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Saturday, December 25, 2004

OK, let's be Frank about this....

I've devoted a few blogs to Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?" book, and I suspect it is "getting old" as a topic. But now that I finally finished the book, one more 'go at it' is in order.

If you've been following the saga of my reactions to the book, you know that I have been a bit frustrated at what I called the "Michael Moore-ish" harangues that Frank would use in certain chapters. But this was more than a matter of style, for Kansas is to Frank what Flint is to Moore, and the ranting is understandable. Having lived in Kansas for ten years (two in Emporia in the 1970s and eight in Lawrence in the 1980s), I found his description of the state and its people compellingly familiar and his reporting on what's taking place there politically quite disturbing. Disturbing, that is, but not surprising.

Whether by coincidence or subconscious choice, the fact that I began this book just as I completed Roth's "The Plot Against America" turned out to be propitious in that both fed on my growing cynicism about American politics. There is also the fact that I’ve been living in Northern Ireland for the past fifteen months or so, but I am not quite sure whether that has made me more or less skeptical about the qualities of American democracy. What it has done is made me think more positively about the idea of “American exceptionalism”, mainly with the implied hope that current culture/class war that afflicts the US is not the standard for some emergent global trend.

Looked at from this perspective, what we are witnessing is another in those intermittent periods of “moral awakenings” that some historians claim have characterized American political and social cultures since at least the early 1800s, if not before. I am planning to pursue this thought by getting back to Robert Fogel’s "The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism", a book published in 2000 that I looked at quickly and put back on the shelf when it first came out. I am typically pretty skeptical about historicist perspectives, but in there seems to be something to the “awakenings” model (and Fogel's informed approach to it) that makes it different. Approached as a cultural phenomena based on some interesting and credible sociological mechanisms (e.g., social movements, moral panics), the awakenings view of patterns in American politics has some value. (With a colleague, Domonic Bearfield, I hope to put this view to the test using the history of administrative reform.)

Alternatively, developments in the US might be a precursor of things to come in Europe, Asia and elsewhere as the global force of American cultural trends take hold over time. I am less convinced that this is the case, especially in light of the nearly universal negative reaction to current US behavior on the world scene which (I believe) is spilling over into a growing abhorrence of all things American. Still another way of understanding what is going on is (in Rothian style) to see the current tumult of American politics as just a much delayed and idiosyncratic version of the kind of illiberal politics that much of Europe went through in the 1930s.

What all these perspectives have in common is an idea central to Frank’s analysis: that “it’s the culture, stupid” that has become the driving force of politics. In that sense, cultural issues have replaced economics as the focus for those who want to successfully mobilize political power in the US. But as Frank points out, there is an ironic twist to all this, since it is the economic power and success of corporate America that shapes and energizes the very images and events that generates and feeds the reactions of “middle America” that has come to dominate US politics.

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