Democratic politicians and left-leaning com mentators, seeking to ex plain President Bush's victory, argue that Republicans have persuaded blue-collar voters to ignore their economic concerns and instead vote based on cultural issues like gay marriage, gun control and abortion.
As Oregon's Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski told The New York Times, Republicans have "created . . . these social issues to get the public to stop looking at what's happening to them economically."
The inspiration for this line of thought is Thomas Franks' recent book "What's the Matter With Kansas." Its thesis: All of those rubes in the Jayhawk state have got things backwards by increasingly voting Republican as the state has slipped into desperate economic straits; Republicans have seduced them with "culturally powerful but content-free issues." Which, Democratic commentators now aver, is how voting patterns are playing out across the heartland.
Social issues clearly played a crucial role in President Bush's re-election. But the notion that heartland voters are disregarding their economic well-being is wildly at odds with the facts, as a close look Franks' book and poll results makes clear. As long as Democrats continue to believe they are losing the middle of the country solely for cultural reasons, they'll miss the fact that many voters simply don't trust them on the economy, either.
Franks' purple prose paints a grim picture: Kansas is "pretty much in a free fall," with economic devastation leaving it "a civilization in the early stages of irreversible decay." The cause, says Franks, is modern capitalism, especially as practiced by all those businessmen-GOPers: Kansas is "burning on a free-market pyre." Things are especially bad in his old home of Shawnee, where when he visits he no longer sees anyone in the streets. Instead, "heaps of rusting junk and snarling rottweilers" dot the landscape.
Call off the apocalypse: Kansas is far from sinking into economic oblivion. In fact, the state's economy has actually outperformed the nation's for years, in good years and bad.
Throughout the '90s and the first part of this new decade, Kansas' unemployment rate was below the U.S. average. In fact, when the country's unemployment rate dipped below 5 percent from 1997 to 2001, Kansas' fell to under 4 percent—a level so low that economists basically consider it to be full employment. Even when the slowdown hit in 2002 and 2003, Kansas lost jobs at a slower rate than the nation.
It's the same story in the state's agricultural sector, which Franks claims the free market has driven "to a near state of collapse." Yes, Kansas farm jobs shrank by about 9 percent in the 1990s, a result of farms becoming larger and more efficient (and producing more), but the state's total agricultural economy grew by 10 percent, some 30,000 jobs, as areas like food processing and agricultural wholesaling expanded.
The object of Franks's particular scorn, his home of Shawnee and the rest of Johnson County, seem to have done especially well. For three years during the last expansion, the Shawnee area's unemployment rate actually dipped below 3 percent, for one of the tightest labor markets you'll find anywhere. And when the recession set in, Shawnee's unemployment rate still stayed below the U.S. average.
And though Franks describes the place as practically empty and destitute, Shawnee's population was up by 27 percent in the last Census. Just 3.3 percent of its citizens live below the poverty level, vs. about 12.5 percent nationally. "It's possible his view of us is outdated," says Jim Martin, executive director of the Shawnee Economic Development Council, in a classic bit of Midwestern understatement.
In any case, Franks' main thesis—that people struggling economically should vote as liberals—is questionable. As a Wichita Eagle editorial put it: "There's nothing wrong with many Kansans wanting to hold onto a little more of their paychecks . . . or preferring that when they need help it comes from their family, their church, their community—not an intrusive federal government."
It's clear that many voters think this way, and not just in Kansas. Democrats want to believe the election turned solely on the War on Terror and cultural issues, but most Americans were unmoved by the Democratic economic agenda.
Only 45 percent of voters said they trusted Kerry to handle the economy, against 49 percent who expressed confidence in Bush. Doubtless that's a mark of their proper skepticism about Kerry's depiction of U.S. economic performance as lackluster.
Like Franks, the Democrats seem adept at ignoring the economic facts of life and instead conjuring up fanciful scenarios. Maybe that's the real reason why they've lost so many voters in the heartland.
Adapted from the fall issue of City Journal, where Steven Malanga is a contributing editor.