What’s the matter with Kansas? It’s a decade since Thomas Frank launched a thousand headlines with his book of that title, itself a reference to a famous 1896 essay by Kansas journalist William Allen White. Frank’s thesis was simple: Kansans, and by extension the rest of the red states, vote against their economic interests. Or as he puts it in the first page of his book: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about.”
Is he right? Do voters in the great middle of the country ignore their economic interests to vote for the cultural populism that so offends Frank? Do they sacrifice their pocketbooks to issues like abortion and gay marriage? Frank’s quarrel is not with populism, of course, but rather the right’s use of populist rhetoric about social issues.
At the same time, Frank is no fan of the Obama administration, finding its response to our present predicaments far short of the full-throated class war that he would recommend. But for those of us who reside where Republicans are successful in politics and government, the Obama administration’s performance is the only metric available against which to measure the consequences of not voting Republican.
By that standard, then, how have red state voters fared? How are we doing, now that President Obama and his allies have carried the day?
There is no doubt that this has been the slowest recovery in modern history, and it has been particularly bad for the kind of investors who populate flyover country. While low interest rates are good for Wall Street and a government that is $18 trillion in debt, they are ravaging Midwesterners, whose idea of a retirement plan is a certificate of deposit or two at the local bank. Perhaps even more alarming, low interest rates have contributed to an unsustainable boom in farmland prices, a boom that is destined to end badly. While Midwesterners have enjoyed the increase in asset values that follows historically low interest rates, the recent drop in crop prices will squeeze Midwestern agriculture in ways we haven’t seen since the 1980s.
Not only that, but the Obama administration’s environmental and regulatory policies have been devastating to industries that deal in actual commodities rather than ideas and silicon.
Missouri, my home state, doesn’t rank in the top 10 states for the percentage of our electricity generated by coal-fired generating plants, but we’re certainly more dependent on coal than most, and we do rank in the top 10 for carbon emissions. People here understand that the recent greenhouse gas rules advanced by the Obama administration will increase the cost of electricity. Most folks who live in rural Missouri are served by electric cooperatives, whose power grid was built during the Depression with the direct help of the federal government. These aren’t investor-owned utilities, but rather public-private partnerships of a kind that ought to please the left. Despite this pristine provenance, the cooperatives will be among the hardest hit of all utilities because of their reliance on coal-fired generating plants. Candidate Obama made no secret of the fact that the coal industry was in his sights, and that’s one campaign promise he has fulfilled. Unsurprisingly, not one of the top 10 coal-burning states awarded President Obama its electoral votes in 2012. Contra Thomas Frank, people voted, if not their economic interests, at least their electric bill.