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Mystery in the Heartland

The vestigial adaptations to primordial rigors that have shaped human nature become troublesome, even deadly, as environments change. Take for example the human addiction to sugar and fat, the physiological basis for the worldwide success of America’s fast food diet, with its beckoning aroma of sizzling meat, its sweet shakes and sodas and now the source of widespread pathology, complaint, and controversy. The evolutionary function of these ancient appetites—fat stored as a hedge against famine and sugar for quick energy to flee predators or seize prey—is now in today’s much different environment morbidly maladaptive, even fatal, yet irresistibly attuned to our evolved nature, even among the abstemious Japanese whose oily salmon, tuna, and eel over sweetened rice are also an international favorite and, except for the important substitution of fish oil for animal fat, nutritionally analogous to a Big Mac and a shake.

Or consider humanity’s overabundant but now largely superfluous sexual appetite in its myriad, often dangerous, permutations, though infant mortality no longer threatens tribe and species with defeat and extinction as it did when a Bronze Age pro-lifer ordered the males of his flock to refrain from spilling their seed upon the ground or otherwise depositing it unproductively. An excess of sexual desire, analogous to the overabundance of spawn so that a few hatchlings may survive the hazards of pond and sea and perpetuate their species, is maladaptive in today’s crowded world, but in their busy lives millions submit without thought or volition—and with, one suspects, minimal pleasure—to the cunning strategies by which their unappeasable sexuality is manipulated for commercial, political, and religious purposes.

A similar vestigial trait may explain the anomaly at the center of Thomas Frank’s lively, heartfelt, somewhat repetitive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which asks, but doesn’t quite explain, why the poorest county in the United States, an economic and cultural wasteland of struggling ranchers and abandoned farm towns in a burnt-over section of Kansas’s once vibrant Great Plains, gave more than 80 percent of its vote to George W. Bush in the election of 2000 and is likely to give the same or more this November, though the suffering of these and other heartland voters has worsened in Bush’s four years. “How,” a friend asked the author, referring to Kansas as a whole, “could so many people get it so wrong?”

People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about,” Frank writes, though he might have gone further and implicated humanity in general, with its primordial fear of exile, abandonment, and death in a terrifying environment, and its corresponding submission to factitious gods and the deadly schemes of mad rulers, unvarying from before the Pharaohs to the present. Hermann Goering famously told an interviewer during his trial at Nuremberg that

people don’t want to go to war…. But, after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.

In the United States this phenomenon is called wagging the dog, and though it is still impossible to fool all Americans all of the time, those Americans to whom Frank’s inquiry is directed in Kansas and elsewhere can be relied upon to submit to Goering’s Law most of the time, especially in times like the present of cultural transformation, anomie, and fear. It was probably with this fraction of the electorate in mind that George W. Bush revealed on the first day of the Republican National Convention in New York that the terrorist campaign against the United States might never end, so that his guiding presence might be required forever.

Right-wing demagogues applying Goering’s Law during the cold war seduced their electoral base by exaggerating, while accusing liberals of ignoring, if not abetting, domestic subversion by Soviet agents and their American accomplices. The strategy was so effective that the liberal avatars of the northeastern Democrats who courageously led the country to war against the Nazis over the objections of midwestern Republican isolationists are still seen as unpatriotic inheritors of a culture of appeasement, “weak on national security” as they had once been “soft on communism,” while heartland politicos in cowboy hats and boots, having exploited the September 11 catastrophe as Goering recommended, wrap themselves in the flag and issue terrorist alarms of diminishing credibility to an increasingly confused if still largely faithful populace.

