What’s the Matter with Kansas? is a documentary film based on Thomas Frank’s book of the same name. In the film, director Joe Winston and producer Laura Cohen follow, without narration, an interesting selection of middle-class Kansans, and through glimpses into their lives, their stories and beliefs, viewers gain an insight into what Kansans, in general, are like and how they come to believe and vote like they do.
Near the beginning of the film, we meet Angel Dillard, a statuesque wife, mother, songwriter, singer, farmer, and pro-life advocate. Dillard is a Christian woman raised to be a critical thinker, which led her to the Republican Party.
Dillard and her family attend the Baptist church services of senior pastor Terry Fox — an avowedly anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-ACLU, and anti-Islam minister. It would be contradictory to describe this individual as pro-life given that he applauds the pro-death penalty. Fox’s strident pulpit causes a split in the church, and Fox finds himself a new parish in a fledgling amusement park.
A contrasting character is the 73-year-old crusty, straight-talking, liberal and artist provocateur M.T. Liggett. Said Liggett, “Gay marriage!? Who gives a shit? It’s none of my business. Abortion; it’s the same thing …”
Two camps are clearly delineated. Liggett respects individual autonomy — that no group has the right to impose its standards of behavior on another group. On the other hand is the view expressed by Brittany Barden, a volunteer campaigner with the Republic Party, that the United States is “meant to be a Christian nation; that is what the founding fathers intended.”
Bob Lippoldt, a substitute teacher and pro-life advocate, frames the liberals as “anti-Christian.”
Yet, Julie Burkhart, a pro-choice advocate, said, “I believe in what Jesus had to say … but I’m not a Christian.”
The pro-life versus pro-choice battleground occupies a chunk of the film, including the six-week so-called Summer of Mercy when pro-choice advocates targeted abortion clinics. This morphed into a well-organized and successful political movement. The long-time Kansan Democratic representative (1977-1994) Dan Glickman was the electoral target of the pro-lifers, and he was defeated.
When Glickman voted for NAFTA, he alienated many workers. Glickman noted that he had fared worst in blue-collar Democratic districts.
Bespectacled Dale Swenson, a former Boeing worker described a schism in the Democratic Party between “working class Democrats” and “Democrats of the leisure class.”
Swenson reasoned, “There’s nothing left within the Democratic Party for me to vote for if they are going to keep targeting the working class. If I’m in the crosshairs of the Democratic Party, then I’m not any worse off in the Republican Party.”
Donn Teske is a cigar-chomping, struggling farmer, farmer union president, and father. He detests the Bush administration but distances himself from the Democratic Party. He calls himself a Populist without a party.
Teske laments the current dog-eat-dog competition among farmers: “I’ve had friends who said, ‘I can’t wait until he goes broke so I can get my hands on it [the farm].’”
The separation between the two camps is wide. Dawn Barden, Brittany’s mother, deplores secular universities for having an alleged prejudice against Christian students. Dawn Barden claims that 80 percent of Christians leave the faith after studying at a secular college. Unexplored is why. Is not the testing of faith and its affirmation part of being a Christian? Was not Abraham tested? Was not Job tested? Is steadfastness to the faith not at the root of being a Christian?
Frank Thomas explores the radical Kansan political roots. The now defunct Populist Party had its origin in Kansas. Thomas refers to the socialist colonies of the nineteenth century as “My Kansas.” He calls for Liberalism to return to its roots. The question unanswered is: who will represent these roots?
Who are the liberals today? Thomas did not call for the development or strengthening of a “third party” movement. Instead of a future vision of progressivism, the film eulogizes the passage of worker parties in Kansas.
Frank wrote in his book, “For us it is the Democrats that are the party of the workers, of the poor, of the weak and the victimized. Understanding this, we think, is basic; it is part of the ABCs of adulthood.”1 Implied was that by voting for Democrats the economic interests of regular Kansans would be served. Confining our analysis to recent decades, however, shows that the Clinton presidency and the Obama presidency have not protected the average Americans’s economic interests.
I wondered how Frank could get it so wrong — especially after how he recognized and depicted the economically self-defeating habit of middle America to vote for Republicans? Frank knows that the Democrats abandoned much of their base.
The film depicts the Democrats as a house divided. Fox’s church was a house divided. Jesus’s – and subsequently Lincoln’s – admonition about division is undiscussed, but it hangs heavy in the film.
Thomas points out that many in the working class voted for Bush in 2004 and at the top of their agenda were moral issues – but Bush’s agenda was economic, as in tax reform (to benefit the wealthy).
The film ends with the electoral defeat of the Republicans in 2008. God had not blessed the Republicans and neither did God bless the theme park venture nor the investments of Fox and many parishioners.
The Democrats are, for the time being, resurgent. Recently, however, Obama and the Democrats compromised on their committment to workers on the Employee Free Choice Act.
For this writer, the Democrats are a part of the corporate political duopoly that serves capitalist interests that exploits the workers, the poor, the weak, and the victimized. Understanding this, I submit, is basic.
The film explored the Kansan historical flirtations with populism and socialism. It did not delve deeply into Democratic politics like the book. What’s the Matter with Kansas? explores what drives middle-class Kansans and why they vote as they do. It is an illuminating film insofar as the political duopoly goes. Notably absent from the film was discussion of prospects for a credible “third” party movement on the political scene.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? will have its world premiere at Film Society of Lincoln Center on 6 August, at which point the DVD will also be released.
- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan Books, 2004):1. [↩]