There’s Something Still the Matter with Kansas: Thomas Frank and a Sinking Society

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Thomas Frank is the kind of writer who gets trotted out when the national media wants to cast its distracted gaze on the hinterlands.  It helped that he wrote a book a decade and more back about his home state titled What’s the Matter with Kansas? After the 2016 election a whole lot of pundits wanted to know the answer to that question.  Why would so many people in the heartland vote for a candidate with big city, Acela Corridor brashness and a class profile so different from the majority of his voters?

When he wrote that book in 2004, Frank was pointing to the populism to come, noting the many working class folks who have been growing ever more distanced from the elite who, unlike them, have benefitted from the cosmopolitan world that global economic trading and technological innovation have created.  Frank himself may have wandered from his thesis in the Obama years, if the essays collected in his latest book are any indication.  Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society shows a writer searching for a master narrative that only snaps into focus with the presidential election.

To crib from Samuel Johnson, there’s nothing like a catastrophe to concentrate the mind.

Catastrophe.  Oblivion.  A sinking ship.  That’s what Frank sees when he looks at America.  (The ship also graces the cover of the book.)  In early essays dating from 2011-2014, his targets are diffuse.  As in Sarah Kendzior’s essays in her recent collection, The View from Flyover Country, Frank’s preoccupations in this period are with the academic world, journalism, inequality, and even the empty sloganeering of civic boosters.  (Don’t get him started on ‘vibrancy’!)

As the apocalypse…er…election approaches, however, you can see him returning to Kansas, and Missouri, and all the places that were enthralled with the Trump candidacy, trying to figure out what is going on. He recognizes that the ever-present populist impulse in rural America has no voice on the left today.  Democratic leaders, who used to champion the interests of unions and the working class against Wall St. have now thrown their lot with money.  Insurgent voices were actively marginalized and the professional class has developed a ‘softly, softly’ approach to change.  Big ideas couldn’t succeed, this group felt, so they had to be smothered.

At the same time, as prosperous, two-coast America divorced itself from the deindustralized, depopulating, despairing countryside, “the Trump movement [was characterized] as a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race hatred.  Its partisans not only are incomprehensible, they are not really worth comprehending.” (173)

Rural America picked up on the condescension, and Frank sees it as an indication of one of the key challenges facing those who would turn the country a different way.  “It is uncompromising moral stridor that has come to dominate the opinion pages and the airwaves of the enlightened—a continuous outpouring of agony and aghastitude at Trump and his works.” (218)  Without some introspection and reconnection with its traditional base, Frank feels, the Democratic Party is condemned to a future in which the only satisfaction it can expect is “a finger wagging in some vulgar proletarian’s face, forever.” (222)

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Thomas Frank

I was glad that Frank eventually found his groove in this book.  Before he returned, late in the book, to Marceline, Missouri to see what had happened to Walt Disney’s hometown Main Street, (the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A.), I worried that he had was leaving the Midwest behind for shinier objects elsewhere.  But the crisis of the current moment brought him back to his roots.  

The title bespeaks a gloomy outlook.  “This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve,” he says on the opening page. (1)  But for all his alarm bells about “the golden age of corruption,” (2) “the casual dishonesty of politics” spilling over into everyday life (4), and the con game the economy has become for so many Americans, Frank still believes in the essential wisdom of where he came from.  Even if he doesn’t think we’re in that Kansas anymore.

Metropolitan Books provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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