When the Soviet Union peacefully collapsed of its own colossal ineptitude, thanks in part to Ronald Reagan’s happy choice in Iceland of a Frank Capra ending rather than the Armageddon foreshadowed by the term “Evil Empire,” with which he and his party had for years Goeringed the voters, the right wing was left without an external enemy against whom to mobilize. So it turned to a domestic substitute by demonizing the latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, school-bussing, fetus-killing, tree-hugging, gun-fearing, morally relativist and secularly humanist so-called liberal elitists, whose elders had been “soft on communism” while they themselves coddle criminals, women, and same sexers, eat brie, drink chardonnay, support Darwin, and oppose capital punishment in defiance of the “moral values” of ordinary, god-fearing, flag-waving, assault gun–carrying Americans. Frank believes that the Republican right echoes the classic formulas of anti-Semitism by which Jews are held to be “affluent, alien, cosmopolitan, liberal and above all intellectual.”

Here Frank may go too far, but the demonizing of liberals by the Republican right surely calls to mind similar attacks in the 1930s by Nazis and Bolsheviks as well as the Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon, in which Northern liberals were seen not only as “soft on communism” but hostile to traditional “values” of the fundamentalist South. “Our culture and our schools and our government…are controlled…,” according to Frank’s summary of these attacks,

by an overeducated ruling class that is contemptuous of the beliefs and practices of the masses of ordinary people. Those who run America…are despicable, self-important show-offs. They are effete…arrogant…snobs.

But it is the Republican right and its neoconservative allies that now dominate American politics, relying upon the strategy of culture war to maintain their power as previous tribal and religious orthodoxies have done throughout human history, most recently the jihadi movement and al-Qaeda, whose indictment of an arrogant, manipulative, materialist, and secular United States somewhat resembles the rhetoric of the Republican right.

One does not need Hermann Goering to identify the frailty that nourishes this anti-intellectual “backlash,” to use Frank’s term. John Keats described the syndrome by celebrating its opposite as the

quality [that formed] a Man of Achievement…& which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason….

This rejection of ideology, metaphysics, first principles: this openness to experience as it unexpectedly occurs, this empathetic response to others describes not only Shakespeare’s astonishing ability to respond as a fellow human being to the unanticipated vagaries of his own invented characters, but might charitably (perhaps very charitably) describe John Kerry’s uncertain campaign so far, which provides George Bush, whose utter lack of a self-critical or empathetic faculty has mired America in an unnecessary war and plunged it in debt with no apparent way out of either mess, an opportunity to deride his opponent’s alleged “flip-flops.”1 Kerry’s alleged flip-flops are actually reconsiderations of complex issues. Nevertheless he might mention in rebuttal such flip-floppers as Saints Paul and Augustine, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln (who as a young Whig congressman in 1848 opposed the Mexican war and defended secession as “a most sacred right”), FDR (who campaigned in 1932 as a budget balancer and later became a Keynesian), the Republican demigod Whittaker Chambers and other American Bolsheviks who switched from the Marxist left to the Republican right, Ronald Reagan, and Zell Miller, the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention.

To remain tentative, to be content, as Keats wrote, “with half knowledge,” which Spiro Agnew’s speechwriter with Bolshevik disdain dismissed as “the nattering negativism” of those “nabobs” who questioned the simplistic, and in retrospect absurd, justifications for the Vietnam War, is an uncommon quality. It was restated in American terms by the late Learned Hand, who identified “the spirit of Liberty as [that which] is not too sure that it is right…. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.” This is the skeptical and pragmatic spirit of checks and balances in response to unpredictable challenges by which American democracy has survived so far.

Throughout most of human history, however, the surrender to the will of an omnipotent god who punishes us if we stray and forgives us if we obey has prevailed. The fear of excommunication and exile, the comfort taken in solidarity, unanimity, and orthodoxy, the pride in tribal markings, in uniforms, flags, and what Napoleon called the scraps of silk for which men will willingly die; the idolatrous obedience to leaders speaking in god’s name, the fear and demonization of otherness and the corresponding dream of universal allegiance to one’s own tribal dogma—Christian, Islamic, Marxist, and most recently neoconservative—these reflexes are as much a part of our vulnerable humanity and common history as our addiction to fat and sugar and our submission to the manipulated epiphenomena of sex.

