Quotes from What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank

- ‘This derangement is the signature expression of the Great Backlash, a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues – summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art – which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements – not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars – that are the movement’s greatest monuments.’ (5)
- ‘Values may ‘matter most’ to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished.’ (6)
- ‘Backlash theories, as we shall see, imagine countless conspiracies in which the wealthy, powerful, and well connected – the liberal media, the atheistic scientists, the obnoxious eastern elite – pull the strings and make the puppets dance. And yet the backlash itself has been a political trap so devastating to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical of string-pullers would have had trouble dreaming it up.’ (7)
- ‘For the Republican Party to present itself as the champion of working-class Americans strikes liberals as such an egregious denial of political reality that they dismiss the whole phenomenon, refusing to take it seriously. The Great Backlash, they believe, is nothing but crypto-racism, or a disease of the elderly, or the random gripings of religious rednecks, or the protests of ‘angry white men’ feeling left behind by history. But to understand the backlash in this way is to miss its power as an idea and its broad popular vitality.’ (8)
- ‘In the backlash imagination, America is always in a state of quasi-civil war: on one side are the unpretentious millions of authentic Americans; on the other stand the bookish, all-powerful liberals who run the country but are contemptuous of the tastes and beliefs of the people who inhabit it.’ (13)
- ‘Beginning in the sixties the big thinkers of the meat biz figured out ways to routinize and de-skill their operations from beginning to end. Not only would this allow them to undercut the skilled, unionized butchers who were then employed by grocery stores, but it would also let them move their plants to the remotest part of the Great Plains, where they could ditch their unionized big-city workers and save on rent.’ (52)
- ‘By the early nineties this strategy had put the century-old stockyards in Chicago and Kansas City out of business altogether. As with every other profit-maximizing entity, the industry’s ultimate preference would probably be to have done with this expensive country once and for all and relocate operations to the third world, where it could be free from regulators, trial lawyers, and prying journalists. Sadly, for the packers, they are prevented from achieving that dream by various food regulations. So instead they bring the workers here, employing waves of immigrants from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and points south.’ (52)
- ‘Even though Republicans legislate in the interests of society’s most powerful, and even though conservative social critics typically enjoy cushy sinecures at places like the American Enterprise Institute and the Wall Street Journal, they rarely claim to speak on behalf of the wealthy or the winners in the social Darwinist struggle. Just like the leftists of the early twentieth century, they see themselves in revolt against a general tradition.’ (119-120)
- ‘To believe that liberalism is all-powerful gets conservative lawmakers off the hook for their flagrant failure to make headway in the culture wars.’ (125)
- ‘To backlash writers, the operations of business are simply not a legitimate subject of social criticism. In the backlash mind business is natural; it is normal; it is beyond politics.’ (128)
- ‘The erasure of the economic is a necessary precondition for most of the basic backlash ideas. It is only possible to think that the news is slanted to the left, for example, if you don’t take into account who owns the news organizations and if you never turn your critical powers on that section of the media devoted to business news. The university campus can only be imagined as a place dominated by leftists if you never consider economics departments or business schools.’ (128)
- ‘Where the muckrakers of old faulted capitalism for botching this institution and that, the backlash thinkers simply change the script to blame liberalism.’ (129)
- ‘ ‘Just as Reagan seems incapable of believing anything good about ‘govment,’ ’ wrote Gary Wills in 1987, ‘he is literally blind to the possibility that businessmen may be anything but high-minded when they lend their services to government.’ ’ (144)
- ‘When I ask what she thinks about progressive taxation, she tells me first that it’s impossible to raise taxes on the wealthy, because they just pass the increased costs on to the rest of us, and then declares that progressive taxation is theft, plan and simple. ‘Why should we be penalizing people for being financially successful?’ she asks.’ (171)
- ‘In the happy times before the sixties ruined everything, abolitionists were generally presented in school textbooks in just this way: as intolerant moralists, screeching proponents of a dictatorship of virtue who, through their self-righteous intolerance, did no less than cause the Civil War. Identifying oneself with them was a tactic of far-left groups such as the Weathermen and the Communist Party. Abolitionism only became respectable – and suitable for purposes of conservative legitimacy-building – thanks to the efforts of radical and, yes, revisionist historians of the sixties and seventies.’ (187-188)
