Profile of Thomas “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Frank

Tom Frank was never destined to be a normal intellectual. Despite having a Ph.D. in cultural history from the University of Chicago, his one attempt at a university faculty job apparently ended in a sort of Barbara Walters moment having to do with vegetables.

Anyway, Frank is better known (and seemingly happier) as the founder & editor of The Baffler, as well as the author of various economics-ish books, including the dot-com savaging “One Market Under God” and his most recent “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” about the perils of laissez-faire capitalism.

Frank is an equal-opportunity economic critic of left and right, and his views are … well, interesting:

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.