The event that transformed Kansas politics from moderate Republicanism to rabid right-wing fundamentalism, according to Thomas Frank, was a mass rally held in Wichita in the summer of 1991 by the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which surprised even its sponsors by attracting nearly four times the expected crowd, two thirds of them from elsewhere in the state. Like the unanticipated public response to Joseph McCarthy’s “discovery” of Communist subversion in the 1950s, the political opportunity suggested by this event was not lost on Republican bottom-feeders:

On the losing side…were Kansas’s traditional rulers, its pro-choice Republican moderates… who were [now] being called “soft” on this or that, [accused of spreading] the secular-humanist disease [and] facilitating…cultural rot…. Kansas Republicans were reaping the whirlwind…that their party had encouraged so sedulously since 1968 and that had won them the presidency so many times [and] was now howling outside their own door.

The fear of female sexuality, as old as Eve, displayed in the Wichita uprising, revealed itself again perversely, according to Frank,

when two female rock stars exchanged a lascivious kiss on national television. Kansas [went] haywire…scream[ed] for the heads of the liberal elite…ran to the polling place and…cut those rock stars’ taxes.

If you earn over $300,000 a year, you owe a great deal to this derangement,” writes Frank, an old-fashioned Kansas populist who quixotically fancies a world without Wal-Mart and ConAgra,

raise a glass sometime to those indigent High Plains Republicans as you contemplate your good fortune: It is thanks to their self-denying votes that you are no longer burdened by the estate tax, or troublesome labor unions, or meddling banking regulations.

This derangement,” he writes,

is the signature expression of the Great Backlash, a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties.

There are previous examples of what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics—the Roosevelt bashing of the Thirties, the McCarthyism of the Fifties, or even the Kansas populism of the late nineteenth century, but Frank’s subject is the lifestyle politics that attacks not an alien ideology or unregulated capitalist exploitation but our own democratic tradition of pragmatic, nonideological idealism, denounced as secular humanism:

The trick never ages: the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation…. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization….

For Frank, America today is a painting by Bosch,

a panorama of madness and delusion…of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys …deliver[ing] up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life [and] transform their region into a “rustbelt,” [and] strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.

And the triangulating New Democrats with their “endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it,” aren’t much better. Frank is an unreconstructed Kansas progressive, the defender of a bygone America who has written this passionate book as a memorial to what we have lost and an apt warning in this electoral season of what we’re becoming.

Money is the mother’s milk of American politics, the source of its bone and muscle. Citizens who might like to know how political money is raised in exchange for political favors, often against the public interest, should read The Hammer,2 a political profile of Tom DeLay, who from his safe Texas seat controls the House of Representatives and thus enough of the legislative agenda to reward and punish Washington’s K Street lobbyists. These lobbyists supply the funds which DeLay directs to the congressional campaigns of candidates loyal to him, and in return accommodates special interests who then reward their lobbyists. The process by which lobbyists are enriched and DeLay’s power is enhanced is simple, legal, and disgusting. Since the major media have not covered this story, The Hammer should be of interest to readers who want to know how the system actually works.

They might also ponder this paragraph from page 187 of the 9/11 Commission report:

These proposals [submitted by Richard Clarke to bolster border security before September 11] were praiseworthy in principle. In practice, however, they required action by weak, chronically underfunded executive agencies and powerful congressional committees, which were more responsive to well-organized interest groups than to executive branch interagency committees. The changes sought by the principals in March 2000 were only beginning to occur before 9/11.

  1. 1

    Kerry’s alleged flip-flops are actually reconsiderations of complex issues. Nevertheless he might mention in rebuttal such flip-floppers as Saints Paul and Augustine, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln (who as a young Whig congressman in 1848 opposed the Mexican war and defended secession as “a most sacred right”), FDR (who campaigned in 1932 as a budget balancer and later became a Keynesian), the Republican demigod Whittaker Chambers and other American Bolsheviks who switched from the Marxist left to the Republican right, Ronald Reagan, and Zell Miller, the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention.

  2. 2

    Lou Dubose and Jan Reid, The Hammer: Tom DeLay: God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress (Public Affairs, 2004).

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