What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

by Thomas Frank

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What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank

With a New Afterword by the Author

The New York Times bestseller, praised as "hilariously funny . . . the only way to understand why so many Americans have decided to vote against their own economic and political interests" (Molly Ivins)

Hailed as "dazzlingly insightful and wonderfully sardonic" (Chicago Tribune), "very funny and very painful" (San Francisco Chronicle), and "in a different league from most political books" (The New York Observer), What's the Matter with Kansas? unravels the great political mystery of our day: Why do so many Americans vote against their economic and social interests? With his acclaimed wit and acuity, Thomas Frank answers the riddle by examining his home state, Kansas-a place once famous for its radicalism that now ranks among the nation's most eager participants in the culture wars. Charting what he calls the "thirty-year backlash"-the popular revolt against a supposedly liberal establishment-Frank reveals how conservatism, once a marker of class privilege, became the creed of millions of ordinary Americans.

A brilliant analysis-and funny to boot-What's the Matter with Kansas? is a vivid portrait of an upside-down world where blue-collar patriots recite the Pledge while they strangle their life chances; where small farmers cast their votes for a Wall Street order that will eventually push them off their land; and where a group of frat boys, lawyers, and CEOs has managed to convince the country that it speaks on behalf of the People.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805077742
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 05/01/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 162,341
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.18(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Thomas Frank is the author of Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas?, and One Market Under God. A former opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and a monthly columnist for Harper's. He lives outside Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt


What's the Matter with America?

The poorest county in America isn't in Appalachia or the Deep South. It is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns, and in the election of 2000 the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, carried it by a majority of greater than 80 percent.1

This puzzled me when I first read about it, as it puzzles many of the people I know. For us it is the Democrats that are the party of workers, of the poor, of the weak and the victimized. Understanding this, we think, is basic; it is part of the ABCs of adulthood. When I told a friend of mine about that impoverished High Plains county so enamored of President Bush, she was perplexed. "How can anyone who has ever worked for someone else vote Republican?" she asked. How could so many people get it so wrong?

Her question is apt; it is, in many ways, the preeminent question of our times. People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests. This derangement has put the Republicans in charge of all three branches of government; it has elected presidents, senators, governors; it shifts the Democrats to the right and then impeaches Bill Clinton just for fun.

If you earn over $300,000 a year, you owe a great deal to this derangement. Raise a glass sometime to those indigent High Plains Republicans as you contemplate your good fortune: It is thanks to their self-denying votes that you are no longer burdened by the estate tax, or troublesome labor unions, or meddling banking regulators. Thanks to the allegiance of these sons and daughters of toil, you have escaped what your affluent forebears used to call "confiscatory" income tax levels. It is thanks to them that you were able to buy two Rolexes this year instead of one and get that Segway with the special gold trim.

Or perhaps you are one of those many, many millions of average-income Americans who see nothing deranged about this at all. For you this picture of hard-times conservatism makes perfect sense, and it is the opposite phenomenon—working-class people who insist on voting for liberals—that strikes you as an indecipherable puzzlement. Maybe you see it the way the bumper sticker I spotted at a Kansas City gun show puts it: "A working person that supports Democrats is like a chicken that supports Col. Sanders!"

Maybe you were one of those who stood up for America way back in 1968, sick of hearing those rich kids in beads bad-mouth the country every night on TV. Maybe you knew exactly what Richard Nixon meant when he talked about the "silent majority," the people whose hard work was rewarded with constant insults from the network news, the Hollywood movies, and the know-it-all college professors, none of them interested in anything you had to say. Or maybe it was the liberal judges who got you mad as hell, casually rewriting the laws of your state according to some daft idea they had picked up at a cocktail party, or ordering your town to shoulder some billion-dollar desegregation scheme that they had dreamed up on their own, or turning criminals loose to prey on the hardworking and the industrious. Or perhaps it was the drive for gun control, which was obviously directed toward the same end of disarming and ultimately disempowering people like you.

