Heartland Blues

Midway through George W. Bush's tenure, Thomas Frank diagnosed the cause of low-income voters' self-defeating conservatism with his much toasted book, What's the Matter with Kansas?. The invective dropped in the heat of the 2004 election season, just as John Kerry -- veteran, statesman, and the Democratic Party's safest bet -- was being cast as a windsurfing snob. The counterattacks that Bush, too, was a dynastic son of privilege just didn't stick. After all, Bush understood "Real America." It was maddening and, to many, inexplicable.

With Kansas, Frank used his home state to argue that class animus mixed with inflammatory politics turned the white, rural working class into a rapturous GOP bloc. This, as he put it, inspired the "Great Backlash." His Kansans weren't self-interested voters. Instead, they fought against the wanton slaughter of unborn babies, the dark sins of Sodom, and the fiendish liberal agenda.

Frank's book confirmed the sneaking suspicions of many liberals at campaign rallies and on op-ed pages: The working class was being played by the Republican Party. New York Times columnists Nicholas Kristof and Frank Rich breathlessly called it the year's best political book. Marc Cooper at The Atlantic praised Frank for "skillfully deconstruct[ing] what might be dubbed the Great Con Job: the conservative canard that somehow Democrats have cornered the market on elitism, while the GOP's bleeding heart is more with the little guy than with Enron's Kenneth Lay." In an effusive review for The Nation, George Scialabba complained that the "apparent blindness of the backlashers to their self-victimization has long made many of us crazy."

Since Kansas' publication, the culture war slipped into d├ętente, the Democratic Party reclaimed control of Washington, and a new movement of conservative resentment emerged. And in the intervening years, filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen trained their cameras on Frank's Wichita.

The film version of What's Matter with Kansas?, currently in limited release, casts aside polemic in favor of character studies. There's Angel Dillard, a rancher and anti-abortion activist. There's Brittany Barden, an earnest member of the teenage God squad intent on a White House internship -- or maybe one at the Heritage Institute. Finally, there's the independent-minded Donn Teske, the president of the Kansas Farmers Union and a self-described redneck. All are frustrated by the state of the nation, but none seem particularly furious or overtly distrustful. The Kansans who populate Winston and Cohen's documentary don't immediately come across as the sort who might wave Gadsden flags at a Tax Day protest in Overland Park just one election cycle later. Mostly, they just feel left behind.

The documentary's first scene is perhaps its angriest. In the lead-up to Kansas' 2006 attorney general race, a campaign volunteer for a democratic candidate knocks on the door of a blue double-wide, only to have its resident spit back the God-Guns-and-Gays line at him: "The national Democratic party and everything that you stand for is so pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, pro-gun control. And I'm a Kansan. We're conservative." While the film clearly sets out to explore stereotypes, this scene is one of only a few that traffic in caricature. The rest of the documentary primarily explores the motivations of Bardon, Dillard, and Teske -- demonstrating how their mega-churches and their acreage shaped their political beliefs.

The politically appealing and the politically necessary are all jumbled together without narration and -- outside of some footage featuring Frank -- largely divorced from the context of any argument about economics. Kansans interviewed name cloning, gay marriage, and the vague encroachment of liberal society as their primary concerns. The only one who seems to give a damn about economics is Teske, who was once a precinct man for the GOP. As a "populist without a party," he frets about the welfare of his community and his children's future livelihood. Winston and Cohen also film busy public clinics that can barely keep up with the needs of Kansas' immigrant population, meat-packing plants with gruesome conditions and deplorable labor standards, and struggling farms.

Winston and Cohen seem to have actively avoided creating a Michael Moore-style shock doc, opting instead to let their subjects speak for themselves. For sure, it's a fairer approach. But what's left is just a bunch of disappointed people -- let down by their candidates, duped by their churches, and confused by the Democratic Party's resurgence toward the end of Bush's second term -- without much concrete explanation of how Kansas came to be such a red state.

Maybe that's because the very group Frank's argument focuses on is itself hard to define. If "working class" simply means "poor," then the poor aren't populist conservatives but self-interested liberals. Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels wrote Kansas off as "pundit literature" with a study that examined the political views of those with household incomes under $35,000 and found that, on average, their views lean left and have for the past 30 years.

On top of this methodological wrinkle, Frank's Kansas was a conservative state captured at peak Republican frenzy. By the time Winston and Cohen started filming, Bush's approval ratings had dropped into the 30s -- even in Kansas. To regurgitate Frank's argument at this point in time would have felt false and perhaps been impossible.

However, by focusing on biography, many of Frank's primary fascinations are glossed over. Winston and Cohen pay little attention to the local elite, the corporations with entire towns at their mercy, the way deregulation has affected agriculture and manufacturing, or the Democratic Party's strategic dismissal of the working class during the Clinton years. They also don't really capture, as Frank put it, the "crusade in which one's material interests are suspended in favor of vague cultural grievances that are all-important and yet incapable of ever being assuaged. While the cultural often trumps the material in the film, what's shown hardly feels like fervid backlash -- just a combination of wariness and weariness. More than anything, the film captures the waning influence of the values voter.

So, is Frank's Kansas even relevant anymore? Actually, yes -- and perhaps more so. Frank focused on the ebb of Republican power in 2004, while the film unintentionally ends up chronicling conservatism's subsequent defeat. Now, the backlash is back, loud as ever. Frank joked about the demands of the contemporary Kansan populist: "Tear down the federal farm programs, they cry. Privatize the utilities. Repeal the progressive taxes. All that Kansas asks today is a little help nailing itself to that cross of gold." In 2004, that was meant as metaphor. Today, it's literal. The growing Tea Party movement makes no appeal to the sanctity of marriage, but it does propose a cap on government spending, market-based health-care reform, and a sunset on all regulation imposed by federal agencies -- the sort of policies Frank's corporate villains could only dream of. In a way, conservative populism has evolved: The religious bait-and-switch seems to be gone, replaced by explicit calls for the very fiscal libertarianism Frank critiques.

But while the messaging is different, the impulses and root origins are the same. For decades now, the evangelical bloc has provided the Republican Party with a reliably ecstatic voter base by invoking the secular humanist boogeyman. In its early days, the Christian Right was as against socialism as it was in favor of Jesus. Long before Baptist minister and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee became Focus on the Family's preferred presidential candidate, he was helping organize rallies that linked anti-communist leaders with the religious faithful.

For as much attention as the Tea Party is getting, red-baiting is nothing new. But when conservatives had partial or total control over the elected branches of government, it made sense to only rail against the insidious influence of liberalism. Now that liberals have the White House and Congress, it's as easy to complain about government at large -- just a variation on a theme. So unsurprisingly, the two groups aren't totally removed from one another. The Values Voter Summit hosted a workshop on how to expand the Tea Party movement. January's Tea Party convention featured speeches from evangelical figures like Rick Scarborough and Joseph Farah. Now, Ralph Reed, the scandal-plagued religious reactionary, is heading up the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which aims to blend the cultural and economic all while fighting the good fight against socialism.

Frank opens his book by noting that Kansas has always been a sucker for new populist movements. If Winston and Cohen's film succeeds in anything, it's in suggesting that the Sunflower State may be itching for what's next.

*****

What's the Matter with Kansas? opens March 19 in Washington, D.C., at the Landmark E Street Theatre with an introduction from Joe Winston and Thomas Frank.