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What's the matter with Kansas? Ask the guy who wrote the book

Thomas Frank's book "What's The Matter With Kansas" became a political sensation. He sat down with msnbc to discuss the state's upheaval a decade later.

All eyes are on Kansas heading into election night, as the longtime Republican stronghold is host to several surprisingly competitive races that could determine both control of the Senate and the direction of the state.

On the Senate side, longtime incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts is trailing in polls to center-left independent Greg Orman after barely surviving a challenge from the tea party. In the governor’s race, Sam Brownback is fighting off a challenge from Democrat Paul Davis and a revolt from moderate Republicans after his plan to slash taxes sparked a budget crisis. 

Thomas Frank traced the political fault lines of the Sunflower State in his popular 2004 book, "What’s The Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," which posited that Republicans had won over white working-class voters by channeling their rage over closing factories and declining wages into hot button social issues like abortion, gay marriage, and immigration. To win them back, he argued, Democrats needed to champion economic populism from the left rather than tack to the center.

The book’s thesis was controversial at the time and remains so to this day, but the debates Frank described over the role of populism in the party, the way cultural issues shape elections, and whether Democrats can make inroads in otherwise conservative states are as relevant as ever in 2014. Its title has also endured as a political catchphrase, and the last month has seen an explosion of articles with headlines like “This Is What’s The Matter With Kansas,” “Nothing’s The Matter With Kansas,” and “What’s The Mater With Sam Brownback?”

Frank talked to msnbc on Sunday about how his book's ideas have aged and what to make of the latest dramatic developments in Kansas. The following interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Benjy Sarlin: Well, at the very least, your book has inspired a lot of headlines recently.

Frank: It just comes up again and again and again, it's kind of weird. I didn’t make the title up, you know; it came from a famous essay from the 1890s. I don’t know if the phrase became an oft-repeated phrase or not, but the original essay was published in 1896 and reprinted all over the country. It was a phrase that has staying power, I guess.

Right now Gov. Brownback is facing a serious challenge from a Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, after his tax cuts led to a major budget deficit. And Pat Roberts faced a revolt from the tea party and now faces a serious centrist challenger to his left. How should we understand these two races?

Brownback is a classic example of what I’m talking about in the book. His entire career was about the culture wars and that’s all anyone knew about him when he ran for governor. Then he gets in and puts into effect a state-level version of the George Bush wrecking crew you have in D.C. – he’s going to starve the government, he’s going to deregulate, he’s going to start a kind of border war with the states around Kansas to lure business away, he’s going to defund certain agencies. It’s been a disaster for the people who live there and they’re very angry about it. It turns out people don’t like that aspect of conservatism. 

I wouldn’t count him out yet. The Democratic candidate has had a lead for most of the year, but Brownback has something up his sleeves.

What about Roberts?

That’s your classic story of moderates versus conservatives. He was always a moderate senator, and then he got a challenge from the tea party and swung so far to the right. I think that guy would have beaten him if it hadn’t been for his really spectacular self-destruction over those X-rays. But even with that it was still a close race. There’s another problem, which is the residency issue. This is a really common issue in Great Plains states, where they send the guy to Washington and they just never come back.

We’re living in a time where there is a lot of outrage out there, a lot of anger out there. In most places in the country it's being focused on President Obama, fairly or unfairly. For whatever reason with Pat Roberts it’s focused on him.

Do you see the seeds of a future Democratic revival in Kansas based on what’s going on now?

I think in both cases the Democrat or the alternative candidate are ahead in the polls because the Republican is so hated, so I’m not sure if it’s a model. You get back to this problem of fatalism: I don’t think it’s much of a strategy for the party to just wait for the other side to screw up. 

The central thesis of your book was that white working class voters in Kansas voted against their economic interests on issues like taxes and regulations because they had been fired up by populist cultural issues like abortion. How do you think it's held up since then? 

It’s gotten in some ways worse. It’s also mutated in some ways. The white working class vote has migrated very steadily to Republicans. Things reversed themselves a little bit in 2008, which kind of makes sense because it was an economic catastrophe and there was sort of a residual reversion to the Democrats. Obama was also obviously the man for the moment. But by and large, the phenomenon goes on. 

These days Republicans are much more likely to argue that Democrats are using the same social issues you described in your book, like abortion, gay marriage, and immigration, to distract from the state of the economy rather than the other way around. What do you make of the way Democrats have embraced these fights in the decade since your book?

It is funny, isn’t it? It is amusing the way the two parties reflect and mimic each other, but that’s exactly what’s going on. This doesn’t mean Republicans talk about economic issues in a straightforward or honest way, but it is true that Democrats, when faced with an economic critique, will always run to the culture wars. They do it to Republicans but they also do it to people like me who criticize them from the left. Eric Holder is a perfectly example: He fails to prosecute basically any bankers for any reason, with very few exceptions, but when you criticize him it’s "No, no, no, Democrats are doing great on these culture war issues." They always want to reduce the debate to that because that’s where they have the sharpest contrast with Republicans, while their difference on economic issues is just not as great.

After winning the 2008 and 2012 elections, Democrats are talking about a bright demographic future led by minority voters, young people, urban professionals, and single women. You've written that you're skeptical that they can keep winning without addressing the white working class voters you wrote your book on. Why is that?

I think they can keep winning and they will keep winning. The problem is that it’s fatalism. If you just assume you’re going to win these voters without doing anything, you’re not going to do anything and you’re just going to be sitting on your butt waiting for them to come your way. The thing about the conservative movement is that they don’t do that. They’re very dynamic, and they’re always trying to persuade new people to sign up for their movement. White working-class voters have very little business voting for the Republican Party and they’ve won these people over since Nixon. If they’re able to do that, what makes us think they won’t be able to win over these other groups over time? They’re certainly going to try.

There are also a lot of places where what Democrats are doing is just a losing strategy. The starkest example right now is West Virginia. It wasn’t long ago this was one of the most Democratic states in America. This is serious union country and they went for Dukakis in 1988, but it’s just been moving further and further to the right. The Democrats don’t seem to have anything in their arsenal that can shift it back the other direction. 

There are other mostly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire that have been trending bluer in that period, though.

I haven’t really studied Iowa. Obama seemed to be good on farm issues in 2008. But there are plenty of places where the old calculus still seems to work.

Democrats are talking about income inequality more than ever. Do you think they're moving toward the kind of populism you envisioned in 2004 or is this current incarnation still different?

They basically rolled out my kind of populism in the last election against Mitt Romney with devastating effect. Obama also did it very well in 2008, which was in the middle of a global financial crisis brought on by Bush administration policies to appease Wall Street, so it came very naturally then. 

The problem is Obama hasn’t governed that way. There are so many ways in which he’s just done different favors for Wall Street. When I talk to my liberal friends, their attitude is he can't do anything because Congress won’t let him. Well, he is the president, lots of things are up to his discretion, and there are lots of things he could do that would be popular. Some are obvious: Go after Wall Street bankers, just do it, go get these guys. Another is to start enforcing antitrust laws. You talk to tea party people or disaffected, disgruntled working-class voters of any race, they are furious about the big banks getting bigger, they are furious about their phone company and the lousy service you get, and you can just go down the list of monopolies permitted.