Carpooling with Thomas Frank
Thomas Frank co-founded The Baffler magazine in 1988, and has since published three book-length studies: The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism; One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy; and, most recently, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. We caught up with Mr. Frank on a train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. as he was wrapping up a month-long tour in support of the paperback edition of What’s the Matter with Kansas?
conduit: Your recent article, “What’s the Matter with Liberals?,” discusses how Bush’s campaign was run on “moral values” and how he quickly turned to “economic reform” once being elected. I think this is a very salient political strategy, and much of your most recent book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, also talks about how Americans generally feel more comfortable talking about morality or values rather than class. Why is that?
thomas frank: I don’t know if they feel more comfortable. Morality and values—those things are conversation-enders, not things that we really discuss in detail, in my opinion. They’re ways for people to retreat into positions where they think they can’t be questioned. There are many examples on both the right and left, but you see it particularly in the conservatives’ constant cry of persecution. Whenever somebody makes fun of fundamentalists or questions them in any way, they think of that as persecution. So the idea is to retreat into “moral values” as a conversation-ender.
Now, culture is different. Culture is something that we love to talk about in America. And this is an important point. Culture has sort of replaced the subjects that politics used to be about—mainly economics, but other things as well. Culture is endlessly juicy, and every American thinks they’re an expert on it, and hell, they probably are.
conduit: By “culture” you mean?
frank: Well, in my own experience, I wrote a book about advertising [The Conquest of Cool], and while writing it I learned that everybody in America has a favorite TV commercial, and they’d be happy to tell you all about it in great detail. People are very sensitive to the tiniest shading of ads. Or think about all those endless fights that people my age used to have about rock music when they were younger. You know, arguments going on and on about every little goddamned thing.
It’s kind of a brilliant move in a way, to replace economics with culture. Now, economics is obviously still there. I mean on the front page of The New York Times today, Bush has just put in a guy [Christopher Cox] as chief of the SEC who’s extremely business-friendly and anti-regulation, and he’s now the chief regulator of Wall Street. But that’s not as interesting to people as talking about,you know, Terri Schiavo, or stem cells, which are just such juicy and attractive subjects.
conduit: And as you suggest in The Conquest of Cool, when we talk about culture we’re really talking about products rather than modes of production.
frank: Yeah, modes of production are out of the discussion. That’s an important trend. In my own life, I went from being the kind of guy that was really drawn to aesthetic surfaces, you know, fashion, advertising, especially the rock music debates that I was describing earlier. Then there was this point when I encountered production in this really forceful way. I wrote a story for a Chicago newspaper, The Reader, about a strike in Decatur, Illinois. And I went down there and got really interested in every little detail.