Frank, Hartman, and the Origin of American Conservatism
If we’re to understand the conservative movement and the great backlash that has been a crucial part of American politics for the last three generations, origins matter because moral high ground matters. The standard origin story for conservatism, one that Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatism Won the Heart of America, advances, is that Roe v Wade galvanized what were then only fringe elements in germ stage and set them on a collision course for the White House and congressional majorities. Andrew Hartman, working in stark contradiction to Frank in A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, rightly discerns the racial animus in conservatism’s origin. The narrative of the great backlash changes dramatically when it’s recast as weaponized racial anxiety rather than a crusade to save helpless babies.
Frank uses his native Kansas as a stage for his investigation into why allegedly ordinary Americans would turn against the Democratic Party and vote against their own economic self-interest. Kansas, Franks asserts, is the heartland of America, and is a microcosm of a greater aliment, according to What’s the Matter with Kansas. And this shift in the heartland, from the bread and butter economics of the pro labor Democratic Party to the free market freefall of Republicanism can be attributed to abortion. And if abortion caused the switch in Kansas, his thesis goes, then it is responsible for the national upheaval.
Frank conjures much anecdotal evidence for this root cause. He begins with a story of his childhood friend and his father. The friend became enchanted with conservative thinkers such as William F. Buckley, and the unfettered free market policies of Milton Friedman, and became a “Reagan youth” (Frank 4). The father, on the other hand, had voted for George McGovern, and “would just shake his head,” when the son talked of the godly free market. But abortion would convert the father, Frank asserts. He writes, as a “devout Catholic, my friend’s dad was persuaded in the early nineties that the sanctity of the fetus outweighed all of his other concerns, and from there he gradually accepted the whole pantheon of conservative devil-figures…”(Frank 4) The father went from McGovern to Newt Gingrich because the cries of the unborn compelled him.
For Frank, the culture war and the conservative backlash are only diversions, smoke and mirrors. The Republican establishment needed to bait the populace in order to conscript them into voting against their economic self-interest, and the culture war fulfilled this end. In short, What’s the Matter with Kansas serves as a cynic’s take on the last forty years of American politics, while trafficking in the equally cynical argument—prevalent in the pre Obama years—that racism is dead. Frank paid more attention to the fact the Catholic father was moved by abortion than his friend reading Buckley, a conservative thinker who, in the 1950s, gave racism intellectual garments, not unlike what Charles Murray did with his 1994 book, The Bell Curve. But Frank misses this clue.
Andrew Hartman, on the other hand, discerns the connection between normative America and white supremacy, how these perceptions and forces came together to forge the modern conservative movement. For Frank, Kansas was the heartland, the norm of American life, and this should have inoculated it from conservative, self-destructive, anti-labor rhetoric. Hartman, recognizing that these norms had been turned into racial markers, points out that normative was code for white.
Hartman begins his history of conservatism with Irving Kristol, the godfather of neo-conservatism and legendary National Review editor. By 1972, newly reelected president Richard Nixon and Kristol had formed a friendship, according to Hartman. At a dinner, Kristol and Nixon reveled in their shared hatred of the New Left, which coincidently, not only called for the end of Nixon’s war in Vietnam, but for racial equality (Hartman 43). It was at this time Kristol became a full-fledged conservative, not only joining the American Enterprise Institute, but also taking up post at the Wall Street Journal’s column section. Fresh from establishing the Southern strategy—an electoral map that capitalized on Southern racial anxiety—Nixon solidified his relationship with the man who was the cornerstone of conservative thought.
It should be no surprise in this environment that when the Moynihan Report was made public during Nixon’s administration, its conclusions were argued to reinforce white superiority. The Moynihan Report documented the failing state of black communities, and suggested that the root cause was the inability of blacks to adequately socialize to white standards, and thus lived in poverty. Moynihan’s intentions were pure, but his error was to, in the words of Hartman, make the “assumption that assimilating to prescribed norms—to normative America—was the only path to equality” (Hartman 45). The black plight became a matter of culture, and in this reframing, white culture was superior. This would form the basis of conservative thought, and the pushback from the era’s Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts would fester, until abortion broke loose the infection. But the backlash was always based on white norms, called by different names, like middle American, or the heartland, and feed on racial anxiety. Abortion may have moved voters to Republicanism, but there were primed long before Roe v Wade.