WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?

By Thomas Frank

Metropolitan. 306 pp. $24Back in 1955, in the midst of the Red scare, Richard Hofstadter and other American intellectuals wondered what was wrong with Wisconsin. A Midwestern state that had launched a succession of left-wing movements, culminating in the ill-fated 1924 presidential campaign of Sen. Robert LaFollette, Wisconsin was now home to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. How did the state's prairie fire of anti-capitalist progressivism get so easily doused by anticommunist reaction?

It was a good question, which is perhaps why Thomas Frank poses an updated version of it in What's the Matter with Kansas? From John Brown to the Populists, Frank points out, Kansans have tilled the fields of radical dissent, sowing the seeds of abolition and the New Deal, hoping to right the wrongs of the 19th century. Today, they rail against the welfare state, bomb abortion clinics and elect right-wing politicians seeking to restore the very century that Kansas spent the better part of its history trying to escape. In 1896, Kansans voted for Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a barnstorming Nebraska dissident of the Gilded Age, over William McKinley, unregulated capitalism's patrician tribune. In 2000, they voted for George W. Bush, McKinley's ideological successor. What's more, some of Kansas's poorest counties gave Bush his greatest margins of victory.

To understand why "the politics of McKinley" is today "chosen by the Middle America of Bryan," Frank returns to his home state to interview "upside-down Cesar Chavezes" who hitch the militant tactics of the Left to the worldview of the Right. Though these proletarian Buckleys and working-class Reagans get "their fundamental interests wrong," Frank sees their "derangement" as "the bedrock of our civic order." As Kansas goes, so goes the nation.

A peerless collector of conservative bric-a-brac, Frank opens a large display cabinet of the populist weirdness that is the Republican counterrevolution. He shows us Wichita, a city so depopulated by a collapsing economy it lines the streets "with bronze statues of average people, apparently so it doesn't look quite so eerily empty." He presents another town that was driven to put its public school up for auction on eBay. Through it all, the victims of this social decay wave away their misery, claiming that economic free-fall is "better than having no economy at all." Consistently voting for the deregulation and anti-unionism that undo them, ordinary voters save their bile for Hollywood decadence and Internet pornography -- about which they and their leaders can do precious little.

Frank is witty and shrewd, a genial, informative political tour guide of the sort we desperately need today. As an analyst of grassroots conservatism, though, he's less helpful. First, he makes far too much of the populist pretensions of the Right. Reading his book, one would never know that in each of the last seven presidential elections a majority of voters from low-income families voted Democratic. The real problem for the working class is not that they vote Republican but that most of them don't vote at all.

Second, Frank never really explains why those working-class voters who do punch the Republican ticket so consistently vote against their interests. The Republican game plan, he claims, is to persuade the great majority that their true concerns are not economic but cultural -- gay rights, patriotism and so on. Why do some voters buy it? Because, he says, the Republicans have deftly redirected their economic grievances at scapegoats like Ivy League intellectuals and the media. The culture wars, in other words, are a sublimated class war. But as I often am forced to tell my undergraduates, an explanation of something that invokes the thing being explained is no explanation at all; it merely restates the problem. What's the matter with Kansas, Frank asks? There's something the matter with Kansas, he replies.

To be fair, Frank does scatter some more edifying insights throughout his catalogue. At the end of the book, he points out that the Republicans profit from the failure or refusal of progressives to address people's economic complaints. Where liberals used to mobilize voters against corporate America, today's Democratic Party has abandoned the fire-breathing rhetoric that once propelled it to power. With liberals cowed by Clintonite counsels of free-market restraint and unions pummeled into submission, it's no wonder some working-class Americans vote Republican. At least George W. Bush, with his occasional forays into the culture wars, gives them something to scream about.

The real "derangement" of our time, then, is not that voters don't know their true interests but that leaders don't give them the weapons to fight for those interests. At least not enough of their leaders. Indeed, as Frank points out just five pages shy of the book's end, though a majority of white males voted for Bush in 2000, white male union members overwhelmingly voted for Gore; if we had more unions, we might have more Democratic voters. That we have to wade through pages and pages of culture talk to find this out suggests that Frank does not quite recognize the solution to our derangement: organize, organize, organize. Perhaps he is too taken by the culture talk he bemoans to see this. Perhaps he's too smitten by his own cleverness to make enough of it. Whatever the reason, it'll take another book -- or election -- before we can truly say we're not in Kansas anymore. *

Corey Robin, author of the forthcoming "Fear: The History of a Political Idea," teaches political science at Brooklyn College, CUNY.