What's the matter with Kansas?

Corporate conservatism has consumed state's proud populist past, writer argues

Lawrence newsstands have sold out of the April issue of Harper's Magazine.

"It flew out of here so fast, I didn't even get to see it," said John Fackler, manager at Borders, 700 N.H.

The magazine's cover story recast the question first asked famously in 1896 by Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White: "What's the matter with Kansas?"

This time, the question was posed by Thomas Frank, a former Kansas University student who is now a contributing editor at Harper's.

"I'm a big fan of William Allen White," Frank said during a telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C.

Past Event

Thomas Frank book-signing and talk

  • Monday, June 14, 2004, 7 p.m.
  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages / Free


In the 1896 editorial, White answered his own question by pinning the state's lack of growth on moss-backed populism.

Frank answers the question by blaming the "Great Backlash," a post-1980s form of conservatism that uses hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control and un-Christian art to elect candidates who, once they're in office, blindly serve the interests of big business. And big business, Frank argues, is no friend of the family farmer, the Garden City meatpacker or the Wichita aircraft worker.

Reliable old trick
"The leaders of the backlash movement may talk Christ, but they walk Corporate," Frank wrote in "Lie Down for America/How the Republican Party Sows Ruin on the Great Plains," the lead essay in the April issue of Harper's.

The essay is a condensation of the first three chapters in Frank's forthcoming book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" due in stores late next month.

"It's a study of the conservative mindset, using Kansas as a microcosm of the rest of the nation," said Frank, who has a doctorate in history from the University of Chicago.

He marveled at how a rural state that saw 50 of its 105 counties lose population between 1990 and 2000 keeps getting tricked into electing politicians who rail against abortion while cutting taxes on corporations that send jobs overseas.

Abortion, he said, hasn't gone away, but the jobs sure have.

"The trick never ages, the illusion never wears off," Frank wrote. "Vote to stop abortion, receive a rollback in capital-gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization efforts. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs rewarded in a manner beyond imagining."

Westar, suffrage, evolution
Nowhere has this scenario run more amok, Frank writes, than former Westar executive David Wittig's use of the forces of deregulation to "pull down millions of dollars in compensation even while the company's share price plummeted and employees were laid off to reduce costs."

For much of the state's history and especially during White's tenure, Kansas was perceived to be a place ruled by decency, common sense and hard work. It symbolized all that was right with America.

But in the aftermath of the state Board of Education questioning the need to teach evolution, of Olathe Republican Sen. Kay O'Connor doubting the merits of women's suffrage, and Topeka's homophobic minister Fred Phelps finding a national stage, Frank argues Kansas has lost its once-precious normalcy.

He compares the state to "staring into the eyes of a lunatic."

KU political science professor Burdett Loomis said he had seen Frank's book and liked it.

"I think he's onto something," said Loomis, who twice critiqued early drafts of Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

"I don't agree with everything he says, but the question of whether lowering taxes and reducing the role of government has hurt the Kansas constituency is certainly there."

Not just Kansas
Donald Worster, a distinguished professor of history at KU, said he found Frank's essay overly harsh.

"I don't disagree that there are people who don't know they're being manipulated or who are being taken advantage of by their politicians. That's true in Kansas, and it's true in the Great Plains." Worster said. "But it's also true in the cities as well. I lived in Boston for a period of time, and I can assure you that the argument can be made that the Boston Irish have not been served well by the Democratic machine there."

Worster said he bristled at Frank's line about looking into the eyes of a lunatic. "I don't see that," he said.

Worster also questioned Frank's notion that Kansas' once-great populist leanings have, in recent years, been displaced by ill-reasoned conservatism.

"He has a point, but it's not new," Worster said. "Kansas has been the most reliable Republican state in the country since Abe Lincoln with the exception, maybe, of Utah."

He added, "The idea that until recently Kansans voted in their economic self-interest is not historically true. It's been this way a very long time."

Worster said he was hard-pressed to see how the Great Plains voting Democratic would have led to a more prosperous Kansas.

"I'm not a Republican," he said, "but I don't know that the Democrats have paid more attention to the decline of the Great Plains. So much of what's happening is driven by letting a market-driven economy have its way. I've not seen Democrats wanting to interfere with those market forces, either."

'I'm outraged'
Frank is wrong when he assumes that prosperity is measured by the amount of money a person makes, said Tim Shallenburger, a conservative Republican from Baxter Springs who served as speaker of the Kansas House and state treasurer before losing to Kathleen Sebelius in the 2002 gubernatorial race.

"We're not as materialistic as he thinks we are," Shallenburger said. "A lot of people -- most people, I'd say -- would rather be free than rich or beholden to some kind of government program. Everybody assumes that the guy living in a box under a bridge somewhere would be for the 'party of welfare.' But when you go talk to the guy, he doesn't want anything to do with a government program. He'd rather be in a box.

"There's this assumption out there that we're all supposed to say 'Thank you, rich people, for all these programs you want to create for us," Shallenburger said. "But you know what? We don't want them. That's why we vote for conservatives like (U.S. Sen.) Sam Brownback, and that's why issues like abortion and guns resonate so well. It's not that we're ignorant or that we're being manipulated, it's that we don't want what he's selling."

Dwight Sutherland, a conservative advocate from Johnson County, said he spent four hours being interviewed by Frank last year.

"I guess I have to withhold judgment on the book. I haven't seen it yet," Sutherland said. "But I saw the article, and I'm outraged."

Sutherland said he was most upset that Frank linked Wittig's reign at Westar with the conservatives.

"Wittig supported Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, in the 2002 election," Sutherland said. "He has absolutely no connection with the conservative wing of the Republican Party. None.

Whom to blame
"The only conservative connection to the David Wittig thing is that he's being aggressively prosecuted by Eric Melgren, a conservative Republican prosecutor appointed by Sam Brownback," Sutherland said. "It's the moderate wing of the party that's all for corporate welfare. Not the conservative wing."

Frank did not disagree. "All of what he says is true," Frank said. "But when you add up all the evidence as to what makes the David Wittigs of the world possible, the conservatives were very much a factor."

Campaign records show that in addition to supporting Sebelius before her run for governor, Wittig contributed to Shallenburger's gubernatorial campaign, as well as to then-Gov. Bill Graves and the entire sitting Kansas congressional delegation: Republican senators Brownback and Pat Roberts, Republican Congressmen Jim Ryun, Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt, and Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore.

Other Westar executives contributed to Brownback and to U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kansas.

Frank said he enjoyed his time talking with Sutherland.

"I suspect he'll like the book better," he said. "I don't let the moderates off the hook."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.