Friday, January 14, 2005

What's The Matter With Kansas?

As entertaining and insightful as Thomas Frank's book is, I think it misses some important historical context in its understanding of the roots of the neoconservative movement in middle America.
Perhaps Frank, at 40, is just a little too young to understand. I grew up in the 1960s, in a family whose convictions and even feelings of personal safety were rocked by the urban riots and by the Vietnam War, in ways that my parents had a hard time either explaining or accommodating. Roe vs. Wade, which Frank puts at a central place in the culture wars, came some five years later, and while it has had a lasting effect on our political life, I think it was less of a catalyst for the rightward swing than a bolstering of a process already in place.
Let me tell the story this way:
Like the blue-collar people Franks writes about, my parents were traditional, high-school-educated, union-dues-paying Democrats who -- during the years in which I came of age -- converted to resentful, Nixon-supporting conservatives.
I can say, not proudly but honestly, that my parents had a deep-seated racism that had caused them to move from "the city" of Baltimore out to the suburbs in the late 1950s, in fear of their neighborhood "turning." I grew up in a completely white, blue-collar, Catholic suburban environment until, in the 6th grade, the first black student entered my elementary school
I remember what an "event" this was. Even more momentous was that this girl, whose name I recall was Bonita Jackson, was quickly moved from the "slow" class up to the "accelerated" class of which I was part. She became, in fact, a friend, the first black person I had even known as a peer. (We had had a black cleaning woman -- a "colored girl" -- for a short time, but I really didn't know or think it was worth knowing anything about her at this young age).
Bonita only lasted in my school for a couple of months, at most. One day, she was gone. I have no idea why or to where.
That was a positive experience in my evolving view of race. Before Bonita, I had considered blacks to be "boogies," a sort of subhuman species that it was best to stay far away from. That's what I was taught by my parents, and meeting Bonita was eye-opening for me.
My parents didn't react negatively when I began to talk about her, but I am sure they felt threatened.
More overtly threatening to them were the race-related sit-ins and riots of the 1960s. I remember driving through Cambridge, Maryland, home of protests led by H. Rap Brown, and being warned by my parents about how dangerous the civil rights movment was.
I remember hearing about the riots in Watts and Newark and Detroit, and for a time remember hearing how Baltimore, where I grew up, had been spared this plague. And then, in April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Baltimore went up in flames.
I remember being sent to the corner convenience store to buy flour, and seeing people loading large grocery bags in fearful anticipation of what might happen over the next few days. We were in the suburbs, but close enough to the bus line to be considered in danger.
These also were the years of growing Vietnam protest, and I had a brother, 9 years older than myself, who was eligible for the draft. Here was a dilemma for my parents that was particularly hard to assimmilate.
My father was a veteran. My mother's older brother was a career Air Force officer. My parents grew up during the depression, and knew World War II as the noble cause it was. They were pround, anti-Communist patriots. Being of Russian descent, they were also particularly conscious of the Soviet threat.
And here was Vietnam -- so difficult to explain, and so dangerous to my parents three sons, especially the oldest. My brother was frightened of the draft, and my parents supported him in his efforts to stay out of the service. And yet their concern managed to be almost purely personal. To them, the war protests were at best wrong and at worst evil.
I remember an enormous argument between my mother and my brother over his marching in the Washington moratorium in 1969, and then the next year over the killings at Kent State University. To my mom, the students at Kent State had no business being out of class protesting -- weren't deferments supposed to be for going to school, not skipping it to protest? -- and so she had justified the killings in her mind as the fault of the students.
In this context, the Nixon-Agnew appeals to "law and order" had a particular resonance for my parents. They saw a world going out of control, and the Republicans promised to restore order. My brother, on the other hand, had in his room a poster with a quote from Adolph Hitler extolling law and order and denouncing activist students.
And then there was the new sexual freedom, in society, in the movies. And the entire phenomenon of Jane Fonda, sex kitten turned anti-war activist. It was, frankly, mind-boggling and threatening to my parents and many of their peers.
Thomas Frank doesn't really talk much about the 1960s in his analysis. He focuses on trends from the 1970s -- when he grew up -- as well as much earlier Kansas pioneer and Depression-era history. In this, I think his analysis is problematic. It misses the tumult of the 1960s as a key to the rightward swing of the nation. Here is where I saw that blue-collar resentment building. It ended up being directed toward the Democratic party for some quite obvious reasons: They were the party that showed the strongest support for the Civil Rights movement, and they were the party that first turned against the war inVietnam.
Once the Democrats had been successfully blamed for the Civil Rights movement and the war protesters, two things that seemed to directly threaten our homes and culture, it was relatively easy for the Republican party to begin blaming them -- and, by extension the programs they had supported and pushed through -- for the failing economy of the 1970s, the oil embargo, changing morality, etc.
That, it seems to me, is how the Republican right took over.
Frank, for all of his talent and insight, gets this part of the story wrong, I think.
What Frank does get right, I think, is his final analysis of the way in which issues of social class have been removed from Democratic Party discourse, and the way they have been cynically co-opted by the Republican Party. I think his criticism of Bill Clinton is misguided -- I believe Clinton is the one recent Democratic politician who has been able to make the case that social equality and a "fair shake" for the working class are good for the country -- but nevertheless I think Frank is correct in general that the left has "lost" the hearts of middle America just as surely as the right has won them over.
This is a book well worth reading.