Archive for Friday, December 11, 2009

What’s the matter with Kansas?: Thomas Frank’s best-selling book is transformed into an acclaimed documentary film

Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union, is seen in the film lobbying before Congress.

Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union, is seen in the film lobbying before Congress.

December 11, 2009


What's the Matter with Kansas? ***

Taking the concept of Thomas Frank's book, Joe Winston's doc heads to the heartland to find out why working-class Americans usually vote Republican, and thus, according to the filmmakers, for policies detrimental to their pocketbooks. It's an honest portrait of memorable Kansans that avoids coming across as judgmental.

Get movie listings, reviews, and more at


Author Thomas Frank was just another buttoned-down, Ronald Reagan-loving suburbanite when he headed to college in 1983.

The transition from Johnson County to Douglas County proved jarring. Within his first semester at Kansas University his ideals tilted to port. And it wasn’t politics per se that spurred the shift.

“There was a moment I remember vividly to this day when I was in Lawrence and I heard on the radio they were playing The Sex Pistols,” Frank says. “In Kansas City in the early ’80s no one ever played The Sex Pistols. It struck me as so incredibly right. It was ‘(God Save the Queen)’ with the singer’s voice screaming ‘No future!’ It was a conversion experience.”

Flash-forward to 2004 when Frank published “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” Suddenly, the author was the one singing the refrain of “no future” — only this time it was in reference to his home state.

“Things for small farmers just seem to get worse and worse,” says Frank, whose book spent 18 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List.

“Small towns especially in the north and the west are hurting. Johnson County and Wichita certainly have a future. Garden City and Lawrence are going to do fine. But I was recently driving around north of Lawrence in farm country, and it’s always very depressing to stop in these towns that you remember from not all that long ago as towns that were doing fairly well, and you walk down the main street and all the businesses are gone except for the thrift store.”

That past, present and future of the state is now being debated in a new movie of the same title based on Frank’s book. “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” premieres at 7 p.m. Dec. 11 at Liberty Hall, and will play throughout the ensuing week — find showtimes here.

Author Thomas Frank

Author Thomas Frank

Anarchy in the KU

Although the experience in Lawrence helped shape him politically, Frank only spent a year at Kansas University.

"I loved KU and I loved Lawrence. Whenever I would come back to Kansas I would spend most of my time in Lawrence. But at some point I just decided that I had to see the world. So I picked the University of Virginia, and I knew nothing about it other than the buildings had been designed by Thomas Jefferson," he says.

Frank eventually moved back to the Midwest to attend the University of Chicago, where he earned a Ph.D. in history. But when his wife landed a job in Washington in 2003, he decided to tag along.

The move has served his career well. His latest book, "The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule," was published in 2008. He also is the founding editor of The Baffler, a contributing editor at Harper's and a Wall Street Journal weekly columnist.

Is there any chance he'll one day permanently return to Kansas?

"We've talked about that many times. I love visiting there. And my children love Kansas City. But I don't think I'm going to move back anytime soon," he says.

As for whether he likes living in Washington, Frank says, "Not really. It's the anti-Kansas."

The documentary explores how the Sunflower State gradually transformed from an outpost of radicalism to a stronghold of conservatism.

“It never occurred to me that you could even make a movie of this,” says Frank, who appears in the film. “They took the main idea of the book and some of the characters, then went off on their own tangent.”

‘Affection and curiosity’

Filmmaker Joe Winston was living in Chicago in 2004 when he saw the author speak at the launch of his book tour.

“At that time I was just totally spellbound because he was the only one who was saying anything that made sense about what was going on in the country,” recalls Winston, director of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” “What made me want to do a movie was this notion that if you want to understand what was going on in America, you had to come to Kansas.”

Winston had never stepped foot in Kansas prior to embarking on the project. The Chicago native recalls thinking “it was kind of a fictional place to me like it is to a lot of Americans.”

With no studio financing, Winston and his wife, producer Laura Cohen, assembled a crew and headed to the heartland. They initially met with some resistance.

“Most people in America, when you tell them you’re making a documentary with politics as part of it, they ask, ‘Is this going to be like Michael Moore?’ They were not looking forward to that project. But that’s not the way I make any of my movies. We didn’t use a voiceover narrator. We didn’t have any experts. We didn’t do any ambush interviews or try to trick anybody. We came to Kansas to learn. We had genuine affection and curiosity for all the people we met,” he says.

