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(cover picture) Cohen, Laura & Joe Winston
2011 What's the Matter with Kansas?. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 90 minutes
Reviewed 10 Mar 2012 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Conservatism - Kansas
Kansas - Politics and government - 1951-

ABSTRACT:    This film based on Thomas Frank’s book by the same title examines Kansas during the 2006 mid-term elections, in which Republican Party faithful watched their majority in both houses of Congress evaporate after six years of the Bush administration—without seeing any connection between those two facts.

March 10, 2012: Rick Santorum today won the Kansas caucus for the Republican presidential nomination. And he won handily, with a full 51 percent of the vote, compared to second-place finisher Mitt Romney’s 21 percent. Which raises the perennial question: what’s the matter with Kansas?

Thomas Frank posed that question in his 2004 book by the same name, subtitled How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. And so it seems that conservatives continue to rule the heart of America, often—which is Frank’s point—to the heartland’s disadvantage. The film shares the title of the book but does not cover the same ground, rather focusing on the 2006 midterm elections. Appropriately enough, the movie opens with scenes of broken or abandoned scapes (imagine if the film had been shot after 2008!). It is June 2006, and at a convention in Wichita, the Kansas Democratic Party booth is empty but the pro-life booth is bustling. The message: it is easy to be a Republican in Kansas these days, but it is lonely being a Democrat.

The DVD features a number of local characters, including a conservative Christian woman who owns the Mustard Seed Ranch and describes herself as influenced by Ronald Reagan (the ghost, quite literally, who haunts the modern Republican Party). The key event in the film is probably the re-election campaign for the Republican attorney general candidate; at his rally, supporters carry on about abortion and America as a ‘Christian nation,’ singing “Amazing Grace.” Naturally, a Kansas pro-choice advocacy group is working to defeat the conservative incumbent.

While one old curmudgeon says that abortion and gay marriage are none of his business, and another farmer from western Kansas actually resigned from Republican Party and hates the Bush administration, more typical is the lady of the Mustard Seed Ranch. She complains about the influence of her liberal professors, although it is hard to blame them for her parents’ divorce and her own youthful pregnancy. The sheer contradiction, if not hypocrisy, of their positions and life choices seldom strike them. But this does not prevent her and her kind from singing at a Baptist mega-church, where the pastor says it is a time for men of God to stand up and where he distributes voter guides without ‘endorsing’ any candidate—other than one who is conservative and displays the ‘glory of God.’

One of the bizarre things that we learn, and that Frank stresses in his book is how Kansas was formerly a magnet for radicals like woman’s suffragists and socialists in the 19th century. Of course, it’s easier to be liberal when you are new, and people and systems tend to settle into more conservative patterns over time—especially over bad times. Which leads us to the crux of the modern Republican Party and its narrow agenda of ‘values’ and ‘morality.’ Santorum is the poster boy for this wing of the party, a wing that tends to flap the entire bird. In 1991, Kansas became a battleground over abortion during the so-called ‘summer of mercy.’ The mobilized ‘values voters’ managed to pack largely empty precinct leadership positions with fellow anti-abortionists and rallied the conservative vote to upset Congressman Dan Glickman. So there may be fewer abortions in Kansas since 1991. At the same time, drought, recession, and general decline have hit the state hard. One farmer reflects on his German migrant ancestors who came to the state impoverished but worked hard and succeeded. Today, he does not know if his children will stay on the farm, or even if they can stay and make the farm work. But at least there are fewer abortions.

As a reminder of more liberal times, the film looks at a turn-of-the-century socialist newspaper called ‘The Appeal to Reason.’ Kansas was also a site for publishing much free-thought literature.) “Liberalism has to reconnect with its roots,” the film advises. When did ‘liberal’ become a dirty word? I actually remember the day quite well: it was in 1980, during the Reagan’s successful campaign against the ‘weak’ liberal Carter.

At least the farmer facing the loss of his land and livelihood, when he travels to Washington, DC to address Congress on agricultural policy, acknowledges global warming as a threat.

But election day approaches. During a church meeting at a Best Western hotel, the aforementioned pastor urges Christians to be involved in politics (as if they were not already heavily involved by 2006!). Come election day, and the Party faithful are watching the national election returns, as Democrats gain seats in Congress (and ultimately retake control of both chambers). The conservative incumbent attorney general even loses. As a final act of self-delusion, the faithful blame a lack of turnout and a lack of money for the Republican loss; they seriously suggest that Democrats have all the money! They do not for a second seem to see the connection between the electoral outcome and six years of Bush and neocon policies. But that is just one more thing that’s the matter with Kansas.

In conclusion, the film version of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is fun (if you are a Democrat), although I can only imagine both parties pulling their hair out from watching it. But in the end it does not really answer the question: what is the matter with people who have real practical problems and who let their ‘values’ and their religion be the sole gyroscope of their politics? And, if the film were made now, the question would arise, how many times do people have to be wrong before they finally wake up and realize where their true interests lie?

Level/Use: Suitable for high school classes and college courses in cultural anthropology, political anthropology, and American studies, as well as general audiences.