Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review: What's The Matter With Kansas?

     There is a war on this planet.  It is the same war that has always been: the haves vs. the have-nots, or in America, the rich and the unrich.  It is America that I am principally concerned about.  The latter characterization is the better one because the conflict does not merely involve the poor, but for all intents and purposes, anyone not already rich is in the same boat.  As a matter of course, those who have, want it all and are unwilling to brook even competition--increasingly government attends to these demands.  All conflicts, save this one, pale in comparison or are merely attendants of this one, though attired and called differently.  

     In America, the rich are smart.  They try not to live too close to the poor.  They have their own neighborhoods.  They limit their social contact with the un-rich.  It is a wise policy.  In Latin America it is different, however, in those countries the poor are often the descendants of Indians or slaves—the losers and victims of the conquest, a built-in peasant class and treated as such.  Gaudy displays of wealth serve two purposes there: to pacify the demands of decadent vanity and as demonstrations of power to all.  Latin America also has a major kidnapping problem and constant tension.  One could argue that Castro, Chavez and Morales are signs that such a status quo cannot be maintained forever, or even much longer. 

     In America though, we all started out equal (unless you were non-white), except in the South--it has always been the largest pocket of white poverty in America.  Now we are increasingly not.  The American Dream of the 1950's began to die in the 1970's.  The bursting of the housing bubble has left only a few glowing embers remaining of the fire.  What's the cause?  Folks may give many reasons, but fundamentally, it is the loss of opportunity and the hijacking of the country by a wealthy few.  I don't hate prosperity, but no one likes the loss of socio-economic mobility either.  In effect that is what has happened, and it is a violation of the American social contract. 

     What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, asks, but doesn't answer the question of why the un-rich, but religious folks of Kansas have become so conservative and in his eyes voted against their own economic interests.  There is a heavy focus on the culture war, while not looking very hard or long at the economic war and the poor job done by Democrats in waging it on behalf of the constituency they claim to represent—the working man.  Frank does touch on it—at the end of his book, after we are worn out by his descriptions and discussions of conservatives of religious ilk.  One would be lead to believe that only religious folks are conservative, which is obviously untrue.  They are merely a large constituency that is easily tapped by the G.O.P. and Franks does not delve sufficiently into why. Is it just about religion or is there something more? 

     I don't claim to know why either.  I have some ideas, but not because Franks fleshed out his own so well.  Franks appeared more interested in what happened to the Populist streak in Kansas—the radicalism that Kansas was fervent for.  I suspect it is still there.  It is the Democrats that changed, not the people of Kansas.  The Democratic Party crucified the working man on a cross of gold under Bill Clinton whose administration brought us NAFTA (It stands for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which creates controversial commercial relationships with Mexico.), the end of the Glass Steagal Act (which Obama has yet to re-institute) and Welfare Reform (which assured that gov't. would offer neither a hand-out or a hand-up).  The first hastened the hemorrhage of jobs outside the U.S., the second—instituted after the Great Depression—removed regulations that prevented banks from getting involved in the stock market and the last ended any commitment Americans had to eliminating unemployment and the ever-growing underclass in these United States.  

     The conflict described by Franks stems, I believe, from a crisis of leadership.  It stems also from instigation by the wealthy of a natural beef, that between yuppies and non-yuppies—a war within the middle-class or once middle-class, white-collar and blue-collar, Geeks and Jocks.  In many ways it is no different from any other labor dispute.  Typically, it breaks down along the lines of those who are faring well and those who are faring ill, the "new economy" vs. the "old economy."  To the latter, corporate power and immigration are aspects of the new "slave power," while to the former the same are putting food on the table--until recently at least.  These are the new "Bleeding Kansas" issues.  This is why both the Democratic and Republican parties are in trouble today.  I'm not so sure they can get out of it.  The status quo is broken and we need a new one, but I don't think they can adapt. 


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