In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Tom Frank correctly identifies the resentment of gays, intellectuals, and liberals as compensatory efforts by the insecure to feel better about themselves. But telling working-class Americans that they are fools is not the path to victory. About the worst thing you can tell the economically insecure and the status anxious is that they are victims.
Kansas was received as a critique of moralizing but is itself the ultimate morality tale. Frank fancies himself a populist but it’s plain that he can’t stand the masses of people he grew up with. Frank writes as though contempt flows only one way, from the backlashers to the liberal elite, but the feeling is quite mutual. Frank wields pity like a weapon, to club fools who forsake materialist rationality for postmaterialist morality.
Whereas moral-values crusaders tell their followers that they are spiritually rich and morally superior, materialist liberals tell their followers that they are materially poor and intellectually inferior….
Frank characterizes right-wing nostalgia for a halcyon Leave It to Beaver past as little more than an irrational yearning for the protective womb of childhood. It is thus more than a little ironic that he fills his book with nostalgic visions of a progressive Kansas of the populist era of the 1890s and the New Deal era of the 1930s — times when, Frank believes, the people of Kansas rationally acted upon their material self-interests. Frank ends his book with a eulogy for the Kansas of FDR’s New Deal and President Johnson’s Great Society….
In America, the political left and political right have conspired to create a culture and politics of victimization, and all the benefits of resentment and cynicism have accrued to the right. That’s because resentment and apocalypse are weapons that can be used only to advance a politics of resentment and apocalypse. They are the weapons of the reactionary and the conservative — of people who fear and resist the future. Just as environmentalists believe they can create a great ecological politics out of apocalypse, liberals believe they can create a great progressive politics out of resentment; they cannot. Grievance and victimization make us smaller and less generous and can thus serve only reactionaries and conservatives.
As liberals and environmentalists lost political power, they abandoned a politics of the strong, aspiring, and fulfilled for a politics of the weak, aggrieved, and resentful. The unique circumstances of the Great Depression — a dramatic, collective, and public fall from prosperity — are not being repeated today, nor are they likely to be repeated anytime soon. Today’s reality of insecure affluence is a very different burden.
It is time for us to draw a new fault line through American political life, one that divides those dedicated to a politics of resentment, limits, and victimization from those dedicated to a politics of gratitude, possibility, and overcoming. The challenge for American liberals and environmentalists isn’t to convince the American people that they are poor, insecure, and low status but rather the opposite: to speak to their wealth, security, and high status. It is this posture that motivates our higher aspirations for fulfillment. The way to get insecure Americans to embrace an expansive, generous, and progressive politics is not to tell them they are weak but rather to point out all the ways in which they are strong.