- ‘The corporate world, for its part, uses anti-intellectualism to depict any suggestion that humanity might be better served by some order other than the free-market system as nothing but arrogance, an implied desire to redesign life itself. The social conservatives, on the other hand, use anti-intellectualism to assail any deviation from a system of values that they alternately identify with God and the earth-people of Red America.’ (193)
- ‘William Jennings Bryan hoped to accomplish exactly the opposite by defeating evolution. In his mind evolution led irresistibly to social Darwinism and the savagery of nineteenth-century capitalism; undermining it would make the country less capitalist, not more.’ (207)
- ‘Let us pause for a moment to assess the delusions of martyrdom that all this requires the Cons to embrace. What they mean by persecution is not imprisonment or excommunication or disenfranchisement, but criticism, news reports that disagree with them: TV anchormen shaking their heads over Kansas, editorials ridiculing creationism, Topeka columnists using the term wingnut. This from the faction given to taunting their opponents as ‘pro-aborts,’ ‘totalitarians,’ ‘Nazis.’ ’ (213)
- ‘On the other side are the opportunists: professional politicians and lawyers and Harvard men who have discovered in the great right-wing groundswell an easy shortcut to realizing their ambitions. Many of them once aspired to join – maybe even did join – the state’s moderate Republican insider club. Rising up that way, however, would take years, maybe a lifetime, when by mouthing some easily memorized God-talk and changing their position on abortion – as Brownback and other leading Cons have done – they could instantly have a movement at their back, complete with superdedicated campaign workers they wouldn’t have to pay and a national network of pundits and think tanks and talk-show hosts ready to plug them in.’ (226-227)
- ‘In the seventies, and especially while the war was still going on, the victimhood of Vietnam vets often had a leftist cast to it. The vets saw themselves as victims then because their love for their country had been manipulated in the service of a pointless and even an obscene cause….Like everything else, however, the political valence of Vietnam-related martyrdom has been switched. What you hear more commonly today is that the soldiers were victimized by betrayal, first by liberals in government and then by the antiwar movement, as symbolized by the clueless Fonda. The mistake wasn’t taking the wrong side in the wrong war; it was letting those intellectuals – now transformed from cold corporate titans into a treasonable liberal elite – keep us from prevailing, from unleashing sufficient lethality on the Vietnamese countryside.’ (229)
- ‘Applied to the historical Vietnam War itself, this way of thinking implies that the army suffered no disobedience, no griping, not even any of the jolly countercultural troublemaking seen in feel-good war films like Good Morning Vietnam. Dissent was the sole province of the hippie traitors at home.’ (230)
- ‘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.’ (242)
- ‘Take your average white male voter: in the 2000 election they chose George W. Bush by a considerable margin. Find white males who were union members, however, and they voted for Al Gore by a similar margin. The same difference is repeated whatever the demographic category: women, gun owners, retirees, and so on – when they are union members, their politics shift to the left. This is true even when the union members in question had little contact with union leaders. Just being in a union evidently changes the way a person looks at politics, inoculates them against the derangement of the backlash.’ (246)
- ‘The movement speaks to those at society’s bottom, addresses them on a daily basis. From the left they hear nothing, but from the Cons they get an explanation for it all. Even better, they get a plan for action, a scheme for world conquest with a wedge issue.’ (248)
- ‘The fever-dream of martyrdom that Kansas follows today has every bit as much power as John Brown’s dream of justice and human fraternity. And even if the state must sacrifice it all – its cities and its industry, its farms and its small towns, all its thoughts and all its doings – the brilliance of the mirage will not fade. Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse. It invites us all to join in, to lay down out lives so that others might cash out at the top; to renounce forever our middle-American prosperity in pursuit of a crimson fantasy of middle-American righteousness.’ (251)
- On the morning after the [2004] election the country’s liberals were astonished to hear that, according to exit polls, at least, ‘moral values’ outranked all other issues in determining voters’ choices.’ (261)
- ‘ ‘If we’re $700 million in the red,’ the conservatives think, according to Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, ‘we’ll just have to cut $700 million, and government will just have to do less bad things.’ ’ (285)

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