12 March 2012

What's the matter with Kansas now?

In our time Thomas Frank has made Kansas a byword for a kind of false consciousness, from a Marxist or Democratic standpoint. Frank's book What's the Matter With Kansas? made that state's voters exemplars of a habit he found unreasonable. Working class voters there voted Republican, which Frank understood to be automatically against the self-interest of a self-conscious working class, because they were more concerned with the vague tyranny of a cultural elite that subverted traditional values. Within the Republican party, we now see, Kansans most strongly support the most extreme-seeming candidate for the presidential nomination, Rick Santorum. Depending on your perspective, this looks like another failure of pragmatism, since Santorum has little chance of winning a national election. Kansans, however, use their votes to affirm their values, much as people most likely do elsewhere. It can be argued that there's no such thing as "false consciousness" in a democracy, since each person claims a right to define for himself what his priorities are or determine what the real issues are. That would be sound liberal doctrine on the idealistic assumption that no choice really makes a difference and therefore all choices are equal. A political philosopher or political scientist may not be able to make that blithe assumption, however, so the whims of voters remain subject to scrutiny.

Kansas continues a trend that seems to expose the relativity of self-applied ideological labels. If Santorum succeeds there, that seems to prove that Kansas and surrounding states are more "conservative" than those that support Mitt Romney. But does conservatism or mere geography determine states' preferences? Some number-crunchers working over exit polls have noticed that Republicans who identify themselves as "very conservative" rather than "somewhat conservative" tend to vote against Romney -- except in the Northeast, where Romney is strongest. There, even those who identify themselves as "very conservative" favor Romney over his rivals. Conversely, Romney is usually strongest among Republicans who identify themselves as "moderate" -- except in the South, where Romney seems weakest outside Florida. There, Romney only runs even with his rivals, even among self-proclaimed "moderates." It isn't difficult to imagine that it means one thing to be "very conservative" in Maine and another in Missouri, or one thing to be "moderate" in the Deep South and another elsewhere. But what if it really is regional chauvinism, with southerners sort of favoring Gingrich (tomorrow is the acid test of that premise) and midwesterners adopting the Pennsylvanian Santorum as their own? What if Kansans simply felt that Santorum was one of them in a way that Gingrich, Romney and Paul were not? Theirs would be no more reasonable a choice, but it might become more understandable.

Throughout the Republican Nation, Santorum has become the definitive religious-right candidate. As he rallies the troops for another round of culture war, I find an American Conservative article by D. G. Hart interesting if not illuminating. Hart contrasts what he calls "republican Christianity" with an "Augustinian" alternative that he favors. He traces "republican Christianity" back to the 19th century "Second Great Awakening" and its attendant groundswell of activism for social reform. In that association Hart detects an unwholesome inversion of priorities -- a desire to "assert the relevance of faith for the affairs of this world," or a desire for a "a relevant faith" that "uses cultural health or social order as leading indicators of the world to come" and for which "social uniformity and political centralization became the means for creating a godly nation." For Hart, too many republican Christians "gave the impression that their faith only mattered if it could be shown to advance the cause of political independence, republican government, and the creation of wealth." If we think of the "religious right" as opponents of the progressive "social gospel," Hart analyzes religious politics from a greater remove and criticizes the religious right in the same terms the religious right uses to criticize the social gospel. The religious right (aka small-r "republican Christians") "redirects Christianity from convictions about the supremacy of eternal realities to the demands of the present," Hart writes. His article is no comfort to religious or secular liberals, since he seems to affirm religion's indifference to forms or quality of government and applauds a Presbyterian who refused to take sides in the Civil War. But if Hart's critique of republican Christianity is correct from the perspective of Christianity itself, it only proves that Santorum's supporters in Kansas are practicing yet another form of false consciousness.

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