By George F. Will
The Washington Post
Thursday, July 8, 2004; Page A17
It has come to this: The crux of the political left's complaint about Americans is that they are insufficiently materialistic.
For a century, the left has largely failed to enact its agenda for redistributing wealth. What the left has achieved is a rich literature of disappointment, explaining the mystery, as the left sees it, of why most Americans are impervious to the left's appeal.
An interesting addition to this canon is "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." Its author, Thomas Frank, argues that his native Kansas -- like the nation, only more so -- votes self-destructively, meaning conservatively, because social issues such as abortion distract it from economic self-interest, as the left understands that.
Frank is a formidable controversialist -- imagine Michael Moore with a trained brain and an intellectual conscience. Frank has a coherent theory of contemporary politics and expresses it with a verve born of indignation. His carelessness about facts is mild by contemporary standards, or lack thereof, concerning the ethics of controversy.
He says "the pre-eminent question of our times" is why people misunderstand "their fundamental interests." But Frank ignores this question: Why does the left disparage what everyday people consider their fundamental interests?
He says the left has been battered by "the Great Backlash" of people of modest means against their obvious benefactor and wise definer of their interests, the Democratic Party. The cultural backlash has been, he believes, craftily manufactured by rich people with the only motives the left understands -- money motives. The aim of the rich is to manipulate people of modest means, making them angry about abortion and other social issues so that they will vote for Republicans who will cut taxes on the rich.
Such fevered thinking is a staple of what historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics," a style practiced, even pioneered, a century ago by prairie populists. You will hear its echo in John Edwards's lament about the "two Americas" -- the few rich victimizing the powerless many.
Frank frequently lapses into the cartoon politics of today's enraged left, as when he says Kansas is a place of "implacable bitterness" and America resembles "a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymus Bosch." Yet he wonders why a majority of Kansans and Americans are put off by people like him who depict their society like that.
He says, delusionally, that conservatives have "smashed the welfare state." Actually, it was waxing even before George W. Bush's prescription drug entitlement. He says, falsely, that the inheritance tax has been "abolished." He includes the required -- by the left's current catechism -- blame of Wal-Mart for destroying the sweetness of Main Street shopping. "Capitalism" is his succinct, if uninformative, explanation of a worldwide phenomenon of the past century -- the declining portion of people in agricultural employment -- which he seems to regret.
If you believe, as Frank does, that opposing abortion is inexplicably silly, and if you make no more attempt than Frank does to empathize with people who care deeply about it, then of course you, like Frank, will consider scores of millions of your fellow citizens lunatics. Because conservatives have, as Frank says, achieved little cultural change in recent decades, he considers their persistence either absurd or part of a sinister plot to create "cultural turmoil" to continue "the erasure of the economic" from politics.
Frank regrets that Bill Clinton's "triangulation" strategy -- minimizing Democrats' economic differences with Republicans -- contributed to the erasure. Politics would indeed be simpler, and more to the liking of liberals, if each citizen were homo economicus, relentlessly calculating his or her economic advantage, and concluding that liberalism serves it. But politics has never been like that, and it is becoming even less so.
When the Cold War ended, Pat Moynihan warned, with characteristic prescience, that it would be, like all blessings, a mixed one, because passions -- ethnic and religious -- that were long frozen would come to a boil. There has been an analogous development in America's domestic politics.
The economic problem, as understood during two centuries of industrialization, has been solved. We can reliably produce economic growth and have moderated business cycles. Hence many people, emancipated from material concerns, can pour political passions into other -- some would say higher -- concerns. These include the condition of the culture, as measured by such indexes as the content of popular culture, the agendas of public education and the prevalence of abortion.
So, what's the matter with Kansas? Not much, other than it is has not measured up -- down, actually -- to the left's hope for a more materialistic politics.