Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Marketing America

Filed under "random notes from Britain": In the bookstore today I noticed that "What's the Matter with Kansas?" is marketed here in the UK as "What's the Matter with America?".

Though I can understand this re-titling from a marketing viewpoint, I think this conflation of "America" with "red state America" is pretty pernicious, because it plays right into the hands of conservatives who like to claim that liberals are "un-American," when, of course, (at the risk of being essentialist), it's actually the conservatives who are un-American.


Blogger driftwood said...

Worse that that.

I grew up very near where Frank did. So I was interested in the kind of detail he had in the book since I knew something about it independant of what he said.

The book impressed me because he paid attention to particulars of particular places and mostly avoided getting lost in the vague and nearly useless generalities of something like a red state/blue state distinction.

He offered a case study--not a gloss of a country of nearly 300 million.

10/12/2005 12:45:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, exactly! The British edition's blurb says Frank "takes the state of Kansas as a paradigm," but the whole point is that it's not a paradigm for America - it's a paradigm for blue-collar Midwesterners voting for the party of big business because of rhetoric about moral values.

10/12/2005 08:23:00 AM  
Blogger Lizzie said...

Maybe I'm playing devil's advocate here, but it is an American phenomenon Frank is describing. He's using the small case to explain the general, and the nasty strategy described is getting applied, and is working, across the country. I think middle America is most of America.

I read the book (which I really liked) and felt the (Kansas) title was worst thing about it, because to me it sounds, well, elitest and very, very polarizing. (There were particular, historic reasons for the title, but how is the average book store browser supposed to know that?) I can only imagine Republicans across the country would feel the same way. I would be mad if someone wrote a book called "What's the Matter with New York" and then discussed political/ cultural trends. But if "America" was used instead, I'd be really curious and think I might learn something.

Even in New York where I am (hardly middle America), I feel that the insidious strategies described in the book (focussing on moralizing while the country goes down the drain) were wildly effective in the last election. This seemed to be true particularly with regular (uneducated) folk, and those more inclined to make decisions based on feelings (fear, in particular and comfort and familiarity come to mind) rather than an informed awareness of the issues at hand.

Then again, maybe the (Bush administration's) veil is finally getting ripped, and even the regular New Yorkers (and regular Americans!) are coming back to their senses. One can dream.

10/19/2005 05:36:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Every year we are given mountains of political commentary and supposed analysis that paints with a very broad brush. What little can be said that way has long ago been said.

I would like to see more work get national attention that takes Frank’s local and historical approach. The reason Frank’s book is of interest beyond Kansas is that related changes have happened elsewhere, but not that the same thing has happened. California—where I am now—has had a very different history. So has your New York.

I suppose you could choose a title of a “how this case study reflects on the nation” type. That would be fine, I guess. But I like that his title is repeating a title that has a particular historic importance to Kansas. He would have not called the book “What’s the Matter with Oklahoma?”. There wasn’t a famous essay by that title.

10/19/2005 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Lizzie - two possible responses. First is along the lines of what driftwood wrote - that the book actually is focused on Kansas. Second (and broadly what I meant in this post) is that Kerry won 49% of the vote last year, and only missed winning the election by 100,000 votes in Ohio - that is, the strategy only seems to have worked on just over half of the population (and not even that, since the strategy Frank describes applies only to working-class types voting against economic interests but for their "moral values" interests, which surely is only a subsection of the Republican vote). To conflate that portion of the American population with "America" seems to me to encourage a pernicious understanding of what "America" is. (And yes, I know, is ≠ ought, but America more than other nations is not just a nation but also an idea.)

10/20/2005 06:58:00 PM  
Blogger maximilian said...

It's a good example how Europeans use American books and film to prove their aversion against all Americans. Whereas these same American books and films are really only targeting red necks. Most Europeans are not aware that people from New York/Washington/San Francisco/... and Kansas/New York State/... are still all Americans, so they share a lot cultural common ground, but have as little to do as Portugese with Polish people. Most Europeans that I now (btw: I am German) are more or less against anything American at the moment. However, they read Stupid White Men and watch Bowling for Columbine, but do not see how "American" their whole story is.
The changing of the title reflects this midunderstanding very well: Americans write about the large differences within their own country, Europeans apply it to the country as a whole.

10/25/2005 05:53:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Bernard-Henri Levy has been writing interesting essays in the Atlantic about his travels though the US. For the Atlantic, I'm sure they thought that it would interest American readers to see what this European thinks--they link it to Tocqueville. But maybe the essays should be published in an European magazine as well.

10/25/2005 06:24:00 PM  
Blogger Lizzie said...

Well, I hope I'm not going around in circles, or running this into the ground. But what I learned from that book is that the Republican think tanks are spending billions of dollars trying to execute the same strategies, and repeat the same results, that were effective even in Kansas, which was historically a hot bed of left wing labor radicalism. The Republicans are using this successs to model their efforts to reach out to other untraditional bedfellows across the country (pre-Katrina that included Hispanic and poor Black voters, especially particularly via the churches, though I wonder if they'll just give up the ghost on that one, since the hurricane fiasco.) I saw the book as a case study illuminating what they're trying to repeat: a strategy to develop common ground with the little guys of America, through emotional appeals to gut level "values" talk. They've figured out a way to talk about issues that gets people to vote for them, even when the voters have absolutely no reason to. And that's a phenomenon that the Republican party has no reason to limit to one state. Frank Luntz works in D.C.

I see what you're saying about not treating this country as a monolith, but on the other hand, what the f-- happened? How did the Republicans get anyone other than other billionaires and the CEO's of major corporations to vote for them? I personally went on something of a post-election Proustian quest to try to figure out how a party with such a horrendous track record got a single vote, and "What's the Matter..." really went far in helping me to understand what happened, and what is likely to continue to happen.

I think a lesson from the book, a solution, (and thankfully others are saying this too) might be for Democrats to frame discussions around sets of core values and beliefs. Apparently that reaches voter's hearts much more than making correct arguments about policy. This is an example of why it's actually okay, and smart (in my opinion) to apply the book to the whole of America.

But you're absolutely right, Andrew, and I really love to have it pointed out as often as possible that Bush did win by only a hair. (Although I think that the senate and the house and the state governors all increasing their Republican majority contributed to the feeling of gloom.)

10/25/2005 11:41:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Lizzie, I think your argument is fair - certainly the book's implications are about something beyond Kansas itself. But I think maximilian hit the nail on the head - the book is about why many (working-class) people voted for Republicans, not why all Americans voted for Republicans. It's about the definition of the "Other" - for the American audience, it's "those damn red-staters" but for the European audience, it's "those damn Americans."

10/26/2005 09:07:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

PS, interesting comments from Ezra Klein here (titled, "Nothing. Nothing's the Matter with Kansas) and Matt Yglesias here (pointing out that Kansas has consistently voted Republican over the last century except in Democratic nationwide landslides - indeed, the last time you could say Kansas was a hotbed of radicalism was the Populist movement of the late 1800s.)

10/26/2005 09:22:00 AM  
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