The memorable subjects featured in the 90-minute movie include:

• Angel Dillard, a mother of two, lifelong Republican and Right to Life activist with a Dickensian hard-luck story.

• Brittany Barden, an 18-year-old go-getter who is shown actively campaigning to re-elect former attorney general Phill Kline.

• Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union, who is seen lobbying before Congress. Winston describes him as “a hilarious, fascinating guy who is like the last of the progressive populist farmers.”

Teske will be a guest speaker at tonight’s premiere. (Winston jokes, “I actually had to promise him a bottle of whiskey to get him out there.”)

Winston believes allowing the subjects to be themselves was far more revealing than other tactics.

“It would be easy to camp out in front of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church and make the right wing look ridiculous. Other filmmakers have attempted that. Aside from it being boring, what’s the point?” he asks.

Brittany Barden campaigns to re-elect former attorney general Phill Kline.

Brittany Barden campaigns to re-elect former attorney general Phill Kline.

“Neither Laura nor I had ever spent time with conservative Christians who home-schooled their children and rallied around things like the abortion issue. ... Even though we might have very different feelings about abortion or religion, we had a lot in common as people. By walking a mile in their shoes, I got to see — and my crew did and, hopefully, viewers of the movie will see — it’s not so alien. It gave me hope that we can all talk to one another.”

Leading film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the picture, “What’s interesting is that every single person in this film is seen as themselves, is allowed to speak and seems to have a good heart. I’ve rarely seen a documentary quite like it. It has a point to make but no ax to grind.”

Regional reactions

So what exactly is the matter with Kansas, anyway?

“I used to have a much more pat answer than I do now,” says Frank, who relocated to Washington, D.C., shortly after his book got published. “But I would say it’s the culture wars. Look at what happened to (slain abortion doctor) George Tiller.”

Director Joe Winston and producer Laura Cohen.

Director Joe Winston and producer Laura Cohen.

Winston adds, “What’s the matter with Kansas is what’s the matter with America, in that we have a government and a system where too many people don’t have a voice. Everybody’s got a different way with trying to grapple with that problem. For some people the most sensible thing to do is stand out in front of an abortion clinic because they think that’s the way they can make a difference.”

The filmmakers say their work has elicited different reactions depending on what region of the country it screens.

“So far, people in the Midwest ‘get it’ the most. The New Yorkers thought we were on a bit of a safari. Kansas seemed very, very far away,” Winston recalls.

“At the New York screening, somebody got up from the crowd and asked the ‘luminaries’ who were onstage with us, ‘How do we teach these people from Kansas?’ I’m thinking, ‘It’s not the people from Kansas who need to learn, it’s you.’”

"What's the Matter with Kansas?" movie - theatrical trailer from WMKMovie on Vimeo.


Peregrino 8 years ago

The headline is a little jarring. The book is a work of non-fiction, not a novel.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years ago

I had the same thought, Peregrino, but since I haven't read the book....

jniccum 8 years ago

Editor's Note: Per yer suggestions, title is fixed.

Michael Throop 8 years ago

I get enough of Thomas Frank in his commentaries in the Wall Street Journal. His complimentary tone toward big-city (Democrat) politics, ala the Daley Machine in Chicago, and why it's ok that Daley's minions get to get plum contracts to take care of "public" property were as silly an equivocation as I have had to endure.The Daley machine begat Frank's hero, sorta, The Empty Cuit in the White House. The issue is not "fairness" or "equality" or even "honesty" It is CONTROL. Having grown up in that political cesspool known as Illinois, I know of what I speak. I have to burn my clothes when I visit and come home. Frank says he had a "conversion" which means he believed in nothing when he got to KU and is as rudderless today.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years ago

"His complimentary tone toward big-city (Democrat) politics, ala the Daley Machine in Chicago, and why it's ok that Daley's minions get to get plum contracts to take care of “public” property were as silly an equivocation"

Monkfellow-- I've never seen a grosser misreading of an article than yours.

Here's the concluding paragraphs of the article you reference (the link is below that.) It's hardly "complimentary."

