Politics & Media

What's the Matter With Thomas Frank?

Now that the self-appointed clarion of conservative malfeasance has struck punditry gold, the ruling class awaits his next act.

It’s difficult, though not preposterous, to believe that liberal sage Thomas Frank, the 43-year-old author of the 2004 talismanic book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, is a smug man these days. After all, it’s not as if Frank—who rails against Republicans in general and “culture warriors” in particular, once a week on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page—is an indigent pundit who eschews all material possessions in the manner of the late Philip Berrigan. I’ve no idea of Frank’s personal balance sheet, but one would expect that the Washington, D.C. resident is an affluent populist—never mind the oxymoron there, since it helps define Frank and his brethren in the mainstream media—has suffered at least a mild monetary reversal in this current period of financial panic and uncertainty. Should the global economy actually fail completely and the “abyss” that so many economists warn about comes to pass, Frank won’t be spared.

Nevertheless, the native Kansan who has adamantly chastised lower-income Americans for voting on the basis of moral values over their own economic concerns for years now—“How can they be so dumb?” is the implication—might be forgiven for feeling at least a bit vindicated now that he’s no longer seen as a complete wack-job by many of the now-ruined “plutocrats” in the financial industry who had dismissed his writing as that of a crank. It could be some guilt-ridden Wall Street former titans will now convert to Frank’s orthodoxy, not unlike Chuck Colson became born again after serving time for his Watergate crimes, but they’d be, I believe, in the distinct minority. Several years ago I described Frank as “Michael Moore with manners,” but that assessment may not be operative today as the presidential election turns nastier—on both sides—seemingly by the hour.

Here’s the problem with Frank: After leaving Kansas as a young adult and making his mark in the early 1990s with The Baffler, a sporadically published journal that was certainly left-leaning yet scholarly and clever on the topics of advertising, pop culture and politics, he became, as his reputation grew, an insufferable elitist (a word that’s controversial this year, but there’s no other way to describe this particular commentator).

Now, given his middle-class roots, Frank isn’t in the category of noblesse oblige editorial writers and publishers who were born into wealth, but if there’s an equivalent of the nouveau riche in those Washington-Boston circles, he’s a member in good standing, and is probably welcomed at various outposts of the Harvard and Yale university clubs. Frank would dispute this characterization, as he made plain in Kansas four years ago: “The idea of a liberal elite is not intellectually robust. It’s never been enunciated with anything approaching scholarly rigor, it has been refuted countless times, and it falls apart under any sort of systematic scrutiny.”

This defense of Frank’s caste is comical, but I don’t expect readers to take my opinion without a raised eyebrow, so let’s turn to two of the man’s fellow Republican-bashers. On April 21, reacting to Frank’s inaugural column in the Journal, Slate’s Timothy Noah, while admiring the Prairie scold for a still “alert” mind, wrote these damning words: “Frank’s declaration that our ‘middle-class republic’ has been replaced ‘by a plutocracy’ is the sort of pompous after-dinner remark more typically belched out by aging haute populists like Lewis Lapham, Gore Vidal, Kevin Phillips and Michael M. Thomas (all of whom, one can’t help feeling, pine secretly for the days when privilege was based on bloodlines) than from lively young thinkers like Frank. This raises the possibility that success is turning Frank into a windy, generalizing bore.”

The New Yorker’s George Packer, in a long and fascinating article about Ohio’s working class (Oct. 13) that was unmistakably pro-Obama but not judgmental about the economically-strapped people he interviewed who are still undecided over whom to vote for, also took a swipe at Frank. He writes: “[What’s the Matter With Kansas?] remains the leading polemic about the white reaction—the title alone has, for many liberals, become shorthand for the conventional wisdom—but it is hobbled by the condescending argument that tens of millions of Americans have become victims of a ‘carefully cultivated derangement,’ or are merely stupid.”

Frank, in his zeal to trash John McCain and Sarah Palin—for the common good, naturally—is selective in his facts. His Sept. 24 Journal column brought up the Arizona senator’s well-documented association with Charles Keating, the face of the savings and loans scandal in the late 1980s. Frank says that, “Keating fought back by recruiting a handful of legislators, including Mr. McCain, to pressure S&L regulators to leave his S&L alone.” He omits that McCain’s fellow “Keating Five” enablers—Sens. John Glenn, Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini and Donald Riegle—were all incumbent Democrats. Well, that would mess up Frank’s trope that conservatives, slaves to deregulation, are solely to blame for the current financial maelstrom. As it happens, there’s plenty of blame to spread around, for wealthy “masters of the universe” aren’t bound by political party allegiance and have donated generously to whomever might be advantageous to their own careers. High-ranking executives at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, for example, disbursed campaign contributions to any number of politicians.

I’m not especially taken by Palin—given her shrillness and cloying “I’m one of you” shtick, it seems McCain would’ve been better served by choosing a running mate like South Dakota’s Sen. John Thune—but the media’s drumbeat hostility showered upon her is plainly over-the-top. And Frank is in lockstep with his outraged fraternity of pundits. His Sept. 10 Journal column contained this gem in reference to the millions of Americans who’ve fallen upon hard times: “Leave the fantasy land of convention rhetoric, and you will find that small-town America, this legendary place of honesty and sincerity and integrity, is not doing very well. [Large cities aren’t in the pink, either, but that doesn’t fit into Frank’s theme of the past 10 years.] … [E]ventually you will ask yourself, how did this happen? Did Hollywood do this? Was it those ‘reporters and commentators’ with their fancy college degrees who wrecked Main Street, U.S.A.? No. For decades now we have been electing people like Sarah Palin who claimed to love and respect the folksy conservatism of small towns, and yet who have unfailingly enacted laws to aid the small town’s mortal enemies.”

This is all too rich. I’m pleased that the Journal’s editorial page editors added Frank’s column—he matches up well with fellow once-a-week contributor Karl Rove—since it provides a glimpse at the liberal aristocracy’s contempt for “red state” Americans, and he’s not an unintelligent fellow. It does leave me wondering, however, as Obama (at least currently) appears poised to score a decisive victory next month, what Frank and his ilk will write about once the Democrats again control both Congress and the White House. Will Frank’s self-righteous cries of class warfare and conservative intolerance be stilled, perhaps cutting into sales of his books, or will he develop an entirely new theme, a conciliatory theme, which he can ruminate over with colleagues in the “small town” of Washington, D.C.?

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