In 2004, it was easy to moan about how strong the neo-conservative movement in the United States was. The war against gay marriage, abortion, and other social/cultural issues was raging and the neo-cons seemed to be winning—witness the fact that George W. Bush was reelected that year on a platform that consisted of almost nothing except the failures of his first term and the idea that he was somehow of the common people.
This is exactly what journalist and writer Thomas Frank does in What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), using his home state of Kansas as the poster child of confused, misguided voting in the U.S., voting by the poor and working class against their economic self-interest. His main questions: why, in Kansas (and, by extension, all over the country), would farmers, blue-collar workers, and poor people, in general—historically faithful Democratic voters—vote Republican, supporting the corporate takeover of their family farms, the Wal-Martizing of their local businesses, and the reduction of taxes for the wealthiest? Why would the people that need the most help getting by support reducing the amount of health care, education, and other public services?
The answer, unsurprising to those that have read George Lakoff, is values. Thomas makes the case that the neo-conservatives have used wedge issues social issues like abortion, gun control, and evolution/creationism—racial and xenophobic fear is notably absent from his list, but I would certainly add them—to polarize the traditionally Democratic base. The ironic thing about these reasons for voting Republican, as Thomas points out, is that little is ever actually accomplished on those issues. The neo-cons run on a platform of social outrage and moral uprightness, but spend their time in office busting unions, cutting taxes, deregulating industries, and gutting our public school system.
Thomas is a thorough researcher, but most of the book is an anecdotal rant, a head-shaking “can you believe this really happened?” What’s missing is the kind of organizing scheme that Lakoff provides, a lack that left me feeling little wiser after reading the book. Nevertheless, Thomas makes some important points. Primary among them: “Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Shawnee and Wichita with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.” The lack of clearly articulated progressive vision, combined with liberal politicians’ concessions to Wall Street and the rich, have impoverished the left and the country has paid the price with 8 years of neo-cons in the White House.
A year after Obama’s election, it feels like we’ve started to recover from those dark days. However, the economic policy debates are still largely framed like they have been since the 1980s. Progress on social issues, incremental as it is, is great, but does little, if anything, to change the economic conditions, distribute wealth and prosperity to all people, and improve health care and education. Only by reframing the issues so that most people see real change as beneficial to them and in line with their values can we move forward to create more justice and equity in our society.