In which I starve the oligarchs who run the New York Times
The Culture Crusade of Kansas
The nation breathed a sigh of relief last week after the conservative majority on the Kansas school board, world famous for its war on the theory of evolution, went down to defeat in Republican primary elections. Conservative candidates for several state government posts foundered as well (but others won). It seemed as though moderation had finally returned to this middlemost of American places. Even better: perhaps the country itself had turned the corner in its long and frustrating war over culture.
I was as pleased as anyone else to hear the news. Could the conservative uprising in my home state finally have run its course? Fourteen years ago, the armies of the right came pouring out of Kansas’ evangelical churches to protest abortion and all the other liberal plagues upon the culture, and they’ve had a big role in the state’s Republican Party ever since. But it must be difficult to stay angry that long, especially when the crusade you signed up for is now a hairsplitting fight that your leaders have picked with the biology professors of the entire world. Could the faction’s rank and file simply have given up, grown disgusted with the absurdity that their grand cause has become?
Perhaps, but I think it is far too soon to write the obituary for the godly radicals. Their faction may have chosen lousy candidates this time around, and their public appeal may have dissipated thanks to the preposterous issues (evolution, stem-cell research) against which their leaders have lately been hurling themselves, but the movement is deeply ingrained in Kansas culture. The conservatives will undoubtedly be back.
The culture war will remain with us, both in Kansas and in the nation, because it is larger than any of its leaders, larger than its legions of citizen activists, larger even than the particular causes in which these forces are enlisted. Seen from the streets of Wichita, the rightist rebellion of Kansas seems to fulfill that most romantic of American political traditions: the uprising of the little guy.
To the faithful, theirs is a war against “elites,” and, with striking regularity, that means a war against the professions. The anti-abortion movement, for example, dwells obsessively on the villainy of the medical establishment. The uproar over the liberal media, a popular delusion going on 40, is a veiled reaction to the professionalization of journalism. The war on judges, now enjoying a new vogue, is a response to an imagined “grab for legislative power” (as one current Kansas campaign mailing puts it) by unelected representatives of the legal profession. And the attack on evolution, the most ill-conceived thrust of them all, is a direct shot at the authority of science and, by extension, at the education system, the very foundation of professional expertise.
Sometimes this is right out in the open. At one point in Kansas’ endless slugfest over curriculum, the conservative-dominated school board appointed a state schools chief with virtually no experience in education. Moderates erupted in fury. Returning their fire, one member of the Kansas Senate declared that the mere fact that “the elitists in Kansas today” — meaning, apparently, “education insiders” and prominent suburban lawyers — opposed this fellow made him “the perfect man for this job.”
When I caught up with the various Republican personalities, at a candidate forum in Independence, what struck me was the feebleness of the moderate response to this kind of onslaught. Again and again I saw Cons play the populist card — railing against the National Education Association, suggesting their opponents belonged in the wealthy suburbs of Kansas City, alleging epic voter fraud right here in Kansas — and then heard the Mods, dressed in neat professional attire, simply dismiss the criticism out of hand. C’mon, you know me. Now, let’s get out there and put up some yard signs.
That the moderate Republicans succeeded this time around is testimony more to the sheer fatuity of the conservative issues than to the strength of their own message. But the pseudo-populist offensive is hardly going to cease. It is, after all, the prevailing rhetorical mode of the national Republican Party, from the commander in chief down to the lowliest Internet troll. They talk this way because it works. Since its opening shots in the 1960’s, the culture war has turned the politics of this country upside down — and with distinctly unpopulist results.
That it has now gone far enough to discomfit Bob Dole Republicans in Kansas as well as liberal Democrats from Massachusetts is merely the price of success. Until the day its opponents learn to confront it directly, we will all bleed with Kansas.
Thomas Frank is the author, most recently, of What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. He will be a guest columnist during August.