By Aubrey Streit Krug
Editor's Note: Aubrey is a new intern with us here at the Center for Rural Affairs. She is a graduate student at the University of Nebraska.
Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? gave clear, yet provocative, answers to questions about Kansas’s swing to the political right. He argues that an emphasis on social hot-button issues diverted voters from traditional economic policy issues, and at times trumped common sense.
In the 2009 documentary film version of Frank’s book, the argument is more subtle, and perhaps even more provocative. This is because of the film’s focus on stories and interpretations, as told by people like Donn Teske—a rural farmer, president of the Kansas Farmers Union, and a “populist without a party”—and Angel Dillard—a suburban acreage owner and conservative Christian active in Republican and anti-abortion politics.
Among others, we meet a fiery grassroots artist, a Latino immigrant who works at a feedlot, a homeschool family pursuing a Bible-based education, and activists on both sides of the abortion debate in Wichita. Frank appears intermittently to take us on field trips to sites that recall Kansas’s history of radical politics.
There is no voiceover in the film, though—no narrator to simplify and sum up these different people and the complex state they inhabit: a place that includes McMansions and small town streets, forgotten cemeteries and modern political rallies, the grace of rainstorms on fields and the flash of a Wild West World theme park off the interstate.
In such a place, what does it mean to be a true political radical? What does it mean to “get back to your roots”? That’s what Frank suggests the Democratic Party needs to do. It’s what conservative pastor Rev. Terry Fox tells his flock they need to do, calling upon the Bible. And it’s what folks across the political spectrum say America needs to do, in terms of the dream of opportunity and equal rights for all.
As a native of rural Kansas, I appreciate how this film prodded me to think deeper about how I represent and understand the politics and policies of my home state. So often we are told, and we tell, stories about rural America that gloss over the very real opportunity we have to build a resilient and sustainable future.
While the culture of globalization promotes, as Roger Epp puts it, the "political de-skilling of rural communities," What’s the Matter with Kansas? reminds us that “skilled” voters, activists, radicals, and citizens come from traditions, communities, and places.
To give good answers to the hard questions about rural life and policies first requires us to talk about, in private and in public, the stories and histories we use to explain who and where we are, and where we’re going. Films like What’s the Matter with Kansas? are a great way to start and to continue the conversation.
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