Thomas Frank Speaks

The author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? weighs in on Bittergate.

Thomas Frank has broken his silence.

For the last week or so, Frank been the most famous writer in Campaignland because of the flap over Barack Obama’s April 6 remark about small-town Pennsylvanians getting “bitter” and clinging to “guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The observation plainly derived from Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, leading to much discussion, in Slate and elsewhere, about the book’s ideas.Almost everybody I encounter in politics is familiar with Frank’s best-seller,” writes Robert Novak, who hates the book, in his April 21 column. He asks: Is Obama “a modified Thomas Frank”? Republicans, Novak predicts, “will press the issue from now to November.” Or rather, Novak surely means, they’ll press it whenever they take a break from pressing whether Obama is a modified Jeremiah Wright or a modified Bill Ayers or a modified whoever else the GOP doesn’t like whom they find it expedient to portray as Obama’s Svengali.

The point is that an author can’t buy publicity like this. Yet apart from telling Barbara Ehrenreich that he found the Obama flap “silly,” Frank kept his own counsel, allowing other social commentators like Ross Douthat and Larry Bartels to fill the void and publicize new books of their own. Now Frank (who himself will this summer publish The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule) has at long last weighed in with an essay (“Obama’s Touch of Class“) that appears on, of all things, the Wall Street Journal’s right-wing op-ed page, where Frank will soon begin writing a weekly column. (The Journal editpage has over the years provided a home to this or that token left-of-center columnist; in the past beneficiaries included Alexander Cockburn, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Michael Kinsley. They never seem to last very long.) Here is what Frank has to say:

1) “I have no way of knowing whether some passage of mine inspired” Obama’s remark.2) Obama’s remark was “tactless.” 3) Any suggestion that the insight, “the hard-done-by clutch guns and irrationally oppose free-trade deals” is drawn from What’s The Matter With Kansas is untrue insofar as “I oppose many of those trade deals myself.” 4) What the “media flurry kicked up by Mr. Obama’s gaffe” really confirms is “an argument I actually did make,” i.e., that participants on all sides of the culture war are “talking about class without actually addressing the economic basis of the subject.”5) For instance, if we “become a little … bitter” when we read about “hedge fund managers who made $2 billion and $3 billion last year,” or about “the vaporizing of our home equity,” then the pundits and politicians tell us “there is no place for such sentiment in the Party of the People,” that “‘bitterness’ is an ugly and inadmissible emotion,” and that “‘divisiveness is a thing to be shunned at all costs.”6) On the other hand, when conservatives commodify bitterness with direct mail and talk radio, no one cries foul.7) “The landmark political fact of our time is the replacement of our middle-class republic by a plutocracy.”8) Incidentally, when Hillary Clinton gulped down a boilermaker for the news cameras, the whiskey chaser was Crown Royal, “a luxury brand.” (Slogan: “It’s about quality, not quantity.”)

Frank doesn’t mention religion, but he’s written elsewhere that “I do not evaluate its role systematically” in What’s the Matter With Kansas.

It seems clear from Frank’s Journal piece that he prefers Obama to Clinton, and also that he doesn’t wish to associate himself with either. (At the very least, Frank parts company with Obama on trade.) 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 depressing possibility that success is turning Frank into a windy, generalizing bore. On the other hand, Frank’s sharp observation that conservatives are given free rein to exploit bitterness while liberals may not even acknowledge its existence suggests his mind is still alert. None of what Frank writes in the op-ed is likely to be the least bit helpful to either Obama’s friends or his enemies, which is just as well, since Bittergate has overstayed its welcome on the national stage.