"It may not fit the myth, but that's the real Chicago way. Sell off public property without public scrutiny. Prohibit public input on an essential public service. Rationalize the whole thing, as Mr. Daley's administration has done, by insisting that government can't run such things as well as the private sector can.

And then, when the money runs out, privatize something else: The water supply, maybe. The sewer system. An airport or two.

Why not privatize a U.S. Senate seat, too? Just imagine what Abu Dhabi would pay for that."

brian1981 8 years ago

I've read some (but not all) of "What's the Matter With Kansas". What bothers me with this book is what bothers many rural conservatives/libertarians with "urban" liberalism . . . that liberal urbanites think they know "best" how to govern not just their own parts of the country (the Northeast, urban West Coast, etc.) but also parts of the country that are culturally different than them.

Like almost all East Coast liberals (I realize Frank claims he was a native Kansan, but that was a long time ago) Frank thinks he knows best how rural Kansas feel and thinks that they have been "brainwashed" with religious values by conservative ringleaders that don't care about rural/small town types.

The problem is Frank and his fellow liberals patronize the rural Kansans (and other Americans) by assuming that just because conservative "big business" may be "detrimental" to their small-town, small-business way of life, that they don't value other right-wing values more (such as pro-life, pro-religion, etc) and have the right to vote their other rural values over their business values. Like a typical liberal, Frank doesn't believe the poor, downtrodden, oppressed rural people can think for themselves and need guidance from Big Brother, i.e., big government, big liberal types who have little to no experience with rural culture.

This is of course assuming that Frank is right about his premise (that Republican ideals are antithetical to the small-time ideals of "little people") . . . of course, he can't prove this, and again like any good liberal he simply assumes that he knows more than those poor, simple, uneducated rural types who simply don't know that the liberals have all the best ideas.

Sorry. I don't buy this. Liberals have a big problem assuming that they simply know what's best for everyone, including everyone they deign more unfortunate, such as the poor rural people stuck in Middle America. They don't understand how such simple allegedly unintelligent people can find their patronizing attitude off-putting and instead rally around a party that values self-reliance . . . the same self-reliance that their ancestors relied upon to settle Middle America in the first place.

Frightwig 8 years ago

I hope some normal people were interviewed for this film. If Kansans are portrayed as a bunch of right-wing nutjobs, I'll be irked. Yes, there are plenty of right-wing and left-wing wackos in Kansas, as there are in any other state, but I hope he shows that plenty of level-headed people live here as well.

anon1958 8 years ago

A book and a movie seems like a bit of overkill. The answer to what is the matter with Kansas is simple. It is the Kansans. It certainly has not been those rebel losers in the state just East of us that elects the redneck 18th century populist country bumpkins to the state legislature and disgraces the state for all time by sending frenzied fundamentalists like same Brownback to the US Senate.

MyName 8 years ago


No, I think you're missing Frank's point completely: he feels like the GOP machine doesn't care about those values you mention at all and pretends to espouse them just so they can get enough support to ram their economic BS through.

When push comes to shove, they don't have the votes to overturn Roe v Wade (for example), but Frank doesn't believe that they would actually do anything about it even if they could because then they'd just have the economic issues, which is where they'd lose all of their supporters.

anon1958 8 years ago

Brian 1981 said......

"They don't understand how such simple allegedly unintelligent people can find their patronizing attitude off-putting and instead rally around a party that values self-reliance … the same self-reliance that their ancestors relied upon to settle Middle America in the first place."

The interesting thing about liberals is that for the most part we do not believe that rural/conservative/right leaning people are unintelligent. However, I certainly believe that many of my right of center friends are easily misled and swayed by a few hotbutton slogans.

Research about how people vote and what factors influence their decisions has been pretty conclusive that emotion rather than logic guides most people. This is true of course for liberals and conservatives. I think this fact is exploited more by the far right and if you disagree then take a pause and consider how many more nutcase right wing demagogues have tv/radio shows than left wing wackos.

Growing up in an impoverished midwestern town it was clear to me from a young age that any vote for a republican candidate was a fools errand if you made less than $250,000 per year.

