"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.
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.
"What's the Matter With Kansas?" came out the month before this past summer's Democratic convention, which proved to be excellent timing. Frank placed op-ed columns in major newspapers, which helped generate attention and sales. He even got a boost from George Will. The conservative columnist called Frank -- what else? -- a liberal elitist out of tune with "what everyday people consider their fundamental interests."
But Will also served up a backhanded compliment.
"Imagine Michael Moore with a trained brain and an intellectual conscience," he wrote.
What Kind of Vegetable?
Frank has a trained brain, all right. He got a PhD in cultural history from the University of Chicago in 1994. But he wasn't destined to wind up an academic. The story of his one and only university job interview has his Baffler colleagues laughing to this day.
By the time he landed it, Frank had a contract from the University of Chicago Press to publish a book based on his dissertation. His interviewers seemed amazed by this, he recalls, and the main question they had for him was: How did he do it?
This annoyed him. ("I was, like, 'Well, it's a quality book, that's how.' ") So did the fact that, having flown in at his own expense, he was given to understand that he had no real chance at the job. At the end, the interviewers asked if he had questions for them.
"Yeah," he said. "Let's go around the room and each of you tell me: If you had to be a vegetable, what kind of vegetable would you be, and why?"
If he has regrets, he doesn't show them. He likes being an entrepreneurial provocateur.
Frank grew up admiring Ronald Reagan, like many of his neighbors and friends in Mission Hills, Kan., a wealthy suburb of Kansas City. He took his Republican politics with him when he headed off to the University of Kansas. One day, in the library stacks, he stumbled across a book called "The Populist Revolt." Up to that point, he'd associated the term "populism" with the kind of revolt Reagan was urging: of ordinary Americans against a too-powerful government. Now he discovered a radically different populism, in which late 19th-century Kansans, among others, saw concentrated economic power as the main force citizens needed to confront.
The contrast was a revelation. "One populism acknowledges that we live in a business universe. The other doesn't see that," Frank says. "For the new conservatives, it's all about government, and business is just invisible."
He left Kansas after his freshman year for the University of Virginia. In Charlottesville, he and some friends decided to start their own magazine. When he moved on to Chicago for grad school, the Baffler went along.
Early issues ridiculed the infinite variety of commercialized "rebellion" through which American consumers are encouraged to define themselves. Frank's 1995 essay, "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," lists a few of the available options: "Break the rules" by eating at Burger King! Be "different" by choosing Arby's! "Innovate" with Hugo Boss! "Chart your own course" using Navigator Cologne!
Not coincidentally, Frank was mining this same vein for his dissertation. The result, later published as "The Conquest of Cool," was a fresh look at consumer capitalism's response to the 1960s. Frank's research showed that, far from being threatened by the decade's countercultural spirit, smart marketers had welcomed -- and in some ways, even anticipated -- the youth rebellion. After all, if consumers could be taught to "rebel" through purchasing decisions, the sky was the limit when it came to flogging new stuff.
The next big Baffler target was the much-hyped "New Economy" of the late 1990s. "One Market Under God," the Frank book that resulted, is a caustic evaluation of the economic ideology that swept the field as the dot-com-fueled Nasdaq continued its dizzy climb.
"One Market" was written as the boom was peaking. Its thesis is that the New Economy represented "not some novel state of human affairs but the final accomplishment of the long-standing agenda of the nation's richest class." That agenda included free trade, cheap labor and deregulation, including the near-abandonment of antitrust enforcement. Frank calls its proponents "market populists."
"Their fundamental faith was a simple one," he writes. "The market and the people . . . were essentially one and the same. By its very nature, the market was democratic, perfectly expressing the popular will."
The dot-com bubble burst in 2000, the same year "One Market" came out. Before long, even Fortune magazine was asking, "Can We Ever Trust Wall Street Again?" Not long afterward, the Baffler ran a full-page ad for Frank's book.
Under the headline "Great Minds of the New Economy Deplore Cynical Account of Bountiful New Era," it gleefully quoted only negative reviews.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee
The entrepreneurial provocateur moved to Washington from Chicago last year -- his wife, an economist, landed a job here -- but he was writing "What's the Matter With Kansas?" at the time and says he didn't get outside much for a while.
Given what Washington thinks of his views, this reclusiveness may have been wise.
