Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What's the Matter with Kansas, er, Thomas Frank?

Thomas Frank, author of a splendid little story called What's the Matter with Kansas?, apparently woke up on the wrong side of the Kansas/Missouri border earlier this week and he blames political scientists for it.  Really, he blames just about everybody but himself.  His latest missive on takes on an article that Ezra Klein (of the Washington Post) wrote for Vox a few weeks back during the American Political Science Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.  In the article, Klein argues that the inability of political elites in Washington to speak in anything other than partisan soundbites and ambiguous self-serving statements has driven many young Washington journalists into the open arms of the numerous political scientists, like myself, who study and write about political behavior.  As a political scientist I say it is about dang time they pay attention to what we know!  Every time I read a story about the 'Six Year Itch' or how Democrats are 'tax and spend' liberals or Republicans are 'racists' I just shake my head and cringe.  What does this have to do with Thomas Frank?  Everything.

You see, the thesis of Frank's book is that Republicans have duped white middle class voters into voting for them on the basis of social issues like opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and opposition to gun control.  Then, once they get into office, they abandon the social issues to implement their economic agenda, which is detrimental to white middle class voters.  The problem, as political scientists like Larry Bartels points out, is that there just isn't any evidence to support Frank's thesis.  Survey data indicates that outside the south white middle class voters still tend to vote for Democrats.  The data also indicates that most voters are more driven by economic issues than by social issues.  So what does Frank do?  He blames the data and those who analyze it while insisting that he, and he alone, understands why Democrats will likely lose seats in the November midterm elections.  Brace yourself for Frank's most unlikely answer to that question.

In a nutshell, Frank thinks the problem has nothing to do with structural factors that advantage the party out of power in midterm elections.  No, it has nothing to do with conservative voters angst over not controlling the Senate and/or the White House.  So, why, according to Frank, are Democrats going to get whipped in November?  Are you ready?  Here it comes...Democrats are going to lose in November because they just aren't liberal enough for white middle class voters!  If only they had more left wingers like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren the party would fare exceptionally well with white voters in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and all the other states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.  I am absolutely certain that a left winger in Mississippi would fare quite well, considering the recent Republican primary debacle in which many white conservatives voted for the guy that would have eliminated the federal government entirely!

In his despondency over why Democrats will not regain control of the U.S. House in November Frank writes,
"You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, but the opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the “center,” culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans’ NAFTA treaty into law."
You got that?  Two things are to blame for why Democrats no longer control the House:  (1) they moved to close to the center between the 1930's and 1994 and; (2) Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law.

Wow, it is remarkable how Frank is able to engage in revisionist history in such a few brief sentences.  His first point is just plain wrong.  Every analysis of party ideology shows that since the 1930's the Democratic Party has become more liberal, not more centrist or conservative.  To be sure, the party has not moved as sharply leftward as the Republicans have moved rightward.  It is also true that the Democratic Party has become much more friendly with business interests and is much more dependent upon them than it was a generation ago.  However, that is not the same as moving to the center as Frank asserts.  He conveniently glosses over the fact that for much of the period from the 1930's to 1994 the power brokers in the Democratic Party were conservative southerners.  They held most of the committee chairs and enabled a coalition with conservative Republicans that could stop any liberal legislation the coalition opposed.  Jonathan Bernstein does a good job taking Frank down on this point.

As for NAFTA, sure it may have cost Democrats a few seats in Congress but it is by no means the massive shift to the center that Frank insinuates.  It might even have been a mistake for Bill Clinton to sign it but hindsight is almost always 20-20.

In the end, what's the matter with Thomas Frank is simply that evidence doesn't matter to his view of the world of politics.  He tells a great story but one that is largely a work of fiction.  Perhaps that what the people of Kansas need to get them through troubled times.  I'll stick with the evidence, even if I wish it sometimes told a different story.


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