Maybe Ronald Reagan pulled you into the conservative swirl, the way he talked about that sunshiny, Glenn Miller America you remembered from the time before the world went to hell. Or maybe Rush Limbaugh won you over, with his daily beatdown of the arrogant and the self-important. Or maybe you were pushed; maybe Bill Clinton made a Republican out of you with his patently phony "compassion" and his obvious contempt for average, non-Ivy Americans, the ones he had the nerve to order into combat even though he himself took the coward's way out when his turn came.

Nearly everyone has a conversion story they can tell: how their dad had been a union steelworker and a stalwart Democrat, but how all their brothers and sisters started voting Republican; or how their cousin gave up on Methodism and started going to the Pentecostal church out on the edge of town; or how they themselves just got so sick of being scolded for eating meat or for wearing clothes emblazoned with the State U's Indian mascot that one day Fox News started to seem "fair and balanced" to them after all.

Take the family of a friend of mine, a guy who came from one of those midwestern cities that sociologists used to descend upon periodically because it was supposed to be so "typical." It was a middling-sized industrial burg where they made machine tools, auto parts, and so forth. When Reagan took office in 1981, more than half the working population of the city was employed in factories, and most of them were union members. The ethos of the place was working-class, and the city was prosperous, tidy, and liberal, in the old sense of the word.

My friend's dad was a teacher in the local public schools, a loyal member of the teachers' union, and a more dedicated liberal than most: not only had he been a staunch supporter of George McGovern, but in the 1980 Democratic primary he had voted for Barbara Jordan, the black U.S. Representative from Texas. My friend, meanwhile, was in those days a high school Republican, a Reagan youth who fancied Adam Smith ties and savored the writing of William F. Buckley. The dad would listen to the son spout off about Milton Friedman and the godliness of free-market capitalism, and he would just shake his head. Someday, kid, you'll know what a jerk you are.

It was the dad, though, who was eventually converted. These days he votes for the farthest-right Republicans he can find on the ballot. The particular issue that brought him over was abortion. A devout Catholic, my friend's dad was persuaded in the early nineties that the sanctity of the fetus outweighed all of his other concerns, and from there he gradually accepted the whole pantheon of conservative devil-figures: the elite media and the American Civil Liberties Union, contemptuous of our values; the la-di-da feminists; the idea that Christians are vilely persecuted—right here in the U.S. of A. It doesn't even bother him, really, when his new hero Bill O'Reilly blasts the teachers' union as a group that "does not love America."

His superaverage midwestern town, meanwhile, has followed the same trajectory. Even as Republican economic policy laid waste to the city's industries, unions, and neighborhoods, the townsfolk responded by lashing out on cultural issues, eventually winding up with a hard-right Republican congressman, a born-again Christian who campaigned largely on an anti-abortion platform. Today the city looks like a miniature Detroit. And with every bit of economic bad news it seems to get more bitter, more cynical, and more conservative still.

This derangement is the signature expression of the Great Backlash, a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues—summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art—which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements—not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars—that are the movement's greatest monuments. The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and deunionization that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don't deliver and their "New Economy" collapses. It makes possible the policy pushers' fantasies of "globalization" and a free-trade empire that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance. Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.

The Great Backlash has made the laissez-faire revival possible, but this does not mean that it speaks to us in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary; the backlash imagines itself as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history's receiving end. That its champions today control all three branches of government matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest people on the planet does not give it pause.

In fact, backlash leaders systematically downplay the politics of economics. The movement's basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern—that Values Matter Most, as one backlash title has it. On those grounds it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans of the New Deal to the standard of conservatism.2 Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country's return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people.

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may "matter most" to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act. Even the greatest culture warrior of them all was a notorious cop-out once it came time to deliver. "Reagan made himself the champion of ‘traditional values,' but there is no evidence he regarded their restoration as a high priority," wrote Christopher Lasch, one of the most astute analysts of the backlash sensibility. "What he really cared about was the revival of the unregulated capitalism of the twenties: the repeal of the New Deal."3

This is vexing for observers, and one might expect it to vex the movement's true believers even more. Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.

Backlash theorists, as we shall see, imagine countless conspiracies in which the wealthy, powerful, and well connected—the liberal media, the atheistic scientists, the obnoxious eastern elite—pull the strings and make the puppets dance. And yet the backlash itself has been a political trap so devastating to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical of string-pullers would have had trouble dreaming it up. Here, after all, is a rebellion against "the establishment" that has wound up abolishing the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.

