‘What’s The Matter With Kansas?’ – A Deconstruction

‘What’s The Matter With Kansas?’ – A Deconstruction


“The gravity of discontent pulls to the right” – so declares Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004)

The pertinent excerpt:

Not too long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers—when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ furthest imaginings—when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work—you could be damned sure about what would follow.

Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: To the right, to the right, further to the right.

Definitions and Methodology

Speaking of white working-class voters – Kansas white working-class voters in particular, “the most average [white] Americans of them all,” according to Mr. Frank – 2004 may have been a bit premature to justify this observation. In spite of what looked like a prolonged American presence in Afghanistan and in the Middle East, both with no end in sight, George W. Bush was re-elected on the strength of the economy, with a healthy 4 percent GDP growth, and a moderate unemployment rate of 5.7 percent.  The Dotcom debacle was already a thing of the past and all but forgotten, while the housing industry bubble, the ensuing recession and the great bailouts – all seemingly Republican in making – were still far ahead.

One would think therefore that Mr. Frank’s keen insight into the mysterious workings of the collective mindset of America’s working class might be found wanting, or at least warrant a temporary suspension, especially in light of Obama’s rather handy victories in the next two election cycles, but election results don’t bear this out. Whether defined by annual household income (under $50,000 per household) or by education (no bachelor’s degree), the results are pretty much the same. 

In the first instance, the income-defined “white working class was [but] 25% of all voters in 2008, and only 47% of them voted for Barack Obama.” And in the second, while the percentage of the working class, as defined by education, has risen to “39% of all voters in 2008…only 40% of them voted for Obama across the nation.” In case you were wondering, things hadn’t changed all that much by 2012. So it was no thanks to the (white) working-class vote that Obama won the presidency in the next two terms; au contraire, it was in spite of it.


State-by-state presidential election results in 2008 tend to reinforce this conclusion. Apart from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont – all Eastern seaboard states – only states boasting an overwhelming majority of white voters (ranging from 93.5% to 84.5% of the total population) were considered (since to include states with higher percentages of African-Americans and other minorities would only skew the picture due to their sizable pro-Obama vote). A further effort was made to determine for each state how many of those predominantly white voters could be identified as “white working-class voters” in terms of both annual household income and education. The results of these operations are tabulated below.

Table 1   

  State  White PopulationAnnual     Household    Income  Education BA degree or higherMcCain vs. Obama vote differential
West Virginia93.5%$37,98919.9%13.12%
Colorado87.1%$56,99339.4%– 8.95%
Wisconsin87.1%$52,09429.0%– 13.91%
N. Dakota87.0%$46,03228.9%8.63%
S. Dakota84.4%$46,03227.8%14.48%

The reader is invited to compare these results with those which obtained in the course of the 2012 election cycle. In spite of some differences of note, the two sets of results are pretty much the same. 

Interpretation of Results

If we opt for annual household income, coupled with education, as the most reliable indicator of one’s status as a member of the working class, then West Virginia wins the contest hands down as the state in which white working-class voters comprised the greatest chunk of its overall (white) population, with Kentucky, Idaho and both Dakotas close runners-up. At the high end of the spectrum, we have Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Wisconsin, but this grouping presents a mixed bag: While Wyoming and Utah posted impressive double-digit margins in McCain’s favor, Colorado and Wisconsin voted for Obama.

It appears, therefore, that the relative size of the white working class in any given state is not necessarily, in and of itself, a good predictor of the (pro-conservative) victory margin in that state. If it were so, then West Virginia would have led the field, not Wyoming, which scored well above the average in terms of both income levels and education attainment. And the same goes for Utah which, along with Wyoming, posted the next highest pro-McCain victory margin. (If you’re looking for an example which appears to validate the aforementioned formula, then perhaps Colorado and Wisconsin are cases in point: Both states went for Obama. Idaho is another: Scoring well below average on the educational attainment/income levels scale, it registered an impressive 25.43% pro-McCain margin.) Clearly, other considerations make their way into the equation in order to account for victory margins.

The state’s voting history is one of them. As to Wyoming, commonly regarded as “the most Republican [state in the nation], [I]ts demographics are a perfect fit for the Republican Party. It is the least populated state…has no major metropolitan areas, and is a heavily rural and White/ Caucasian state.” Moreover, “only five times a Democrat has won the state since statehood,” LBJ in 1964 having been the last one. Likewise with Utah, another Republican bastion, a state in which “[T]he majority of [its] population is Mormon and highly conservative, especially on social issues.”

The Curious Case of West Virginia

There still remains to explain the rather poor (only 13.12%) pro-McCain showing in West Virginia, especially in light of the state’s having scored the highest in terms of both the percentage of its white population in general and its working-class voters (as defined above) in particular: By all reasonable accounts, it should have been near the top of the list. 

