TCS Daily

The Matter with Kansas Can Be Understood at Woolworth's

By Lee Harris - September 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Not long ago, while waiting to meet some friends for dinner, I dropped into a bookstore where I happened to glance through the political bestseller, What's the Matter With Kansas? -- a title borrowed from a once famous article by a once famous editor, William Allen White.

I didn't buy the book, nor did I have enough time to read very much of it. But, then, who needs to read very much of any bestseller nowadays? Thanks to the thoughtful tendency of modern publishing houses to restrict themselves to publishing books that can be summed up in a single sentence, even non-speed readers like me can get the gist of a three hundred page tome within a matter of minutes. Besides, the book's title gave it away. Substitute The Red States for Kansas in the title, and you can see at once what the book's about.

Now to ask what is wrong with you implies that something is wrong with you, and what is wrong with the Red States would appear to be that they are inhabited by dupes and dopes.

How else do you explain why people who don't make a lot of money vote Republican, instead of voting Democratic? The Democratic Party, after all, represents the interests of the little guy. So why don't those who are less well off rally around the standard of the party that sticks up for the common man, instead of the party that caters to plutocrats with their Rolex watches and their yachts? Why, in short, don't middle Americans want to redistribute income, on the model of the welfare state? Is it possible to imagine greater economic irrationality than that?

These are the questions raised by What's the Matter With Kansas, and they are questions I raised myself back in the summer of 1972, when I was working in a small bookstore in Atlanta. Each day at noon, I would walk across the mall where I worked, and sit down at the counter of the Woolworth's department store. There I would order my lunch, and, as I ate it, I would listen attentively to what the waitresses had to say about the respective merits of the two men who were assiduously campaigning to get their vote in the upcoming Presidential Election, namely Richard Nixon and George McGovern.

McGovern wanted greater economic equality for Americans, and one of the tools by which he hoped to achieve this goal was by setting a limit on how much people could leave to their children. I can't exactly recall what this limit was to have been, but I distinctly remember that it was set high enough that it would not materially affect the lives of the waitresses I overheard discussing the McGovern plan. None of the waitresses, I should note, was in the least bit concerned that the limit on inheritance would prevent any of them from inheriting money from someone else; but each and everyone of them was fanatically determined that no president should ever prohibit her from leaving as much money as she could to her own kids.

The way the waitresses saw it, McGovern's plan was not perceived as a fair and equitable redistribution of our society's collective wealth. Instead it was seen as an attempt to rob their children of the fortune that each of them might just somehow provide for their kids, despite the overwhelming odds that any of them could ever be in a position to acquire a fortune of sufficient size to have it confiscated by the McGovern plan.

The waitresses accepted the inequality of wealth in the United States; they did not mind that some people could leave their kids millions of dollars, so long as they had a chance to do the same thing -- no matter how infinitesimal this chance might be. To them, the fact that some people had lots more money than others did not annoy them, nor did it call forth a desire to take from the rich and give to the poor. They accepted the chanciness of human existence, like gamblers placing their bets on the spin of a roulette wheel.

At the time, being a liberal Democrat myself, I pondered deeply over the position taken by the waitresses. Ought I mock it, or was there something there worthy of my respect and even admiration?

Eventually I came to see more to admire than to mock -- but that was only after I had begun to understand the role that the human imagination plays in the construction of our social order.

The waitresses at Woolworth's disliked McGovern's welfare state politics because it was threatening to take away one of life's most important imaginary pleasures -- that of imagining yourself rich. Everyone who is not rich can instantly understand the world of pleasure that the impoverished hero of The Fiddler on the Roof gets from singing the song: "If I were a rich man...." What bliss it is to pretend you are wealthy! -- far far more fun, I would imagine, than actually being it."

There is a cost to being able to imagine yourself striking it rich, and that is for others to actually strike it rich. In a world where all was brought down to the same level, from which no one could ever escape, even the dream of being a rich man would eventually die out, and along with it, the motive power that has produced the enormous wealth of the West: the fervent belief of the poor that they can become rich -- not by stealing from the rich, but from making a pile for themselves. What else, do you think, has released all the energy of capitalism, except the overheated imagination of men who had to make their own fortune in order to have any at all?

Not economic irrationality, but admirable ethical consistency lay behind my waitresses' Red State attitude to the proposed inheritance tax. They did not ask others to give up a right that they would not give up themselves, if they were ever in the position to exercise it. Why? Because they would have regarded it as sheer hypocrisy to prevent people from doing what they knew damn well that they would do themselves, if they were ever given the chance.

What else is this other than a recognition of a shared humanity? Even if it be a shared weakness?

Perhaps one day the critics of Middle America will begin to recognize the humanity they share with people they so quickly label as culturally backwards. Perhaps one day they might even begin to listen to them, and to learn from them, the way I did so many years ago, while eavesdropping on the waitresses at Woolworth's.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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