Sparko 8 years ago

The central thesis of this is that people of limited means are persuaded to side with mega corporations and the super-wealthy (who have no interest in improving the lives of Kansans.) Rather than fighting for affordable health care, for example, many people focus instead on family planning clinics, gays, or migrant workers. Abortion is an issue that is so handy for the powerful interests of the GOP to spin up, it overwhelms the natural populism of Kansans looking to improve the health and vitality of the state and improve their economic prospects. Abortion will never be settled until there is another issue that takes the masses' eyes off the ball.

I have NO regard for libertarians. Kansas has very few real services for its people. It is a libertarian experiment that is failing badly. The needs of a people are proportional to their population. You leave them to their own devices they starve to death or attack the wealthy. Darwin trumps Rand every time.

anon1958 8 years ago

Pilgrim2 (Anonymous) says…

Sparko (Anonymous) says…

I have NO regard for libertarians. Kansas has very few real services for its people. It is a libertarian experiment that is failing badly. The needs of a people are proportional to their population.

Gee, that's sounds vaguely familiar. “From each, according to his abilities. To each, according to his needs.”

Talk about failing badly…

Pilgrim here is a clue for you. His name was Malthus, find out about him and you will be slightly less remote from reality and may develop some faint idea what Sparko is referring to.

MyName 8 years ago

Umm... yeah, Pilgrim2, maybe you need to think that there might be a system in between unbridled "let them eat cake" capitalism and communism. Because history isn't very kind to any society that fails to take care of its people.

verity 8 years ago

Has anybody commenting here actually seen the movie?

verity 8 years ago

Autie, sorry you didn't make the cut. Sounds like you did have a good time though.

mr_right_wing 8 years ago

So was it KJHK or the pirate KAW-FM from Liberty Hall??

Uhlrick_Hetfield_III 8 years ago

It's a good book and a good read. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie. Micheal Moore has become a cliche, it will be nice to see a movie like this that respects both sides.

Phil Minkin 8 years ago

I just returned from seeing What's the Matter with Kansas". Somewhat disapointing in that it really doesn't reflect the thesis of the book: That people vote against their economic self interest for issues like abortion, guns and gays that the right uses to get elected and then don't do much about. GWB had the exec and both houses and packed the judicial branch yet abortion is still legal and we still have some gun control. These wedge issues cause farmers, blue collar workers and the middle class to vote for Republicans, who in turn do nothing to benefit these groups, but support big agra, big pharma and Wall Street. The showing tonight was a Dem fundraiser, but it could have easily been shown at a Republican one. A cinematic Rorsarch test

Boston_Corbett 8 years ago

Has anyone here actually lived in Osborne County, Kansas?

Or Trego, for what it is worth.

I am very interested in their opinions, but not in Bozo's.

Boston_Corbett 8 years ago

Or Rawlins, or Phillips, or Clark, or Barber, or Hodgeman, or Graham, or Stanton, or Morton, or Osborne

You know, people of the 30-70 percent of Kansas (at the minimum) that BOZO is so elitist he denies understanding being part of, but wants to pass laws to instruct them what to do.

Boston_Corbett 8 years ago

Good god I know we have real people here from Kiowa County/Greensburg here. Give him a shot dude. Or I may step in.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years ago

"I am very interested in their opinions, but not in Bozo's."

I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, but if you don't want to hear my opinions, just skip over them. And I'll do the same for yours.


Sparko 8 years ago

Jacob et al., Kansas is used as a stand-in for what is wrong with all of America. View the posts here and you see heated rhetoric from the GOP talking points, and again, blame NYC, or abortion, or elites, or socialists, or . . . This is the problem. Take aim at what is really wrong and don't allow yourself to be manipulated by right wing screed. Kansas needs decent health care. Kansas needs living wages. Kansas needs family farms versus mega-corporations. Kansas' slaughter houses need to pay real citizens real wages. Every time a partisan republican spews raging talking points, real problems are shunted aside for silly arguments. Lawrence was always called "elitist" by the rest of Kansas because of its cultural heritage and great quality of life. The term has come to signify ignorance or envy. Every one alive should CHALLENGE themselves to be a little better every day. And to love one's enemy.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 8 years ago

“They took the main idea of the book and some of the characters, then went off on their own tangent.”

Whoa... peripheral divergence....

"... if you want to understand what was going on in America, you had to come to Kansas."

That's because life is simpler on the plain... two-dementianal.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.