What’s the matter with Kansas (and western Iowa)?
by Douglas Burns
In one of the more scathing, yet effective, editorials ever penned by a small-town newspaperman, William Allen White of The Emporia Gazette in 1896 took on the issue of “What’s the matter with Kansas?”
He blasted the emerging populist movement. The relatively young GOP picked up the brilliantly constructed opinion piece and used it to boost the candidacy of standard-bearer William McKinley.
In modern times, author Thomas Frank flips the script on White in posing the very same question — “What is the matter with Kansas?” — and answers it in terms that carry profound meaning for western Iowans as well.
In his book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” Frank explores one of the more counter-intuitive phenomenons in politics today: Why do working-class, rural people vote against their economic self-interests by electing conservative Republicans who advocate policies aimed at protected the ownership class?
“Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans,” Frank writes. “Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics … But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, anti-trust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.”
This is not just the mystery of Kansas, Frank argues, but of much of America. He could just as easily be talking about western Iowa.
“Apparently there is no bad economic turn a conservative cannot do unto his buddy in the working class, as long as cultural solidarity has been cemented over a beer,” Frank writes.
We see it right here in Iowa in many of our small towns.
“Walk down the main street of just about any farm town in the state, and you know immediately what they’re talking about: this is a civilization in the early stages of irreversible decay,” Frank writes of Kansas.
Why do people who live in dilapidated homes in Iowa’s forlorn villages, people whose first electric light may have come through the Rural Electricification Administration, people who live in a land capitalism long since left behind, vote for corporate shilling, government-bashing conservatives?
More directly, why do they vote for U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, a false prophet of the working man whose signature economic issues, a national sales tax and the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service, would benefit the wealthy at the heavy expense of Iowans?
Iowans like King and his followers are actors in a tragic play. They posture as independent pioneers living in mud huts and getting by with just a mule and plow, plenty of pluck and nary a buck from Uncle Sam.
But Iowa is reliant on the federal government in the way of a newborn and his mother’s milk.
All of this doesn’t make for good political brochures, and dependence is not the image we want to project. It does happen to be true, though.
It’s really not very complicated. We have a lot of old people and farmers. They need the federal government. That’s why the progressive tax system benefits us in Iowa, even though the tax code is, as we all know, far from perfect.
If King and the conservatives tear down the federal government, what happens to rural Iowa?
Why would those with relatively low incomes vote for King?
Because King is smart enough to copy a winning formula.
King uses the playbook exposed in Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”
He exploits a disgruntled electorate, people who are mad at their lot in life. But instead of training their frustration on the real culprits — the corporate takeover of production agriculture, lack of vision on the part of the state’s leaders and a shareholder-mad business climate — King gets them in a lather about Hispanics in Sioux City, lesbians and gays who want honeymoons and federal judges and flag burning and patriotism.
He’s about symbolism over substance.
If you are an economic “have not,” King makes you feel just down-home, prayer-breakfast warm inside about being a “have” when it comes to real American values.
And, he realizes, at least you can cling to those closer-to-God-than-them notions as our small towns, the ones that demand vigorous government technology and roads and education programs, die right before our blind eyes.
We are being played for fools, mugs of the first order. CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.