Well, here, too, West Virginia’s voting history provides us with a clue:

“Despite its past voting record of heavily favoring Democratic presidential nominees, the state has been trending more Republican in presidential elections.” Especially since the days of Al Gore, “the state’s voters became more concerned with the national Democratic Party’s perceived hostility toward the coal industry, which is a core part of the West Virginia economy.”

And so, the state’s voting history – a longtime “Democratic stronghold from the New Deal up through the 1990s” – may well explain why, come 2008, its voters hadn’t quite got around to voting against the Democratic ticket en masse, in spite of their real or perceived or grievances. This lag, however, was quickly remedied by 2012 presidential election, in the course of which “Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama…by a landslide 26.76% margin [sweeping besides] every county in the state.” It is thus that order was restored, and West Virginia assumed its rightful (by now) place as one of the reddest of red states.

Lest you think it was a fluke, it wasn’t! Come the 2016 presidential election, West Virginia outdid itself again. Not only did Trump carry the state with a staggering “68.5% of the vote…the largest share of the vote in any state” and an unprecedented 42.2% victory margin, making it only second in that category to Wyoming; duplicating what he’d done in Oklahoma, he had also won West Virginia’s every county.  

Additional Considerations

We’re left thus with Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin – all Midwestern states – and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  Wisconsin is out of the running, mostly for its historically progressive leanings as well as voting record. (For example, it went for Obama in 2008 and in 2012; and even in 2016, Trump’s winning margin was a measly 0.77%, well under the 1.04% of the total vote cast for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.) And such is also the case with both Dakotas, but for another reason entirely. 

Population density is the determining factor in that instance, with North and South Dakota registering a lowly 11.0 and 11.7 persons per square mile respectively. Only Alaska, Wyoming and Montana are less densely populated than the Dakotas; and Utah, the only other state on our list, boasts a rather healthy (by comparison) population-density statistic of 39.  But Utah, unlike Wyoming or the Dakotas, is Mormon country, which puts it out of contention for its own reasons. 

Either way, whether due to the density factor or something else, none of the aforementioned four states meets the requirement that its white working-class voters be in fact “true blue” – “the most average [white] Americans of them all,” as Mr. Frank would have it. And this brings us to three states vying for Mr. Frank’s attention, Kansas and Nebraska, on the one hand, and Kentucky on the other.

Midwestern States

The two adjacent Midwestern states, Kansas and Nebraska, are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable, so indistinguishable in fact that even to this day they could be treated as one (as per Table 2 below). As a matter of fact, they were one until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which established both as separate territories.

Table 2

StateTotal Area in sq. milesPopulation in millionsDensity per sq. mileGDP
in billions

A breakdown of the respective GDPs by industry only accentuates the similarities. There are approximately 61,773 farms in Kansas as compared to 49,100 in Nebraska, amounting to 87.5% and 92% of total land mass respectively. The contribution of agriculture and related products to each state’s total economy is enormous, too: Over 40% in Kansas and 20% in Nebraska (although that low number appears grossly suspect).    

Population distribution is equally telling. In Kansas, for instance, out of the state’s total population of 2.91 million, 1.82 million reside in cities at least 10,000-strong or stronger, which leaves a staggering number of over one million people living in small towns, hamlets and farms. In Nebraska, this ratio is remarkably alike: Nearly one half of the state’s total population lives in cities under 10,000 in population. These statistics underscore the great proportion of the total population in each state that’s employed in agriculture.

Aside from the demographics and economic data, the two states share identical voting records in presidential elections. Only on three occasions in its electoral history, since 1864 and 1868 respectively, has either state voted for the Democrat: the first two terms of FDR and Lyndon B. Johnson. Even Kentucky, no blue state by any means, has a more “liberal” voting record than that: In addition to LBJ, it voted for FDR all four times, not to mention once for Jimmy Carter and for Bill Clinton twice.

Why Kansas?

So what’s wrong with Kentucky as Mr. Frank’s state of choice? Well, if abysmal voting history is one of the criteria, then Kentucky cannot be it. Or perhaps a quip, rightly or wrongly attributed to Mark Twain – “I want to be in Kentucky when the end of the world comes, because it’s always 20 years behind” – may have figured in the author’s thinking somehow. 

Either way, it looks as though it’s a tossup between Kansas and Nebraska. But when faced with this particular set of alternatives, it’s got to be Kansas hands down. Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (the 1939 film) had seen to it by putting Kansas on the map. Ever since, “we’re not in Kansas anymore” has been a watchword!

“Kansas” is a metaphor of course for the good old days, an apt one for times when “average” meant good and decent and true, especially “an average American” – as American as apple pie. “Kansas” is where you belong, where everything is familiar and where nothing is out of place, where there are no surprises ’round the corner and where you’re comfortable with the way things are. “Kansas” is home.

Well, those days are long gone, the author contends. Hence the leading question: What’s the matter with Kansas? When and where had it gone wrong?

In the follow-up segment, I’ll try to unearth the gist of Mr. Frank’s complaint.


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