Like a French Revolution in reverse—one in which the sans-culottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy—the backlash pushes the spectrum of the acceptable to the right, to the right, farther to the right. It may never bring prayer back to the schools, but it has rescued all manner of right-wing economic nostrums from history's dustbin. Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their guns

on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson's estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt's antitrust measures). With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire twentieth century.4

As a formula for holding together a dominant political coalition, the backlash seems so improbable and so self-contradictory that liberal observers often have trouble believing it is actually happening. By all rights, they figure, these two groups—business and blue-collar—should be at each other's throats. For the Republican Party to present itself as the champion of working-class America strikes liberals as such an egregious denial of political reality that they dismiss the whole phenomenon, refusing to take it seriously. The Great Backlash, they believe, is nothing but crypto-racism, or a disease of the elderly, or the random gripings of religious rednecks, or the protests of "angry white men" feeling left behind by history.

But to understand the backlash in this way is to miss its power as an idea and its broad popular vitality. It keeps coming despite everything, a plague of bitterness capable of spreading from the old to the young, from Protestant fundamentalists to Catholics and Jews, and from the angry white man to every demographic shading imaginable.

It matters not at all that the forces that triggered the original "silent majority" back in Nixon's day have long since disappeared; the backlash roars on undiminished, its rage carrying easily across the decades. The confident liberals who led America in those days are a dying species. The New Left, with its gleeful obscenities and contempt for the flag, is extinct altogether. The whole "affluent society," with its paternalistic corporations and powerful labor unions, fades farther into the ether with each passing year. But the backlash endures. It continues to dream its terrifying dreams of national decline, epic lawlessness, and betrayal at the top regardless of what is actually going on in the world.

Along the way what was once genuine and grassroots and even "populist" about the backlash phenomenon has been transformed into a stimulus-response melodrama with a plot as formulaic as an episode of The O'Reilly Factor and with results as predictable—and as profitable—as Coca-Cola advertising. In one end you feed an item about, say, the menace of gay marriage, and at the other end you generate, almost mechanically, an uptick of middle-American indignation, angry letters to the editor, an electoral harvest of the most gratifying sort.

My aim is to examine the backlash from top to bottom—its theorists, its elected officials, and its foot soldiers—and to understand the species of derangement that has brought so many ordinary people to such a self-damaging political extreme. I will do so by focusing on a place where the political shift has been dramatic: my home state of Kansas, a reliable hotbed of leftist reform movements a hundred years ago that today ranks among the nation's most eager audiences for bearers of backlash buncombe. The state's story, like the long history of the backlash itself, is not one that will reassure the optimistic or silence the cynical. And yet if we are to understand the forces that have pulled us so far to the right, it is to Kansas that we must turn our attention. The high priests of conservatism like to comfort themselves by insisting that it is the free market, that wise and benevolent god, that has ordained all the economic measures they have pressed on America and the world over the last few decades. But in truth it is the carefully cultivated derangement of places like Kansas that has propelled their movement along. It is culture war that gets the goods.

From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the Web sites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing, and with a long parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities. But on closer inspection the country seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.

