The Magazine

What Is the Matter with Kansas?

Economic populism makes a comeback.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By REIHAN SALAM and ROSS DOUTHAT
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AFTER AN ELECTION SEASON in which the GOP shot itself in the foot at every opportunity, it's easy to explain last week's sweeping midterm defeat as having more to do with Republican weakness than Democratic strength. But give the Democrats their due. They succeeded in spite of the "firewall" that the Republicans had gerrymandered around their majority, and they captured House and Senate seats not only in swing states, but in traditional GOP strongholds as well. Just two years after a narrow but decisive Republican triumph, the Democrats picked the GOP's locks on the Mountain West and the Old Confederacy.

They did so, significantly, by eschewing the Clinton playbook, and running away from the me-too instincts of the party's Washington establishment. This leftward turn was most apparent on foreign policy, but it wasn't just the Iraq war where the Democrats sharpened distinctions with the GOP; Democratic candidates moved leftward on economic issues as well. After falling short for years, in spite of racking up large majorities of unmarried women, blacks, and Latinos, the Democrats focused their efforts on "hunting where the ducks are"--namely, among working-class whites.

These "Lou Dobbs Democrats," as Jacob Weisberg called them in Slate, didn't just attack the GOP's corruption and malfeasance; they embraced a more thoroughgoing economic populism, taking a stand against the malefactors of great wealth who are the enduring bêtes noires of right-minded progressives everywhere, while mixing in protectionist and nationalist appeals on trade and immigration.

In 2006, Clinton's Third Way was left for dead, and in its place came candidates like Sherrod Brown of Ohio, railing against "job-killing trade agreements." In Virginia, Jim Webb hammered away at outsourcing. In Montana, Jon Tester angrily denounced Republicans for passing sweetheart deals benefiting only the rich, arguing, in his words, that "the middle class is being forced into poverty." In Pennsylvania, Democratic House candidates like Chris Carney and Patrick Murphy attacked GOP incumbents from the right on immigration, and won. In six states, all of them won by Bush in 2004, liberals put minimum-wage increases on the ballot, and they passed in all six, running ahead of Democratic candidates.

The strategy worked: Among voters without college degrees, the standard definition of the working class, support for congressional Republicans collapsed from 51 percent in 2004 to 43 percent, one of the largest drops in any major demographic category.

Hovering over these successes was the spirit of Thomas Frank, the author of the 2004 bestseller What's the Matter with Kansas? Today's white working-class voters are GOP dupes, he famously argued, voting on "cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns." But Frank didn't just blame the conservative con men for this sorry state of affairs; he blamed centrist Democrats, whose pusillanimity on trade, taxes, unions, and other bread-and-butter questions of economic justice left these voters with nothing else to vote for. What the party needed, he insisted, was to downplay the social issues and return to first principles with a frontal assault on corporations, free trade, and global capitalism.

Though he was rarely invoked by name, the renewal of Democratic populism, particularly in the so-called red states so many liberals had written off, bore the stamp of Frank's analysis. The Democrats had attempted this populist turn before--Al Gore's "people versus the powerful" rhetoric, John Edwards's talk of "two Americas"--but this time around they made a concerted effort to soft-pedal their social liberalism as well. Democrats like Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Pennsylvania's Bob Casey Jr. loved their guns almost as much as they loved God, and they were at least ambivalent about abortion. And as seats flipped across the country, no one must have been more pleased with the results than Frank. His thesis, after all, had been vindicated.

Or had it? Here's where things get complicated. The original problem with the Frank thesis, as many reviewers pointed out, was its allergy to actual data. He claimed the white working class had been immiserated under GOP rule, even as they voted Republican in ever-greater numbers. But had they really? If we define working-class status by education, the white working class represents roughly two-thirds of the white population, and its median income actually surpasses the national median. Indeed, roughly 40 percent of these voters had family incomes over $60,000 in 2004, an amount of money that still goes a long way in most parts of the country. This is a group that literally defines the American mainstream.