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What's the Matter with Kansas?
7.09.04
Politics and Economy:
What's the Matter with Kansas?
More on This Story:
The Culture Wars

What is the matter with Kansas? In the eyes of Thomas Frank, it's "the same thing that's been the matter with America for so many years: the culture wars." In his book WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA, Frank argues that middle Americans, in response to cultural issues, have aligned themselves with conservative Republicans and as a result, have ended up voting against their own economic interests.

Frank points to the use of class-war language by conservative politicians, who are "always depicting Republicanism as a movement of regular folks overthrowing the haughty impositions of the 'liberal elite.'" He uses the word "backlash" to point to this kind of reactionary conservatism, stating as its objective: "to fight back against artists who dip crosses in urine, Hollywood stars who wear outrageous clothes, Ivy League journalists who slant the news, and snob judges who remove Ten Commandments monuments from the parks, and so on."

As Andrew O'Hehir describes Frank in an interview for SALON.com, "he is angry at America for fostering a political debate that has increasingly become a style competition, a contest to determine which ultra-rich prep-school candidate can strike the most 'authentic' pose." To put a label on the contest, George Scialabba explains in THE NATION, "a war against the 'money power' is a class war; a war against intellectuals is a culture war."

Frank is not the first to draw attention to this so-called culture war across the nation. The phrase became popular during the 1980s and 1990s, derived from the German word Kulturkampf, meaning "struggle for the control of the culture." Americans politicians have been using it in recent decades to point to the battle over controversial issues such as abortion, affirmative action, arts funding, school vouchers, separation of church and state, school prayer, censorship. In 1992, presidential hopeful Patrick Buchanan used the term to urge conservatives to declare a cultural revolution, "a war for the nation's soul."

Will these cultural divisions determine who wins the 2004 presidential election? Many analysts ask this very question. Bill Sammon of THE WASHINGTON TIMES, "From homosexual 'marriage' to the immensely popular film 'The Passion of the Christ,' cultural issues are emerging as an important subplot in a campaign dominated by national security and the economy." In its February 26, 2004 edition, the British magazine THE ECONOMIST went as far as to point a finger of blame: "By supporting the proposed ban [on gay marriage], President Bush has re-ignited the culture wars, given a new, possibly nastier character to the presidential race and committed America to a long, maybe unresolvable, debate about fundamental mores."

In TIME magazine in February 2003, Joe Klein postulates:

It is possible that the passions raised by [exceedingly powerful social and political] images will lead to an intense national debate over the decisions made by President Bush: to go to war in Iraq and confront the threat of terrorism the way he has, to drastically cut taxes, to create an expensive new Medicare prescription-drug entitlement. But it is also possible that a public besotted with the sensational will be unable to engage in a substantive argument—and instead be deflected into periphera like the quality of Bush's Vietnam-era service, the controversy surrounding Kerry's antiwar protests and the need for a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. In 2004 the quality of the debate may be the election's most important question: Are we going to be serious about this or not?

In an Autumn 2003 article entitled "We're Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore," published in the conservative Manhattan Institute's CITY JOURNAL, Brian C. Anderson speculates:

Here's what's likely to happen in the years ahead. Think of the mainstream liberal media as one sphere and the conservative media as another. The liberal sphere, which less than a decade ago was still the media, is still much bigger than the non-liberal one. But the non-liberal sphere is expanding, encroaching into the liberal sphere, which is both shrinking and breaking up into much smaller sectarian spheres—one for blacks, one for Hispanics, one for feminists, and so on. It's hard to imagine that this development won't result in a broader national debate—and a more conservative America.

If these observers are right, the culture wars will be played out front and center over the coming months as presidential candidates try to win over yet undecided voters. Use the links below to learn more about some of the debates currently raging and what's at stake.

Additional Sources: Disinfopedia.org; eNotes.com; F5; Q&A between Thomas Frank and Todd Purdum of THE NEW YORK TIMES

Resources

Access NOW's coverage of some of the controversial cultural issues facing the candidates:

Read about some other hot-button social issues in the news:

Culture Wars: Opposing Viewpoints
eNotes.com offers a number of interesting chapters on America's culture wars, giving an overview of culturally-driven debates, including "What is the State of America's Culture Wars?" and "Should Government Regulate Cultural Values?"

Disinfopedia: The Culture War
Disinfopedia, an encyclopedia of people, issues and groups shaping the public agenda, quotes recent articles on the culture war and provides external links to related resources.


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