'Top Line' at the Movies: 'What’s the Matter with Kansas?'

ABC News' Rick Klein reports: It's been six years since Thomas Frank's book with the provocative title explored why some voters -- including, in the focus of his book, those in Kansas -- seemed to vote consistently against their economic self-interest, lining up with Republicans, Frank argued, based primarily on cultural issues.

Now, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" has been turned into a documentary film , exploring Kansas’ 19th century strains of economic populism, and following a few Kansans who tell the story of modern conservatism in the heartland.

We chatted about it with Frank and the film’s director, Joe Winston, on ABC’s “Top Line” today.

Thomas Frank , now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, said some of the observations he made in 2004 have taken on new relevance today, particularly with the emergence of the Tea Party movement.

“In one sense, a lot of the things that I wrote about in the book have come true,” Frank told us. “There’s a line that I liked to quote where I say that Kansas is a place where the gravity of discontent pulls only to the right. You know -- to the right, further, further to the right. That’s happening nationally now everywhere.”

“One of the things that I noticed when I was studying conservatism populist conservatism in the Kansas style was that it was very -- it was so concerned with the social issues that it excluded economic issues. And with the Tea Party movement, that doesn’t hold true anymore. It’s the opposite in some ways.”

Inside the Tea Party movement, Frank said, “A lot of the rank and file is made of people who are particularly hard hit in the late recession. This is a movement that gets its economic interests 180 degrees wrong.”

Winston said he saw cinematic value in a book that didn’t necessarily lend itself to a movie version:

“When I approached Tom Frank to ask him if the movie rights were available, I think he just laughed,” Winston said. “I was very attracted to the idea. What I got out of it as a filmmaker was, if you wanted to understand what was going on in America, you had to go to Kansas -- a place I had never been.”

We asked Frank to answer a question posed via Twitter by @ TheTonyLee -- whether liberals tend to vote against their own economic self-interests as well.

“The phenomenon of rich liberals is a fascinating one; it’s not something that I’ve looked into in great detail yet,” Frank said. “But I would say that the flip side of this question... if you look at it in the big picture is because their self-interest -- their economic interests aren’t even really being discussed. You go to a place like Kansas, you have massive depopulation, you have complete destruction of the small town. I mean, the ruination of the farmer, the manufacturing is just about destroyed. These are not issues anybody talks about. All the discontent out there -- and there’s lots of discontent -- it’s all channeled into the social issues, or it was back when I was writing the book.”

The film opens today in Washington, D.C. (at the E Street Theatre) and in Kansas City, and more widely in the coming weeks.

You can watch a trailer and read more about the film HERE .

Watch the “Top Line” segment with Thomas Frank and Joe Winston HERE .

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