Thomas Frank, in his 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, was not speaking to conservatives, but he had some thoughts that conservatives would do well to heed.
What’s the matter with Kansas? In Frank’s view, the problem with Kansans is that they vote conservative and Republican even though their interests are better served by the Democratic Party and its liberal philosophy. He describes McPherson County, Kansas, as one of the poorest counties in America, populated by struggling ranchers and dying farm towns; yet in 2000 George W. Bush carried the county with 80% of the vote. In Frank’s view, this shouldn’t be happening.
Only rich people should vote Republican; poor people should be liberal and Democratic. Nobody who works for an employer should ever vote Republican, he says, and I agree — unless that worker wants his employer to stay in business so his paychecks don’t bounce, or unless he thinks it is immoral to rob from some people and give to others, or unless he thinks socialism does nothing but make everybody poor, or unless he thinks other issues such as crime, defense, morality and education are more important than the pocketbook.
The Marxist view of economics — that the economy is a closed system and therefore every dollar one person takes in means one less dollar for somebody else — is flawed and destructive, for it leads to envy and the class struggle. In fact, capitalists do not steal in hoard wealth; they create new wealth by producing and selling new and better products.
So how did Middle America come to identify with conservatism? Frank doesn’t have all the answers, but he does make some valid observations. He quotes David Brooks’s description of a blue-state liberal: “We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books and attend more plays than the people in the Red heartland. We’re more sophisticated and cosmopolitan — just ask us about our alumni trips to China or Provence, or our interest in Buddhism. But don’t ask us, please, what life in Red America is like.
We don’t know. We don’t know who Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are … We don’t know what James Dobson says on his radio program, which is listened to by millions. We don’t know about Reba and Travis … Very few of us know what goes on in Branson, Missouri, even though it has seven million visitors a year, or could name even five NASCAR drivers. … We don’t know how to shoot or clean a rifle. We can’t tell a military officer’s rank by looking at his insignia. We don’t know what soy beans look like when they’re growing in a field.”
And red state conservative: “Most Red Americans can’t deconstruct post-modern literature, give proper orders to a nanny, pick out a cabernet with aftertones of licorice, or q uote prices from the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog. But we can raise great children, wire our own homes, make beautiful and delicious creations with our own two hands, talk casually and comfortably about God, repair a small engine, recognize a good maple sugar tree, tell you the histories of our towns and the hopes of our neighbors, shoot a gun and run a chainsaw without fear, calculate the bearing load of a roof, grow our own asparagus…"
In short, Frank is saying, liberals have tended to come across as arrogant, effete, impractical, and ignorant and comtemptuous of religion and traditional values. Conservatives come across as regular folks, practical, and able to relate to everyday problems. Reading these two descriptions, the average working American is much more likely to identify with Hurst’s red state conservative.
But during the past few years and in the last few elections, have conservatives lost that common touch? Have we become arrogant, or have we become too identified with the rich and powerful? There’s nothing wrong with being rich or powerful, but we must use wealth and power in the right ways, and we must make sure Middle Americans perceive us (correctly) as their friends.
Reagan had that exceptional ability to communicate with people; the average American worker could listen to him and say, “He’s one of us.” Have we lost that ability? If so, we need to regain it.