Copyright © 2006 Thomas Frank

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What's the Matter with Kansas? 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There¿s a paradox abroad in land that has troubled many thoughtful people for many years. On the one hand, workers¿ wages, in real terms, have been stagnant for two decades, despite strong productivity growth throughout the economy we continue to hemorrhage manufacturing jobs (and now even white-collar jobs) to outsourcing--including the latest twist, offshoring, which consists of parking boats offshore filled with low-wage computer workers who replace Americans on the land income inequality has reached obscene levels and we still don¿t have even a semblance of a national health-care safety net for the millions of people without insurance. On the other hand, we continue to elect conservative Republican politicians who, once in office, cut taxes for the rich, cut regulations on big business, and trumpet a mantra of laissez-faire, free-market capitalism that makes the rich richer and washes the losers out the bottom end. In this widely acclaimed book, Thomas Frank examines his home state of Kansas to see if he can unravel the problem (the book, published in 2004, predates the Democrats¿ regaining control of both the House and Senate in 2006--more on that later). What he finds is that through the ¿erasure of economics¿ from public debate and the substitution of hot-button cultural issues, the Republicans (with little resistance from the Democrats) have achieved the astounding feat of convincing average Americans, even those hurt or displaced by pro-business government policies, that they are the party of the little guy, with liberals being tarred as pampered, over-educated, elitist snobs who have lost touch with ¿real¿ Americans but who continue to pull the strings from on high while also being responsible for the cultural decay the conservatives see all around them. To further the irony, Frank points out that the issues emphasized by the far right conservatives--abortion, ¿family values,¿ prayer in the schools and the teaching of alternatives to evolution, gay marriage, violence and sleaze in the mass media, etc.--are largely things about which little or nothing ever gets done or can be done. And that¿s the way the conservatives like it. Helping us average Joes in any material way might blunt the sharp edge of the culture war, which is what keeps them in power and which thus needs to be unending. As one of Frank¿s chapter headings states, we seem to be ¿happy captives¿ in a medieval system in which everyone is supposed to know his or her place and not complain about such touchy subjects as income inequality or the rapacity of large corporations. ¿Backlash conservatives,¿ Frank writes, ¿deal in outrage, not satisfaction,¿ based on a worldview that is highly anti-intellectual and almost entirely emotional in its appeal. As an example of the ¿real¿ real world, Frank studies Johnson County, Kansas, where he finds two types of conservatives, which he calls the Mods and the Cons (moderate and far-right or cultural conservatives, respectively). He traces how, over the past four decades the Cons have systematically elbowed out the Mods everywhere from county party chairs to the U.S. Senate. And, yet he finds two Johnson Counties in an economic sense as well: ¿One Johnson county lives in landscaped cul-de-sac communities with statuary in the traffic islands and a swimming pool behind each house,¿ while ¿the other Johnson County is a place of peeling paint and cheap plywood construction with knee-high crabgrass.¿ Strangely, it is the latter Johnson County that is inhabited by the Cons. Meanwhile, the Mods (the ¿haves¿) pay lip service to the culture war because it elects conservative politicians, who then get down to the business of doing good things for business. Frank lays the blame for the plight of the common people mainly on the fact that through the red-herring issues of the culture war they have been hoodwinked into accepting a less and less regulated free-market system that is often their worst enemy, even as it contin
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked the book and I am personally aware that Thomas Frank accurately described what has happened in Kansas. If the book opens a mind or two along the way, it will serve a valuable purpose.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Marks makes some thoughtful and interesting arguments about why many Americans - specifically conservatives in Kansas vote against their own economic self-interest. Reading about the political history of Kansas in relation to our present circumstances was at times fascinating. The wit and humor of the author added to the experience. However, I think the main point of 'voting against self-interest' is a bit deceptive. I believe that some people are simply accustomed to their own situation so they will never see a 'vote' guided by their conscience as some kind of self-betrayal. Personally, I seldom vote conservative becaues of the state of conservative ideology and I understand that this 'liberal' vote is not always in my own self interest.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was born in Kansas and now live in Southern Arizona. The microcosm of Kansas politics is an excellent example of how and where the right wing of our two party system is going. It is easily seen by examining this state the battle grounds that are being staked, out not only for the main parties, but the inter-republican party specifically. There is good insight in how the democrats are perceived as well. I am currently looking at a run for US congress and have found that this book will help overcome the perception the people have of democrats.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Offers an interesting perspective on America's changing political landscape. Very well written, witty, insightful and concise.