Conservatives have a simple question for him. It was posed by David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and chronicler of "bourgeois Bohemia," several years ago in a Slate-sponsored online dialogue with Frank:
If not capitalism, what?
At the time, Frank was unable to reply -- he'd finished his part of the exchange and signed off -- but he's happy to respond today. "We live in a capitalist state now," he says, "but we also lived in a capitalist state in the 1960s and the 1950s and the 1940s. And yet it was a very different country." The balance of power between labor and management hadn't collapsed. Wealth distribution hadn't reverted to a 19th-century pattern, with ever-increasing concentration at the top. That capitalism was a better model, he thinks.
Brooks doesn't. "I don't think a left-wing economic agenda would be a successful agenda," he says now. "Economic populism has been tried and it hasn't worked."
Meanwhile, "New Democrats" -- the kind whose champion Bill Clinton became, the kind who rally around the Democratic Leadership Council -- have an even simpler question for Frank:
Are you nuts?
In the concluding chapter of "Kansas," Frank assigns "a large part of the blame for the backlash phenomenon" to the "criminal stupidity" of the Democratic Party in abandoning its commitment to labor and economic justice in pursuit of white-collar votes and corporate contributions. The DLC in particular, he writes, thinks that "to collect the votes and -- more important -- the money of these coveted constituencies," Democrats must stand firm on issues like abortion rights while making "endless concessions on economic issues" such as NAFTA, welfare, privatization and deregulation. The result? Democrats become Tweedledum to the Republicans' Tweedledee on the laissez-faire economy, leaving their opponents free to woo blue-collar voters with backlash issues.
Earlier in the book, Frank takes his anti-DLC rhetoric to an even higher pitch. He notes that generous contributions from the Kansas oil billionaires who run Koch Industries have propped up numerous institutions that champion laissez-faire economics, from the Cato Institute to Citizens for a Sound Economy. And he includes the DLC on his list of Koch-funded "hothouses of the right."
"That's crazy," says Ed Kilgore, the DLC's policy director. "If you can't tell the difference between the DLC and the Republicans, you're not paying attention."
Sure, the DLC took some Koch money, Kilgore says. But it has never advocated abandoning the working class or taking economic issues off the table, and it is proud of Clinton's economic record. "If you have to be self-consciously and vocally anti-business in order to be considered a legitimate Democrat or progressive," he says -- well, sheesh: That would rule out the party's current presidential nominee.
Informed of this return fire, Frank seems uncharacteristically exasperated. But his fundamental stance remains: Bring 'em on.
Has the DLC taken economic issues off the table? "Of course they haven't taken them off the table -- they've just become Republicans."
Does a Democrat have to be anti-business? "I don't think I'd call myself anti-business. . . . I'm critical of the species of capitalism that we're living under today."
Is that Koch money innocent? "Okay, it is Koch that funds right-wing organizations. And it's the Democratic Leadership Council that's been working hard for years to push the Democratic Party to the right. Not to the left. To the right."
But isn't that where the American mainstream has been heading for decades? And hasn't he positioned himself way outside it?
Frank concedes this last point, but nothing more.
"I may be outside the debate," he says. "But ultimately my description is accurate and theirs is not."
A Sequel, Perhaps?
Tom Frank is a big fan of what he calls "American middleness," and as such, he doesn't think he wants to settle in Washington for good. He'd like to get back to Chicago eventually. Still, since he finished "What's the Matter With Kansas?" he's been getting out a little more, immersing himself in the political culture of his temporary home.
He's been going to public events at foundations like the Cato Institute. He heard President Bush speak to the American Conservative Union. He plans to hit some Democratic functions later on. Is he working on a sequel, perhaps? One called "What's the Matter With Washington?," maybe?
Frank laughs at the thought. A minute later, though, he tells a story that could work as an opening chapter. It's from this year's Republican convention -- but true to Frankian form, it reflects equally badly on both parties.
One day he attended a fete thrown by Grover Norquist's tax-cutting powerhouse, Americans for Tax Reform. "It was at the New York Yacht Club, for God's sake," Frank reports, astonished by the sense of invulnerability the choice projects, by the Republicans' obvious belief that the Democrats would never actually call them on this.
"Rich people toasting tax cuts in the New York Yacht Club! If we had a left in this country, they would put that on a TV commercial from now until Election Day."