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The Author Who's Got Himself in a Purple State

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2004; Page C01

"This one is fantastic," Thomas Frank is saying. "This is a memoir of the New Economy years that I particularly like. . . . Here's my essay about going to the Super Bowl, which actually stands up. . . . This is another fantastic essay -- did you know the founder of the John Birch Society invented Sugar Babies?"

Frank -- a young-looking 39-year-old in wire rims and a button-down blue shirt that may or may not have come from his favorite thrift store -- is standing by a bookcase in the basement of his newly acquired Tenleytown house, talking several miles a minute. The talk is supposed to be focused on his latest book, "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," in which he uses his native state as a case study to explain how the nation's politics got bent into the shape they're in today. But he's been sidetracked by his first love: an obscure yet influential little magazine called the Baffler that he's edited for 16 years.

Author Thomas Frank's politics are calculated to offend Democrats and Republicans alike. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

One by one, he snatches perfect-bound issues from the shelf and flips through them, looking to show off some greatest hits. He pauses at a piece about one of his heroes, H.L. Mencken ("I don't agree with the guy's politics, but I love his writing"). Grinning, he holds up the house ad on the inside back cover of Baffler No. 15.

It's a plea for subscriptions, adapted from a World War I recruiting poster. It shows a disconsolate-looking man in an armchair with a little girl on his knee. A little boy plays with toy soldiers at his feet.

The headline reads, "Daddy, what did YOU do in the Culture War?"

The Great Backlash

When Tom Frank's own children are old enough to ask that question -- he's got a 3-year-old and a baby on the way -- he'll have an answer for them: He did his damnedest to change the subject.

"What's the Matter With Kansas?," Frank's vehicle for that effort, had a nine-week run on the New York Times bestseller list before it dropped off last month. Asked if he'd expected it to attain even this modest success, the author bursts out laughing: "Of course not! No idea!"

It's easy to see why he was surprised. Frank's politics are deeply contrarian, at least in the current intellectual climate, and they're calculated to offend Democrats and Republicans alike.

In "Kansas," Frank sets out to prove that the noisy, seemingly endless American culture war -- fought over such issues as Hollywood depravity and the alleged disparity between mainstream values and those of cultural elites -- is a giant smoke screen that clouds the real cause of Middle America's distress. And what might that real cause be? Frank thinks it's economic. To be specific, it's unconstrained free-market capitalism, which has routed the social and political forces that once kept it in check.

Holy sacred cow, Batman! How far out of the mainstream can one man be?

Frank argues that it's unregulated capitalism, taken to its laissez-faire extreme, that has outsourced the blue-collar prosperity of cities like Wichita and driven the Kansas farm economy to "a state of near collapse." What he really wants you to understand, however, is why so many aggrieved Kansans have banded together not to fight the economic philosophy that, in his view, has put the screws to them, but to elect and reelect proponents of that very laissez-faire philosophy.

To explain this paradox, Frank points to what he calls the "Great Backlash," a species of conservatism that emerged in reaction to the social and cultural upheavals of the late '60s. The backlash, he writes, "mobilizes voters with explosive social issues -- summoning public outrage over everything from busing to unchristian art -- which it then marries to pro-business economic policies."

It's not a marriage between equals, he says. The business agenda gets enacted, producing "low wages and lax regulation." The rich get obscenely richer as a result. Yet the cultural agenda remains unfulfilled. "Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act." Meanwhile, backlash strategists have repackaged the idea of the American "elite," to devastating political effect.

In its new meaning, retailed incessantly on talk shows and in screeds with titles like "Treason" and "Bias," the term doesn't refer to members of the nation's economic upper crust, who reap the benefits of tax cuts and deregulation. No, in backlash-speak, an "elitist" is a member of an exclusively cultural establishment, defined as a collection of liberal snobs in the media, the academy and government who sneer at the values of ordinary Americans. Hapless liberals are forced to fight a rear-guard action against these charges, Frank writes, in large part because they've conceded most of the economic ground already.

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