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the best political analyses to come down the pike in quite a while. Despite what others have said, it is at heart non-partisan, asking why the people of Kansas, who used to vote progressive for the better part of a century and a half, are now conservatives. Well written, thoughtful, humorous analysis. A quick read, but, if encountered with an open mind, gives an excellent overview of the current political climate.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thomas Frank does an excellent job of explaining why people don't think their 'voting against your[their] 'own self interest'', but voting against the supposed liberal scourge and why those efforts amount to nothing but their own economic undoing. Frank also explains why the DLC and Democratic Party will never succeed aslong as it keeps pursuing the 'rich boys'. Sorry, Mike and Justin, but I think you just didn't understand what Thomas Frank was trying to show the rest of the country.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This should be a must read in EVERY school, not just in Kansas, If the people in Kansas REALLY wanted to turn things around.
cmartin323 More than 1 year ago
After waiting so long, I finally got the time to read this book and could not be more disappointed. I was more than a third of the way through the book and Frank had not even started to tell us WHY these people are voting against their own self-interests - which is the main premise of the book. His writing is so incredibly self-indulgent. He lambastes conservatives for their perceptions of liberals as haughty but then uses a writing style so pretentious as to fit that stereotype.  He also writes like a junior high student who just got a thesaurus for Christmas. 
Guest More than 1 year ago
From Kansas's infamous age as the hotbed for Abolitioist fury, it seems strange that Kansas has become Conservative USA. However, as Thomas Frank shows, conservatives have been the best pugulists in the raging and unresolved culture wars. Gives excellent guide of the power and allure of populist conservatism of Limbaugh and Coulter and how that has transformed the once-radical state of Kansas.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The scholarship of this work is profoundly impressive, as is Rich's writing style. Rich is arguably the smartest pundit on the left and even (intelligent) conservatives must admit Rich's skill as a researcher and writer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is to Kansas what 'Roger and Me' was to Michigan.. a must read
Guest More than 1 year ago
Frank clearly explains the coalition that is the GOP. It is composed of one group of people who worship market forces and another group of people who have tuned out economic issues. Frank's book was such a delightful and easy read that I went out a purchased his earlier book 'One Market Under God'. The earlier book is a more difficult read.
jcvogan1 on LibraryThing 7 days ago
Frank argues that the working class has been conned into a constant role of victim of the liberal elite in exchange supporting an agenda that undermines their economic interests. He's an economic determinist. Book lacks the sort of sociological and economic data that would make it rigorous and worthwhile.
ksmyth on LibraryThing 7 days ago
Though I have strong political views, I generally don't indulge in the normal published sturm und drang. However, because this book has gotten so much press, I picked it up and read. I thought that Franks argument was an interesting one that made so much sense: The right has promised social conservatives action on issues they can never deliver on, while cutting the economic floor out from under them. Franks is no less critical of Democrats and their abandonment of essentially classist arguments in favor of some "third way," that is about nothing. A good book, written with wit.
mattrutherford on LibraryThing 7 days ago
I wanted to like it, but it was boring and repetitive. I got the central point in the preface.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although this book was written several years ago, its message resonates even more loudly today.  There are no moderates left in the GOP; for them, it's all about  big business, big oil and big bucks...for the wealthy.  What is amazing is how the GOP has been able to co-opt the Religious Right to buy into the GOP philosophy through opposition to abortion, gun legislation, prayer in schools, and related issues that the wealthy could not care less about.  And this is the heart of this book.  How is it that middle class and even poor Kansans support the GOP when its economic policies cut against these Kansans?  This is the rank hypocrisy of the GOP as supposedly representing real America.  The simple fact is they do not.  But the Democrats don't get a pass;  they seem incapable of shaping a simple message that will resonate and expose the hypocrisy of the GOP.  Of course, talking about issues is always more complex than simply using labels.  For GOP voters, just branding anything as liberal, Obamacare, Pelosi, etc., conjures up evil.  The simpler the message, the easier to sell.  The problem here is that virtually every dictator or tyrant followed this path of the simpler the message, the easier to sell.  Democracy is not an easy sell; in a dynamic and diverse society, life is more nuanced and complex.  But at a time when an informed public is vital, we are witnessing the dumbing down of our public education system; reliance on sound bites and spilled venom;  talking heads and self-proclaimed pundits doing the thinking for us; all designed to keep us fat, dumb and happy.  This book, and others like it, tell a sad, shocking but true story about where we are in our national intelligence.  I am not saying the GOP is all wrong and the Democrats have all the answers.  Neither is correct.  But on the hypocrisy scale and truth-telling scale, the GOP is off the charts.  
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