Eden—
AVC: To the depiction of Labor crucified.
TF: Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, the Civil War veteran who made that, I don’t know if he actually called himself a socialist, but he would have been a populist. A lot of populists after Populism died just became socialists. At the beginning of the 20th century, socialism looked like it was going to take off. It didn’t, of course, but a lot of people thought it was going to. All that rhetoric there is a straight-up socialist thing. But there’s a big difference when socialism is coming from a disgruntled farmer out on the plains and when it’s coming from a highly educated intellectual telling you how to organize society. [Laughs.] Two very different things. I used to have that on my wall, by the way, a picture of that. I don’t know what I did with that. I love The Garden Of Eden. Great place. Way out in the middle of nowhere.
AVC: There’s a polemical quality to that sculpture. There’s a categorical hatred of doctors and lawyers, anyone who deprives the working man of his hard-earned money.
TF: Did you notice that? That’s very interesting. Labor crucified. Who’s crucifying him? It’s four professional groups: Doctor, lawyer, preacher, and banker. The interesting thing is that they’re professionals, and that’s the divide today. If you go back to the book version of What’s The Matter With Kansas?, one of the things that I concluded with that no one ever talks about in the reviews—and this is something I talk about all the time—in some way, the culture wars are a war against professionals and professionalism. The liberal elite. The mainstream media. The abortion battle is, among other things, a war against doctors, the judges who decided Roe v. Wade and said, “Look, we know the answer to this. We’re going to invent this right. We’re going to pull it out of thin air and say it’s in the Constitution.” This is how the right perceives Roe v. Wade, is what I’m saying. They talk about euthanasia. Doctors are deciding these horrible things that should be left to the individual. And then the famous war on the trial lawyers that goes on and on and on.
There’s this class subtext to the culture wars that always comes back to professionals. Of course, university professors. You know, the war against evolution. Oh my God, it’s all about university professors and their arrogant belief that they can tell us stuff in our schools that we don’t believe in. If you’re making Garden Of Eden today, and you have Labor crucified by these people, it would be a right-wing message.
AVC: The right has been so successful in owning that rhetoric that it sounds phony when the left tries to take it on, even though it’s of a piece with their historical concerns.
TF: They’ve been doing it for years and years and years.
AVC: And in almost all cases, that rhetoric is being spoken by people who are intellectuals, who are from the professional classes.
TF: Right, yes, of course, that’s the thing about D.C. It doesn’t have any manufacturing, so it doesn’t really have a blue-collar class. It has service-industry people who drive taxis, work at restaurants, but it doesn’t really have a blue-collar class in the traditional sense, so everybody here is a professional of some kind, both left and right. This is always a problem for those conservative arguments. There’s ways around it, they finesse it.
AVC: Right, you get the whole autobiographical narrative: “My grandfather worked in the fields…”
TF: Or it’s just a matter of attitude. You know—“At least I drink beer!” [Laughs.]
AVC: So is there any way to turn this around?
TF: Oh my God, I hate that question, because I don’t know the answer. I set out to write these books to describe things, to get the description right, to understand these movements. There is no solution that someone like me can put into effect. If I owned Fox News, if I owned NewsCorp, if I was Rupert Murdoch—and by the way, there’s a certain kind of genius involved in all of this. If you look at Fox News, Roger Ailes put this thing together, that is a work of genius. The first day Fox News went on the air, right before the impeachment of Clinton, he was inventing a TV channel for this demographic. Everybody knows this demographic is out there, and by God, he was inventing this whole channel for them. It’s brilliant of this media empire. That was so clever. It extends into the books they write, the people who buy the books, where they sell the books. It’s become this gigantic cross-promoting empire. I obviously don’t have access to something like that, although I was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
But it’s not really the same. What would I say? “Democrats have to do things differently?” When I was writing this column, I came up with a million things that the Democrats should do that they weren’t doing, and it didn’t make any difference. Things unfold because of their internal logic. I never got the slightest inkling that anybody in power gave a damn what I was saying in that newspaper, even though it’s the biggest-circulation newspaper in America, and I was the only liberal writing for it. I never got the sense that it meant anything, and I think if you ask Paul Krugman, who’s the most influential columnist in America, he’d probably say the same thing. There’s no indication that they give a damn. There’s some obvious elements of strategy here, they’re just so obvious when you think about it, and the Democrats do the opposite. For example, passing [union] card check, look what’s happened to you guys. They do all these studies every four years showing how working-class people vote in America, and they by and large are going Republican, and this goes on and on and on, every four years it gets worse, except for if they’re union members, then they vote for Democrats. It doesn’t take a genius to look at this and say, “Oh my goodness, our fortunes as a party are tied up with the fortunes of the labor movement. Maybe we should do something about that.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. But they just dropped it, they wouldn’t do it, they wouldn’t move the ball on that.
Similarly, their constant embracing of NAFTA, I do not get that. The public hates NAFTA, the demographics in play hate NAFTA, the Tea Party hates NAFTA. They just appointed Bill Daley, who was the point man on getting NAFTA through Congress. They just made him Chief of Staff. They bring in these people from Wall Street. They’re utterly clueless, I mean, it’s not that they’re clueless. They’re very smart people. Barack Obama, man, he is a very intelligent man.
AVC: To the extent that’s an asset.
TF: It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s that they have their eye on a different thing. They aren’t interested in the things I’m interested in. They’re not interested in preserving the welfare state, or preserving the New Deal. They’re interested in something else, in running their political party, and getting their contributions—they’re interested in sort of being Republicans, you know? [Laughs.] If you were a man from Mars and you came down and looked at this country, which party would you rather be a hierarch in? Well, duh: the Republicans, they make a lot more money. Who wants to be this other party? You can see why, if the party worked according to the New Deal plan, it’s a party that would win all the time. That works on paper, in theory. But where’s the payoff?
AVC: Republicans are much better at closing ranks. They vote en bloc, even if it goes against their individual aims, because it strengthens the party.
TF: There you go, that’s what my books are all about. These guys, you look at the hand they were dealt by history, starting in the ’40s, or look at Barry Goldwater, getting this terrible beating in 1964. Everybody said, “Oh, conservatism—they’ll never try that again,” and they rose from the ashes in a sort of amazing way, and are now triumphant, and not just triumphant here, but all over the world, or all of the Western world, anyways. It’s amazing what they’ve done.